I made a burnt sugar caramel sauce tonight that turned out beautiful. It is just what it sounds like; you make a normal caramel sauce but cook the sugar until it is past amber and getting almost black. Making this is such a high-wire act though, especially in a small batch. The difference between not dark enough, just right, and actually completely burned is just seconds. Much too fast to manage with a thermometer, especially because the temperature isn't even throughout the pan. So my question is, is there a way to slow this process down towards the end so that picking the right moment isn't so difficult?

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    Comment as this isn't definitive: I'd try two things: a really thin pan and proximity to the flame, and water droplets near the desired result (careful of steam/explosions though). You could also make it in the pan to the point it is almost ready, and use a torch for the final touch. Also: it's time to start considering what to do with all those non-accepted questions. ;) – Tobias Op Den Brouw Sep 6 '10 at 12:07
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    A thin pan makes for worse heat distribution. Thicker pans are better. – daniel Sep 9 '10 at 14:48

To get the sugar caramelized to that perfect dark brown, I start the sugar on the stove top and finish in the oven.

I start by adding a bit of water and some corn syrup (the fructose makes the brown more intense, but one can skip it) to the sugar and keep it on a medium burner until it reaches the first caramel stage, at 155°C/311°F. As Michael notes, the sugar can go very fast from this stage to burnt. To avoid this, I place the pan in an oven that has been pre-heated to 180°C/356°F, just above the dark caramel stage. Checking every two minutes with an infrared thermometer (more often as it gets closer to 177°C/350°F), it's easy to get the sugar to the right temperature.

This post describes the method in more detail.

  • +1 this seems like a great suggestion, exactly what the OP wanted, a way to control the final stage a draw it out and make it longer. this is my front runner for the bounty at the moment. – Sam Holder Sep 15 '10 at 8:18
  • That's a winner in my book. Marking it the answer and I recommend Sam gives this the bounty. – Michael Natkin Sep 16 '10 at 14:12

There's a bit of misinformation in the answers and comments here I'd like to clear up.

Tobiasopdenbrouw's suggestion in his comment that a thinner pan may work better is a good one. A thin aluminum pan is an excellent conductor of heat which is precisely why it would help in a situation like this. It is far more responsive to taking the pan on and off the heat. A heavy pan has a higher thermal mass and is thus slower to respond to changes in temperature, and it will have more carryover heat.

A thinner pan will require more attention from you as it gets near your target temperature, but it's a lot easier to put the brakes on. As you approach your desired temperature take the pan off the heat frequently to check it's temp As soon as you take it off it will quickly stop heating -- there is only minimal carryover heat from the pan, and no magic carryover heat from an other source.

Additionally, adding more sugar will lower the temperature. There is no "solution" that can crystallize. A solution requires a solute and a solvent. There is only one substance present in molten sugar -- sugar.

Spraying water on it is a terrible idea and I advise against it. At best it simply vaporizes instantly to steam. At worst it spatters molten sugar on you, not fun.

In short, treat it like you would a pot of water that you were trying to maintain at a specific temperature. If the water gets too hot, you'd add more water or take it off the heat. The same applies concept to molten sugar.

  • Adding sugar cools down the burnt sugar, but then you have some raw sugar mixed in. It's unlike the water example because you are changing the sugar by heating. If you were roasting nuts, you wouldn't add a bunch of raw nuts right as the roasting nuts got to the perfect degree of brown, would you? – kevins Sep 14 '10 at 19:21
  • @Kevin: You acknowledge that adding solid sugar to liquid/caramelized sugar cools the overall mixture down, but do you understand how? The heat that was in the molten sugar goes into the solid sugar until equilibrium is reached. This heat exchange will melt the solid sugar. Regardless burnt sugar is a stage achieved at 350 F, when the sugar reaches that temperature it's burnt sugar period, not a mix of "raw" and burnt sugar. The nut analogy is poor because they are not a liquid, and heat transfer from a cooked nut to a raw one is negligible. – hobodave Sep 14 '10 at 19:35
  • Besides you wouldn't add it to burnt sugar, you'd simply remove it from the heat. If you were to add sugar it would need to be before it reached the burnt stage. – hobodave Sep 14 '10 at 19:38
  • I'm picturing getting the sugar to the exact perfect degree of burnt (yes burnt, as that's what the original question asked about), then wanting to stop further burning by reducing the temperature quickly. In this scenario, the raw sugar that you add will indeed caramelize slightly, but it will still be significantly lighter than the other sugar. I think we're agreeing that it won't work at the burnt stage, but I thought that controlling the temperature of the burnt sugar was the question you were trying to answer. – kevins Sep 15 '10 at 3:41

Ok, as my first answer started without really reading the question , I will give it another go.

  1. As you want to minimize the temperature fluctuations, you will want to use a heavy saucepan.
  2. As the entire thing is experimental, you will want to minimize the variables. Do all your testing and development with a fixed quantity of sugar that you do not want to vitiate at least until you figure out how to get consistent results.
  3. Start making your caramel as normal.
  4. As soon as the sugar starts to melt, move the sauce pan on low / very low heat. Pick a heat setting and do not vary it during the experiment. The Aim is to be able to reproduce the result at first, not to get the it right the first time.
  5. Start a timer as soon as you lowered the heat.
  6. It is best to sit besides it and check at regular intervals .. or even better continually, and take notes (time-stamp is very important here ). Continue the process until it actually burns and becomes unusable.
  7. Now, with the help of the notes and the timer, repeat until the point where it still was as you wanted it.
  8. If the time window in that your desired result is to short, try using less heat. If that is not possible, try using more sugar.

Hope that this helps.

  • I think something like this could work if I had an induction burner with very precise heat control; I'd never get anything that repeatable with my gas stove. – Michael Natkin Sep 12 '10 at 2:44

I'm guessing here and I don't know if this will work, but could you try adding some more sugar to the nearly cooked sugar to 'thin' it out a bit and so make it less likely to burn so quickly?

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    It might work, but would be tricky and liable to crystallise the sugar solution. – daniel Sep 9 '10 at 14:48
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    To expand on my answer: sugar syrups are super-solutions. That means that due to (in this case) the application of heat, more of the solute is present than could occur under normal conditions. The addition of more solute can cause the substance to come out of solution--with sugar, this means crystallisation, and is sometimes desirable (as in those giant sugar crystal candies, for example). Generally it's undesirable, as anyone who has sworn with great vehemence at a crystallised syrup can tell you. – daniel Sep 11 '10 at 7:11
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    @roux: Are you sure about that? Melted sugar isn't a solution of any sort, there is no solvent. It's simply liquid sugar. I haven't experimented, but I have a hard time believing that adding sugar to melted sugar would crystallize anything, because there is no solution. – hobodave Sep 14 '10 at 6:30
  • I assumed that like most people he started with a sugar/water solution at some very high sugar:water ratio in order to allow for even heat distribution without burning the bottom early on. It's the standard way to make caramels when one isn't a sugar expert. – daniel Sep 16 '10 at 6:31

The best way will require some effort and repetition.

First you need to figure out what your target temperature is.

Then you need to figure out how long the heat keeps climbing in the syrup after you remove from the heat.

Subtract one from the other, and you should be able to remove from the heat before it's done and allow carry over cooking to do the rest. Along the same lines as roasts climbing another ten degrees after removing from the oven.

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    Where does the additional heat energy come from? The pot? – Michael Natkin Sep 12 '10 at 2:44
  • Some from the pot, some just from the tendency of things being heated to continue rising in temperature. I don't know the specific science behind it. – daniel Sep 13 '10 at 5:14
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    I don't think such a tendency exists. :) Heat must have a source. – hobodave Sep 14 '10 at 6:28
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    With meat the surface temperature is many degrees higher than the internal temperature. A just grilled or roasted steak or other meat will have a surface temperature of 300 F+ whereas the inside will be 120 F - 160 F (for steak). After removal from a heat source the overall temperature of the steak decreases. The surface heat dissipates into the air, as well as into the cooler center of the meat, cooking it further. This is enhanced by the hot fats and juices returning to the center as well. – hobodave Sep 14 '10 at 7:43
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    Molten sugar on the other hand goes through phase changes at very precise temperatures. It can sit in the caramel stage indefinitely if the temperature is maintained, and can be nudged into the next stage by an increase in temperature. Additionally, in normal quantities the temperature of molten sugar is likely to be very uniform throughout, unlike meat, thus when removed from heat there isn't really a part that is any hotter than the rest. At least not enough to be of significance. If you were melting several pounds of sugar in a large pot, this might be end up being significant. – hobodave Sep 14 '10 at 7:46

How about spraying a fine mist of water from a spray bottle into the pan at the critical moment? (Think wisk in one hand, spray bottle in other hand, stove on lowish heat.) I think this would have two beneficial effects:

1) Provide a cooling effect by introducing a lower temperature component directly and uniformly into the pan.

2) Slightly increase the hydration of sugar solution, thereby lowering its boiling point and temporarily retarding the rising temperature and caramelization.

I presume that with a spritz or two, you would buy yourself a bit of time to evaluate the result and remove the heat if necessary.

  • "Slightly increase the hydration of sugar solution, thereby lowering its boiling point and temporarily retarding the rising temperature and caramelization." - This is just incorrect information. There is no "solution". The water would vaporize instantly. – hobodave Sep 14 '10 at 6:32
  • @hobodave, your criticism of 2) is correct, but it takes an incredible amount of energy to vaporize water, and this energy is going to come from the heat of the sugar. This will cool down the sugar, although as you pointed out above, may be dangerous. – kevins Sep 14 '10 at 19:23
  • @hobodave: The sugar solution is indeed mixture of water and sugar. As temperatures increase, the relative amount of water lessens. At caramelization temperatures, it is mostly sugar. What you call "vaporize instantly" I call "provide a cooling effect"... As Kevin points out, this vaporization steals heat from somewhere! As for the danger, I haven't tried it, so I don't know how dramatic the effect might be. – Dave Rosenthal Sep 15 '10 at 3:43

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