Friday, September 7, 2012

Vanilla Bean Caramel Sauce (and Some Caramel Tips)

I  made this caramel sauce a while ago now and have been meaning to post about it. If you are the type to hoard your precious vanilla beans, this is a great use for them. All caramel is delicious, but the vanilla bean really makes this one special.

I used the recipe found on this great blog (with only a couple optional added ingredients, see below) so I'll just provide the link:

My caramel process is slightly different and, in my opinion, more fool-proof if you're a caramel novice. The main thing you want to avoid in making caramel is crystallization. Here are my tips that I learned in pastry school:

  1. I don't stir my sugar. Crystals can form this way sometimes. I add a small amount of water to make the sugar grainy, which evens everything out pretty well. you can swirl the caramel in the pot during the later stages if you are getting uneven browning around the edges. If you add too much water, no big woop - it will just take longer for the sugar to caramelize.
  2. Adding an acid helps prevent crystallization. A little squeeze of lemon does the trick.
  3. Adding a tablespoon or so of corn syrup will also help. Yes, it's kinda gross and I don't use it much, but corn syrup is what's called an invert sugar and helps prevent crystallization.
  4. You've maybe heard this one before- periodically wipe down the sides of your pot with a pastry brush dipped in water. Don't actually touch the surface of the sugar with your brush. Not everyone has a pastry brush but I have used a soaking, bunched up paper towel in a pinch. I don't recommend this, though, because the sugar is INSANELY HOT. Just buy a cheap little brush at the hardware store and throw it out when it starts shedding bristles.
Okay, so this makes it sound scary but making caramel is actually a very straight-forward process once you get the hang of it.

Two other quick tips:
  1. Don't be afraid to heat your caramel to a dark amber. As you can see from the pic above, my caramel could have gone a little longer before I took it off the heat and added the cream. It was still delicious and worlds better than store-bought stuff. Once your sugar is pretty much the color you want, take it off the heat and add that cream to cool it down pronto! The caramel keeps cooking from the heat of the pot and you don't want to burn it.
  2. To really get as much vanilla flavor as possible, throw in the pod in addition to the scraped seeds and keep it in there at least overnight. The vanilla will keep infusing into the caramel sauce. You can strain it or get them out later with a fork.
  3. Washing up the pot is easiest if you either fill it with very hot water and let it sit awhile OR fill it with water and bring it to a boil on the stovetop and then wash/rinse.

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