These homemade caramels are a favorite of all my friends and family. Rumor has it, if I don’t show up with a package of these at Christmas time, they won’t let me in the house! But I’m not one to tempt fate … so I make sure I bring plenty for everyone.
People seem to think these are hard. I don’t think they are at all and not just because I’ve been making them for so many years. They’re just a little time consuming – especially when you get to the wrapping part. But if you don’t get the candies quite hard enough? It makes a great ice cream topping! Too hard? It just means people need to suck on them and savor them longer. No problem either way :-).
First, start by gathering your ingredients: butter, brown sugar, salt, corn syrup, sweetened condensed milk and vanilla extract.
And now you’ve discovered my dirty little secret. I use generics for ALL the ingredients! I’ve made it both ways – with brand-name supplies and with generic, and you know what? There wasn’t enough of a difference to make it worth the while spending more money. Plus, I make a LOT of these caramels. Cutting expenses is a necessity.
Next, you want to make sure you have your cooking tools: a heavy-duty sauce pan, a good spatula/scraper, a pan to pour the caramels in, parchment paper to line the pan, and a candy thermometer or temperature probe. The last isn’t necessary. You can always do the Firm Ball test, but I like my easy way. Oh, and you’ll need wax paper – but that’s for later.
This year I tried something different. I always make a double-batch of caramels (the recipe below is a single batch). For years I’ve poured into a glass 9×13″ baking pan, lined with parchment of course. It takes a long time to cool and is thicker than I would like. So this year I tried a jelly roll pan (12×15″). I had a helper on-hand to remove the binder clips when we poured the candy in, but we would have been ok. The candy never reached that high. I really like how the jelly roll pan method worked!
Why do I line with parchment? Because the caramel doesn’t stick to it. Wax paper would melt and disintegrate under the high heat. The caramel sticks to foil, even if it is buttered (ask me how I know this … ugh!). The only bad part about parchment is it doesn’t “form” well to the pan. It sinks down some once you get the candy in the pan, but the corners are never neat and tidy looking. Too bad – more caramels for the chef(s) to eat!
Ok, you have everything organized? Great! Start by melting the butter.
This may look like overkill – just a little butter in the bottom of a BIG pan, but trust me. This concoction is going to grow!
Once the butter is completely melted, stir in the brown sugar and salt. When that is combined you can add the corn syrup.
Don’t worry if the butter looks like it is separating from the other ingredients. It will come together in time.
Next, we slowly add in the sweetened condensed milk – stirring constantly.
(or taking just short tiny breaks to snap a picture).
Keep stirring until it is completely combined. Or close to it.
Now we turn up the heat. If you’re making just a single batch, it might not take much, but I have to crank my gas cook-top up to Medium High to get it working on this big pot.
There we have some bubbles forming. Keep stirring as it comes to a full boil. You want to make sure you stir all the way to the bottom of the pot so it doesn’t burn.
This is the caramel mixture at a full boil.
I want you to notice two things (and please ignore the messy stove-top).
- The mixture is boiling rapidly and has now grown in size so it almost fills my large stock-pot.
- I’m holding on the handle of the spatula with just my fingertips. Yes, this is partly to take the picture, but I’d do this anyway. Those bubbles like to occasionally jump out of the pan. And hot candy HURTS! I’ve also been known to use an oven mitt on my stirring hand during this part of the process.
Once the mixture has finally reached 245°F or soft-ball stage, turn off the heat and quickly stir in the vanilla.
You may want a helper at this point – which is why I don’t have pictures. You will need to carefully pour the caramels into your prepared pan. While you are doing this – and not stirring, some of the mixture on the bottom may “burn” (brown) a bit. It’s up to you if you want to scrape it into your pan. Usually I dump it out onto a separate piece of parchment on the counter. Again … the cook has to taste test, right?!
Or you can reserve the right to dig into whatever is left. But make sure it’s cooled some … I don’t want you burning your tongue!
Yummy. I wish I had some right now!
In a few hours the caramels will cooled completely and you can begin cutting and wrapping. Personally, I find this is the most tedious part of the whole process. Even worse than waiting for the boiling caramel to reach the proper temperature.
Here is how I wrap:
- Enlist help if you can. It’ll go quicker. And turn on some peppy tunes.
- Have plenty of wax paper on hand. I pull out a sheet and cut into at least two sections. You don’t want so much that the caramels look like they’re all wax paper, but then again you need plenty to cover the caramels and help prevent rips and tears.
- We have found that a combination of a big chef’s knife and a pizza cutter work well for cutting the caramels – especially with our thinner jelly-roll pan version.
Size of the caramel doesn’t matter. You can cut ~1″ pieces like we did this year, cut longer strips (i.e. less wrapping), or if you’re really lazy like I was one Christmas, just cut large blocks of caramels and force the recipient of your treats to divvy them up!
Please let me know if you make these – I would love to hear stories!
- 1 cup butter
- 1 pound brown sugar (2 cups)
- a dash salt
- 1 cup light corn syrup
- 14 oz can sweetened condensed milk
- 1 tsp vanilla
- Melt the butter in 3 quart or larger saucepan.
- Add the brown sugar and salt and combine. Stir in the corn syrup, mix well.
- Gradually add the sweetened condensed milk, stirring constantly.
- Cook and stir over medium heat to firm ball stage (245°F).
- Remove from heat, stir in vanilla. Pour into 9×9″ parchment-lined pan.
- Cool, cut into pieces and wrap in wax paper.
These freeze well for quick gifts!