Fundamentals: How to Make Homemade Caramel Sauce

by Jamie on January 12, 2011

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Today is the beginning of a new recipe series I’m dubbing Fundamentals. I get a lot of emails from new bakers asking for basic recipes, tips, and product recommendations that will get them started with their newly acquired baking addiction.

While I can’t guarantee rock star status, I can provide you with some practical tips and simple tested recipes that work for me in my kitchen. The first recipe I am going to try and demystify is caramel, more specifically homemade caramel sauce.

I have a confession. Making caramel scares me. I love caramel, whether it’s by itself, sprinkled with sea salt, covered in peanuts, enrobed with nougat…well you get point. Although my love for caramel has been present for many, many years, I just recently started to make my own.

There have been some serious failures along one of which required the disposal of a pan. Yep, I tried to clean that sucker for days, so I ended up chucking it into the trash. Bottom line, caramel is finicky, it goes from perfect to a burnt mess in the blink of eye, but when you nail it, the outcome is extraordinary. Plus, you’ll never have to buy that overly sweet jarred stuff again!

On Friday, I’ll combine this luxurious caramel sauce with my Fleur de Sel Caramels to create one heck of a dessert!

Fundamental Information:

-Caramel is essentially melted sugar.
-There are two basic ways to make caramel: the dry method and the wet method. The dry method involves slowly heating sugar until it melts and is deemed as a bit more difficult. The wet method is more common and is what you will find in today’s recipe.
-In the wet method, granulated sugar is dissolved in water and then boiled until the water starts to evaporate. As the water escapes, the mixture goes through a series of stages that indicates the ratio of water and sugar.

Fundamental Gear:

-heat safe spatula or wooden spoon
-heavy bottomed pot (non-stick is easier to clean)- If using non-stick, it may be difficult to know if your caramel has reached the desired shade of amber. Simply use a heat safe utensil to remove a few drops of caramel to a white plate.
-reliable candy thermometer- you will risk burning your sugar if you don’t have an absolutely accurate thermometer; cheapos from the supermarket typically don’t cut it

Fundamental Safety:

- Give your undivided attention to the caramel sauce while you are preparing it.
-Caramel is HOT! Be careful. For reference- Water boils at 212°F, we are taking this sugar mixture over 350 degrees, so it’s incredibly hot.
-When you add the heavy cream to the pot of molten sugar, it will bubble violently and steam will escape. Stand back and keep your face away from the pot!
-Avoid a caramel catastrophe by making sure your heavy bottomed pot is large enough. Trust me; you do not want this caramel sauce to boil over onto your stove. It will bring you to tears. When you’re done, be sure to soak your pot and tools with hot water to help the cleaning process.
-Make sure your stirring utensil is heat proof. I typically use a wooden spoon or a silicone spatula.

Uses for Homemade Caramel Sauce:

-eat it with a spoon
-spoon it over your favorite ice cream
-drizzle it over your favorite baked goods
-stir it into your morning latte to create a homemade caramel macchiato
-use it as a dip for fresh apple slices
-jar these up and pass along to friends and family; just be sure to tell them it needs to be stored in the refrigerator

Save Recipe Print

Homemade Caramel Sauce

January 12th, 2011

Yield: 1 cup

Ingredients:

1 cup sugar
1 tablespoon light corn syrup
1/4 liquid cup water
1/2 liquid cup heavy cream, heated until warm
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
½ teaspoon fine grain sea salt
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

Directions:

1. In a heavy saucepan (at least 5 cup capacity), stir together the sugar, syrup, and water until the sugar is completely moistened. Place your candy thermometer into the pot taking care that it is tip in immersed into the sugar mixture.

2. Heat, stirring constantly, until the sugar dissolves and the syrup is bubbling. Stop stirring completely and allow it to boil undisturbed until it turns a deep amber (like the color of Bass Ale) (see notes below). Immediately remove it from the heat and slowly and carefully pour the hot cream into the caramel. It will bubble up furiously.

3. Use a high-temperature heat-resistant rubber spatula or wooden spoon to stir the mixture until smooth, scraping up the thicker part that settles on the bottom. If any lumps develop, return the pan to the heat and stir until they dissolve. Stir in the butter and salt. The mixture will be streaky but become uniform after cooling slightly and stirring.

Allow the sauce to cool for 3 minutes. Gently stir in the vanilla extract.

Notes:

- Keep at room temperature for up to 3 days; refrigerated, about 3 weeks. To reheat, simply place in a microwave safe container and heat for about 45-60 seconds. Stir well.

- I have 3 thermometers and they all register different temperatures. In my opinion, it's best to rely on the color of the caramel as opposed to the temperature. You want to look for a dark dark amber color. However, dark amber goes to burnt in a matter of seconds. If using a thermometer, start paying close attention at about 340 degrees. Once the color deepens, pull the mixture from the heat.

Tempting Twist:
Use fresh vanilla bean instead of vanilla extract. Simply scrape the seeds from inside ½ vanilla bean. Place the seeds and pod into the cream while it’s warming. Remove pod from the cream before adding to the hot sugar mixture.

{Edited: 12/17/11}

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{ 137 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar Emma December 22, 2011 at 1:00 pm

Good recipe for caramel sauce. I agree that the dry method is much harder than the wet method, the sugar so easily burns even on a low heat. I like that you warn the readers about the dangers of cooking this, as the first time I made this a few years ago I burnt my finger to 1st degree standard, just by dripping a bit of caramel accidently. It hurt, so readers take notice of the warning!

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avatar Brent Self January 10, 2012 at 6:27 pm

I made this without a candy thermometer, as mine was broken. Batch 1, was afraid of burn, so the low temp evaporated off my water and it turned lumpy before browning. Batches 2 and 3, in a larger pan and higher temp (at least past half-way on the dial), just stared at it until I saw something that looked like “Bass ale” or “deep amber” and removed from heat. Batches 2 and 3 were amazing and almost the same. Thank you very much!

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avatar Marianne January 11, 2012 at 11:19 am

i can’t find this corn syrup, with what i can replace it

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avatar Katie January 21, 2012 at 10:27 am

If you can go to a grocery store, you can find corn syrup. Literally every grocery store carries it in their baking section.

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avatar Deena November 20, 2013 at 10:29 pm

Usually with pancake syrup

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avatar Ashley January 24, 2012 at 3:01 pm

I’m a bit of a lazy cook and I found the easiest way to make homemade carmel sauce is to boil sweetened condensed milk in the can, in water, for 3 hours, turning it every 1/2 hour or so. Comes out to perfection! I always let it cool down for a while before I open it up, so it comes out a bit like pudding, but if you wanted it thinner, you can nuke it in the microwave.

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avatar Lorraine November 9, 2013 at 5:45 pm

My mom did this for us every Christmas when we were kids, when she opened the can she let us dip full sized marshmallows in it, then dipped the caramel dipped marshmallows in shredded coconut or chopped nuts. It was our addition to the Christmas candy/cookie tray at family parties.

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avatar Jecka February 5, 2012 at 10:48 am

I recently tried another caramel recipe and failed because of poor instructions! I wish I had found yours first. Next time, I’m going to use your recipe… consider this bookmarked!

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avatar FiveLittleChefs February 21, 2012 at 10:14 am

One of my Little Chefs made this while I supervised and instructed. We actually had to make this twice because the first time it burned. But it was good because we learned a few things for the next batch. It can still be improved for the next time, but considering the age of Little Chef A I think she did an amazing job! Check out our experience! http://www.fivelittlechefs.com/2012/02/homemade-caramel.html

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avatar carla February 28, 2012 at 11:12 pm

do you take your own photos? you are amaizng!

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avatar Jamie March 4, 2012 at 3:45 pm

Carla-
Yes, I take all of the photos that you see on the site. Thanks so much for your kind words and for stopping by.
-Jamie

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avatar Danielle April 2, 2012 at 8:11 am

Hi,
Is this caramel thick enough to use ‘thinly’ as a cake filling and can the cake be left out for 8-12 hours at room temperature (spring weather for a wedding cake)??

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avatar Jamie April 17, 2012 at 6:53 pm

Danielle-
Although it has some thickness to it, my initial reaction is that it wouldn’t maintain its integrity as a cake filling. I would definitely give it a test run before the big day. Thanks for stopping by.
-Jamie

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avatar Kathleen April 13, 2012 at 2:32 pm

I love cooking and baking but caramel has always haunted me. Even with a candy thermometer I manage to burn it every time. This recipe came out great though! I literally just finished making it, and I’m burning my mouth licking the spoon.

One thing I noticed, however, is that my sugar never really turned a deep amber. It was melted and thickening and a lovely light amber color, but then before it got darker it started to congeal and crystallize. I kind of panicked and poured the cream in then. I just kept cooking it for another five minutes with the cream, though, and it darkened and thickened up nicely. Maybe my heat was too low? Either way it turned out great, thank you so much for the great recipe and tips!

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avatar Rachel April 25, 2012 at 4:06 am

First time making caramel, I’m a vegan but I followed your recipe with some tweaks:
-used Silk vanilla soy milk for heavy cream (I was worried it wouldn’t thicken up or taste good without using Silk creamer or another vegan heavy cream equivalent, but it didn’t seem to make a difference!)
-I used raw agave nectar in place of the corn syrup…just because I didn’t have any :)
-Smart Balance vegan margarine in place of butter
-Added a little less salt since the margarine is salted

Despite all the lower fat swaps and the agave, it tastes just like normal caramel sauce! Delicious! :) Thanks for your recipe!

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avatar Kayla June 13, 2012 at 2:47 pm

Thanks a lot for this! One question: If you have to heat put the sauce back up after adding the heavy cream to make it smooth, do you take it OFF the heat before adding the butter and salt?

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avatar Jamie August 5, 2012 at 5:17 pm

Kayla-
Yes, you’ll want to get the mixture smooth, remove the pan from the heat and then add in the butter and salt. I hope this helps.
-Jamie

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avatar priya June 15, 2012 at 3:01 am

Hi Jamie,

This recipe seems to be a total winner.I would like to try this .Can you please suggest a substitute for corn syrup ?anything close to it and can be easily available.Corn syrup is not very popular here in India and the imported ones cost a bomb! Thanks for the superb recipes .

warm regards,
Priya

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avatar Jamie June 24, 2012 at 4:06 pm

Priya-
Corn syrup helps to prevent the caramel sauce from crystallizing when stirred. You can substitute Lyle’s Golden Syrup (refiner’s syrup) for the corn syrup. I hope this helps.
-Jamie

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avatar Luis Moreno June 21, 2012 at 1:15 am

What’s the corn syrup for? Does it make any difference if omit that ingredient?… i don’t like using corn syrup or any other over processed ingredients.

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avatar Jamie June 24, 2012 at 4:05 pm

Luis-
Refiner’s or corn syrup helps to prevent the caramel sauce from crystallizing when stirred. You can substitute Lyle’s Golden Syrup (refiner’s syrup) for the corn syrup. I hope this helps.
-Jamie

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avatar ryan July 4, 2012 at 4:42 pm

Do you realize that white granulated sugar is also heavily refined and processed? Also, the corn syrup used here isn’t the high-fructose type that has gotten so much bad press recently.

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avatar Lisa August 25, 2012 at 5:32 pm

Hi Jamie let me first say that I love your website. It is helping me become a better cook which I am so excited about.
Okay now about the Caramel Sauce. My first attempt, I failed miserably. I was worried about burning my caramel and took the pot off too soon, (I used a non-stick) ending up with a tan colored, grainey mess. However, I stirred this concoction into a hot cup of coffee and it was delicious. My second attempt today about an hour later gave me perfect caramel sauce. I used a stainless steel pan and a “real” candy themometer, not the supermarket (which you warned against) one. I even added some Myers Dark Rum. Haven’t tasted it yet too hot, but it looks and smells perfect. Thank you so much for the step by step.

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avatar Jamie August 28, 2012 at 6:30 pm

Lisa-
Hi! Trust me, I have burnt my fair share of caramel sauces, but I am happy to hear you finally nailed it with this one! I love the addition of the Myers Dark Rum – genius. Have a great day.
-Jamie

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avatar carol August 26, 2012 at 4:23 pm

Thie was the BEST recipe Ive ever tried for this sauce! I put it on Pinterest! :)) Thanks for sharing!!

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avatar Jamie August 28, 2012 at 4:59 pm

Carol-
I am so glad to hear you enjoyed this recipe, thanks so much for reporting back on your experience. Have a great day.
-Jamie

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avatar Ronalyn Hurley September 9, 2012 at 7:01 pm

Earlier this year I made caramel sauce using the dry method. The resulting sauce was usable but not great and I was a ball of nerves during the whole ordeal. Today I made a batch using your recipe and what a difference! Yes, it did take longer but the process was much less harrowing. I cooked it on my electric stove with the setting between 4 and 5, which turned out to be perfect. I am so happy with the outcome I will never again use purchased caramel sauce. Thank you for a terrific recipe.

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avatar Jamie September 9, 2012 at 8:07 pm

Robin-
I am so glad you enjoyed the caramel sauce! Thanks so much for coming back and telling us your thoughts on the recipe. Have a great week!
-Jamie

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avatar Me September 16, 2012 at 12:28 am

Why do you need the corn syrup? I thought it was the oil/fat from the butter that keeps it from solidifying? Just wondering. I don’t know myself and would like to hear your take on this.

I tried experimenting and making caramel sauce a couple of days ago without even looking at a recipe. I put butter, sugar and water in a stainless steel pan and kept stirring over heat until it browned as much as I wanted. Then I stirred in some milk and although it was very bubbly in the pan, it spooned over my bread pudding nicely and stayed soft even over night in the fridge.

I think omitting the butter would have made it a sauce that hardens but I haven’t tried that yet.

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avatar tracey September 19, 2012 at 2:41 pm

Hi there,
Is there a way to better improve the shelf life of home made and jarred caramel?
Thank you!

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avatar Malinda October 3, 2012 at 1:17 pm

I found your site today and just finished the caramel sauce. It turned out beautifully–I did not even use a thermometer because the liquid level was too low to reach the ball of the thermometer.
I would like to share that I used medium heat throughout (your recipe does not specify heat level) on an electric ceramic smooth top range. It was just fine, the boiling part took 11 minutes.
Thanks for this!

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avatar Jamie October 3, 2012 at 4:38 pm

Malinda-
Thanks so much for stopping by and leaving your valuable feedback. I’m so happy to hear the recipe was a success for you. Have a great day.
-Jamie

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avatar Jodene October 10, 2012 at 2:44 am

Thank you. I made a triple batch, DELISH!!!

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avatar Jamie October 14, 2012 at 2:29 pm

Jodene-
I am so happy to hear you enjoyed the recipe – thanks so much for leaving your feedback! Have a great day!
-Jamie

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avatar Priscilla October 18, 2012 at 4:18 pm

I just made caramel sauce PROPERLY thanks to you! :D
Your step-by-step instructions were a huge help. I have to say, I like the wet method better- it’s much safer, slower, and more cautious than the dry method, which I managed to get right only one time when I made cashew brittle a couple years back… managed to burn my hands and destroyed some spatulas in the process…

I did substitute the corn syrup with maple and the heavy cream with almond milk, as that was all I had on me. Each worked out swell and my caramel as a maple-nut scent to it that is great for this holiday season. =)

I used a heavy, nonstick, sauce pan over #6 (medium) on our electric stove and nothing over-boiled, burnt, nor smoked up my house. JOY!!

Slow and steady wins the race :)

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avatar Jamie October 22, 2012 at 7:40 pm

Priscilla-
I am so happy to hear that you enjoyed the recipe. Thanks so much for leaving your feedback – have a great day!
-Jamie

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avatar Malyssa October 19, 2012 at 7:35 pm

Today was the first day that I’ve ever considered making anything homemade and for it being the first try I have to say it was a grand success. I only have one question, if it is too thick to use in a squeeze bottle for a topping how do I thin it out a bit?

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avatar Jamie October 26, 2012 at 8:08 pm

Malyssa-
I am so happy to hear you enjoyed the recipe – thanks so much for stopping by and leaving your feedback! Have a great weekend.
-Jamie

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avatar Dana October 25, 2012 at 6:19 pm

OMG This is my first time attempting to make caramel sauce and it turned out PERFECT! Thank you so much.

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avatar Jamie October 26, 2012 at 6:07 pm

Dana-
I am so happy to hear you enjoyed the recipe, thanks so much for stopping by and leaving your feedback!
-Jamie

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avatar Loni November 1, 2012 at 3:40 am

I just made this for an apple dip (we ended up dipping other things in it, too). In addition to the vanilla, I added some bourbon at the end as well to make it a bourbon caramel sauce.

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avatar Chris November 8, 2012 at 9:39 pm

I used real maple syrup worked in place of the bit of corn syrup.

Thank you for your time in working on this recipe. The caramel taste very good. My other family members are going to love this one.

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avatar MBA November 12, 2012 at 8:04 pm

Chris-
I am so glad you enjoyed the recipe. Thanks for stopping by and offering your feedback- have a great day!
-Jamie

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avatar Crystal Marcos November 21, 2012 at 10:40 pm

Delicious! Thanks for the recipe. I pinned it to make again! Yum!

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avatar MBA November 24, 2012 at 8:01 pm

Crystal-
I am so glad you enjoyed the recipe! Thanks for stopping by and providing your feedback – have a great day!
-Jamie

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avatar MGR December 5, 2012 at 11:38 am

Any way to tourn this into a caramel frosting? My grandmother made a caramel cake using a similar recipe with the addition of powdered sugar to make it into an icing. The frosting is the key to the cake, and I always have such a hard time getting the caramel just right.

Also, any suggestions for a yummy white cake that will compliment the caramel frosting?

Thanks

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avatar Betty A. Swanigan December 23, 2013 at 12:16 pm

You can use a white cake mix like Bettty Crocker White Cake Mix, Pillsbury White Cake Mix, and there Duncan Hines White Cake Mix. But use Betty Crocker White Mix when bake a cake. But I have been baking a lot Pineapple Upside Down Cake but use Duncan Hines Pineapple Upside Down Cake Mix. I have going wild for it when bake Duncan Hines Pineapple Upside Down Cake for Church Dinner and thing the Lady Fellowship have going on.

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avatar Sara December 6, 2012 at 12:20 pm

I needed caramel syrup to make homemade starcrunch. I made this caramel recipe and it was AWESOME. Then I used it for the starcrunch recipe. FAIL. But the caramel was SO good….

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avatar Sue N. December 21, 2012 at 11:03 am

I just made these again last night as Christmas gifts for neighbors and teachers. I tripled the recipe this time and it filled 2 pint-sized mason jars… obviously I’ll be making more, or using smaller jars. While the caramel is still hot, pour it into the mason jar, put the lid on and twist it tight. Then turn the jar upside down and let it cool for a couple hours. The button on the lid should suck in, and your caramel is then sealed/ canned! Add some cute fabric around the lid, attach the recipe (or this website), and package it with some red and green apples for Christmas. Everyone who has tried it as LOVED IT! A wonderful, inexpensive and easy gift.

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avatar Angela January 27, 2013 at 11:55 am

I tried the recipe this morning. It turned out great. Substituted the heavy cream with 1% lowfat milk and the butter with olive oil. This was so simple. Happy I came across this website.

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avatar claire February 5, 2013 at 7:06 pm

Can this caramel be used as filling in chocolates? want to make my own easter treats. Thank you

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avatar Giovanna April 30, 2013 at 3:55 am

Thank you! This is exactly what I was looking for :)

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avatar Katherine May 12, 2013 at 2:14 pm

I seem to have made fudge… any ideas what i have done wrong?

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avatar BELINDA June 24, 2013 at 3:53 am

why is my caramel hardening after its turning golden brown . tried making it twice but same results .please advise .thank you

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avatar Jamie September 13, 2013 at 7:32 pm

Hi Belinda,
Caramel usually hardens if it’s been cooked at too high a temperature. However, this is just a guess. It’s very hard to troubleshoot caramel from afar because candy making is a finicky process.
- Jamie

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avatar Jack August 29, 2013 at 12:35 pm

I tried your recipe & the color came out fine but after it cooled, it became very hard and the butter leaked out of it. do you have any idea why that happened?

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avatar Jamie September 13, 2013 at 6:21 pm

Hi Jack,
Whenever a caramel hardens, it’s typically because it cooked too hot. However, it’s really hard to guess from far away, because caramel can be really finicky. I’m sorry I can’t be more help.
- Jamie

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avatar Megan September 14, 2013 at 10:19 pm

Just about to try this recipe! Did you use light or dark corn syrup?

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avatar Jamie October 3, 2013 at 6:36 pm

Megan-
I used light corn syrup – I hope this helps. Have a great day.
-Jamie

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avatar ABRose October 8, 2013 at 8:43 pm

I have made this recipe six times now and the milk is curdling every time I make it, giving it the appearance of brown Malt-o-Meal (yuck). It dissolves as soon as we put it into hot liquid, such as coffee, but to put on apples or ice cream and try to serve it to others – won’t do it! Any advice?? This is one of only a few things I have had problems with in all the baking I’ve done…

THANKS!

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avatar tori October 12, 2013 at 10:58 pm

Want to try this

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avatar Jamie October 16, 2013 at 11:13 am

Tori-

Do it :), you will not be sorry!

-Jamie

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avatar Tina October 15, 2013 at 11:16 am

Thanks for this useful guide Jamie, i came across it just as i was panicking about my dark/amber mixture, think i just saved it, for my salted caramel macarons. :)

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avatar Jamie October 20, 2013 at 10:46 pm

Tina-

YUM! Sounds delicious! You are very welcome. I’m happy that I could help. Have a wonderful day!

-Jamie

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avatar Amber Lei October 20, 2013 at 7:29 pm

Is the sauce supposed to be lumpy…? or did i just burn my sauce? lol

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avatar Jamie January 10, 2014 at 10:08 pm

It’s definitely not supposed to be lumpy!
- Jamie

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avatar Danielle October 23, 2013 at 6:45 pm

All I can say is WOW!! This was so simple to make, your instructions were perfect, and this was my very first attempt at making caramel sauce. Absolutely wonderful, delicious, perfect…the list could go on and on! It did take a little longer to make, but so totally worth it. Thank you, thank you…

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avatar deb in ohio October 27, 2013 at 8:36 pm

Just curious — you have pictures included with this recipe; why didn’t you include a picture of what color the mixture should be when it’s at the optimum finishing time? Seems like it would help immensely.

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avatar Jamie January 10, 2014 at 9:24 pm

Deb, the lighting in my kitchen is not very good. I shoot my photos in a different room. That is why I don’t have step by step photos.
- Jamie

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avatar blair November 22, 2013 at 3:04 pm

what about making this in larger quantities, say to yield 4 or 6 cups?

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avatar Jamie January 10, 2014 at 6:36 pm

You should be able to double or triple this recipe without any issues.
- Jamie

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avatar Tess November 27, 2013 at 10:20 am

Just made my first batch of caramel sauce – I bake a lot but was always afraid of caramel … not anymore! Thanks for the excellent instructions :) My kids are having it with apple flapjacks today

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avatar Jamie November 27, 2013 at 11:24 am

Tess-

That sounds so yummy! Thank you so much for stopping in to share. I’m so happy that you enjoyed the recipe! Have a fantastic day!

-Jamie

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avatar Tammy December 8, 2013 at 6:02 pm

For those if us that don’t drink, what color is BASS ALE?????

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avatar Jamie January 10, 2014 at 3:19 pm

Tammy, Bass ale is a pale ale.
- Jamie

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avatar Ashley January 25, 2014 at 11:19 pm

I was wondering how long you can save this? Can you freeze it? Or can you can it?

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avatar Jamie February 15, 2014 at 12:33 pm

Ashley-
I would recommend storing it in the refrigerator for up to one week. Thanks for stopping by.
-Jamie

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avatar Deborah February 7, 2014 at 9:29 am

What temp should you cook it to with the thermometer when it reaches dark amber? I can’t find that in the recipe! Thks want to try this

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