I'd like to be able to make caramel without using any dairy products for my friends and family who are lactose intolerant or vegan. Usually when I make caramel, I use a recipe close to this one with a few small alterations:

  1. I substitute 1/2 cup of light brown sugar or 1/4 cup of dark brown sugar for the same amount of granulated sugar because I like the flavor.
  2. I use salted butter instead of unsalted butter and salt because it's convenient.
  3. I add some lemon juice to the sugar before cooking to prevent crystallization.
  4. At step 4, I heat the caramel to 250° F and at step 6, to 235°.

This generally yields good results for me. I read elsewhere that coconut milk can substitute for the heavy cream, but when I tried substituting coconut milk and coconut oil for the cream and butter respectively in my recipe, I got burnt toffee instead of chewy caramel. Also, it looks like the oil pooled on the surface instead of staying mixed. Why does my caramel feel like it was cooked to hard crack? Does coconut milk burn at a lower temperature than heavy cream, and if so, what temperature should I be cooking this caramel to? Is there a better vegan substitution that I can use here?

EDIT: I've found other recipes which use coconut milk instead of heavy cream, but I've noticed that they tend to make recommendations which run counter to the ones in my normal recipe, like stirring the syrup continuously, mixing everything together at the start instead of adding the fat after heating the syrup, and heating to lower temperatures. I would like to understand the reasons for these differences.

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    I think it's the lactose that caramelises first, and you've taken that out. So as well as lowering the peak temperature you might need something to compensate for the lactose. When the actual chemistry of the food is involved I always suggest starting from a recipe using the major ingredients you want to use, rather than substituting, so look for a vegan caramel recipe in the first place – Chris H Dec 5 at 8:22
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    My memory let me down: lactose actually needs higher temperatures than other sugars to caramelise, but there are a few coconut-based dairy-free caramel recipes out there , found by googling vegan caramel recipe coconut milk -sauce – Chris H Dec 5 at 10:05
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    Not an answer, but your point 3 sounds like a myth to me. I have never had caramel crystalize on me, and don't see a reason for it happening. The lemon juice is added to candy recpies which stop short of the caramel stage, since they are made from sugar, and sugar can crystalize when cooled. Caramel forms a single nice almost-solid amorphous mass, which is in fact a very thick liquid that flows at several milimeters per year (as I noticed after I had the 'brilliant' idea to use caramel to repair a chip in a dark glazed fayence relief my mother had) – rumtscho Dec 5 at 10:47
  • The sugar syrup from step 4 should not contain anything other than sugars of various kinds (and water that will entirely boil off). No lemon juice etc. At temperature where sugar caramelizes most other ingredients burn quite thoroughly. Also let it cool a bit before whisking other ingredients in, same reason. – SF. Dec 5 at 14:05
  • @ChrisH Good point on the "-sauce" parameter; most of the results otherwise are sauces, which is part of why I decided to just try substituting in the recipe I already had. I noticed that the recommendations on the coconut recipes differ substantially from my recipe (e.g. lower temperatures, stirring constantly instead of minimally), so I was hoping that the answers to this question might help me understand why. I should add this to my question. – Thomas DeSilva Dec 5 at 20:35

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