One fall day, my wife, Laurie, decided to make a cranberry-caramel tart. I helped out by giving her scary warnings about making caramel. “It’ll probably take three tries to get it right,” I told her, recalling my own harrowing caramel experience a few years ago when, on consecutive attempts, I burned first the sugar and then my arm.
Naturally, she nailed it on the first try. I was envious enough to put on my own pot of caramel. The tart wouldn’t be ready for a couple of hours, and I needed some caramel sauce for my ice cream.
There are many myths about caramel, some of them propagated by me. Such as: it’s temperamental and tricky; you can’t stir it while heating; and it’s best left to professionals. But caramel is nothing more than melted sugar heated until it browns. It’s actually quite easy to make, and it’s versatile, inexpensive, and fun. Want to impress your guests? You can crack open a $100 jar of caviar — or caramelize a few cents’ worth of sugar and serve homemade caramel sauce.
It’s a good thing this is easy, because commercial caramel sauces are terrifying. The leading brand, Smuckers, contains no butter or cream and also no table sugar; it’s just caramelized high fructose corn syrup. Yum. They do have a good local brand of caramel sauce (Fran's) at my neighborhood supermarket, but it’s $9 for little more than a cup. I walked past it, bought a couple of ubiquitous ingredients, and went home and made 100 percent organic caramel sauce in 10 minutes for $2. (Then I ate it atop cheap, supermarket-brand ice cream, because that’s what I found in the freezer and because I’m a man of contradictions.)
You’ve probably heard of the various stages of sugar consistency — the soft-ball stage, the hard-crack stage, and so on. Caramel is past all of those stages. This has two consequences:
That’s the scary part. But come on. Don’t spill caramel on your lap or let your pan get encrusted with it. How hard is that?
Other things you’ve heard about caramel just aren’t true. For example, in researching caramel recipes, I kept coming across warnings not to stir the caramel, as well as reminders to brush down the sides of the pan with a wet pastry brush. I couldn’t figure out what they were talking about, since I’d made caramel several times and stirred it plenty, and nothing bad happened. Maybe I was just lucky.
So I called Neil Robertson, a Seattle pastry chef. Robertson has worked in the kitchens of Joel Robuchon and Guy Savoy. He explained that there are two methods for making caramel: wet and dry. If you begin with water in the pan, that’s a wet caramel. You don’t have to babysit a wet caramel as scrupulously while it’s heating, but you run the risk of crystallization if you stir it. “I think a lot of people just don’t do dry; they just automatically do wet,” says Robertson.
I tried both methods a number of times, and I’m convinced that dry is the way to go. “If you’re making like a little bit — like a cup or two — dry is fine,” says Robertson. Since you’re unlikely to be caramelizing a large quantity of sugar at home, and you’re not likely to walk away with hot sugar on the stove, dry is probably the method for you, too. I also talked to another Seattle pastry chef, Veil's Dana Cree, who says she makes dry caramel exclusively.
When you’ve practiced your dry-caramel technique a few times and the family is starting to get tired of ice cream, there’s more to the golden-brown elixir.
Gastrique is a type of classic French sauce made with caramel, vinegar, and usually fruit. It’s especially popular with duck. Any old-school French cookbook will have gastrique recipes, or you can find recipes and ideas at Epicurious.
Vietnamese kho combines a very simple caramel sauce (just darkly caramelized sugar and water) with Southeast Asia’s greatest ingredient, fish sauce, and generally some ginger and lemongrass. The result is intensely sweet and salty. It could be cloying, but the sugar is caramelized just to the edge of burnt, which gives the finished dish a faint and mysterious bitter edge. It’s great with fish (especially catfish), chicken, beef, or tofu.
Seattle chef Tom Douglas fell in love with kho in the 1980s, when he was chef at Café Sport at Pike Place Market and frequented Saigon Restaurant, a popular Vietnamese lunch counter. “I do it at home all the time,” says Douglas. “I caramelize sugar in a pan and hit it with fish sauce, with fresh ginger, and just a little bit of water, and that’s my marinade for pork butt or something of that nature. I usually cut up some lemongrass into it and some garlic, and then I marinate the pork butt and then I just do it on the charcoal grill or sear it under the broiler.”
Saigon Restaurant is still there at 1916 Pike Place, serving their ginger chicken kho daily. Café Sport is long gone, but don’t cry for Douglas: he owns five restaurants and beat Morimoto on “Iron Chef.”
The great thing about kho is that once you’ve made the caramel sauce, you can keep it in the refrigerator and make kho whenever the need arises. I’m devouring some chicken kho for lunch right now. With the Vietnamese-style caramel syrup in my fridge, it took about 20 minutes to make. I used a recipe from Andrea Nguyen, author of the wonderful cookbook Into the Vietnamese Kitchen. In addition to instructions for beef kho, Nguyen has simple chicken, shrimp, and pork kho recipes on her website.
So caramel and I are going stay good buddies — as long as I don’t spill it in my lap or mix up the Vietnamese caramel sauce and the ice-cream topping.
Also on Culinate: An article about caramel sauce made using the wet instead of the dry method.
Matthew Amster-Burton sniffs out the unexplained in the kitchen, the store, and the food world at large. He blogs at Roots and Grubs, podcasts at Spilled Milk, and is the author of the book Hungry Monkey.
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