How To Make Homemade Caramel


Caramel sauce is an incredible treat. Take it slow to get it right with each batch.

Southern Living How to Make Caramel sauce in a bowl with a spoon

Caitlin Bensel; Food Stylist: Torie Cox

Active Time:
20 mins
Total Time:
20 mins

When I first started baking professionally, I was afraid of caramel. At the time, I worked at an artisanal ice cream shop, and salted caramel was one of the most popular toppings.

Sure, I loved to enjoy this sweet caramel sauce drizzled over a scoop of vanilla ice cream, but the process of managing a boiling, sputtering pot of magma-hot sugar was mildly terrifying.

For weeks I stood over my mentor Lauren’s shoulder, watching as she fearlessly streamed a pitcher of cream into the burbling, golden sugar. Then, a few weeks in, Lauren handed me a whisk. It was my turn to make the caramel.

Lauren stood right beside me, delivering calm, sage advice as I panicked internally. I watched the sugar turn from clear to pale yellow to golden amber until, at what I identified to be the precise right moment, I streamed the cream into the boiling sugar, whisking incessantly as steam burped up at me. The caramel came out a bit too pale—I was not yet brave enough to take it darker. Still, I smiled. I was hooked.

What Is the Trick to Making Caramel?

Over the years, caramel and I have had our rough days (I've got the scars to prove it), but it’s still one of my favorite confections to make.

The results hinge on your ability to recognize the precise moment to pull it from the heat, an instinct that sharpens over time. You come to learn about the tendencies of the boiling sugar, growing familiar with the look and smell of a caramel that’s just about ready.

But if you’re a beginner, not to fear. You’re about to embark on one of your most exciting kitchen journeys to date—and, much like Lauren that day at the ice cream shop, I'm here to help.

caramel - southern living

Caitlin Bensel; Food Stylist: Torie Cox

What Are the Ingredients in Caramel?

Sugar, butter, and cream are the three cornerstones of caramel. Some people also add corn syrup and water (we do). Water helps the sugar to dissolve more easily and reduces the risk of burning. Corn syrup stops crystallization, which will ruin a batch of caramel in a flash.

Is caramel just melted sugar?

Sort of. Caramel can be made from cooked sugar alone. It'll turn dark and take on a deep, robust flavor. But for beginners, the best way to make caramel turns it into a sweet, creamy sauce. For that, you'll need water, butter, and cream.

What Are The Two Methods for Making Caramel? Wet vs. Dry Caramel

There are two different techniques for making caramel: wet caramel and dry caramel. The difference is self-explanatory: Wet caramel contains water (which evaporates off during the cooking process), while dry caramel does not.

Wet caramel is the most common method for making caramel at home. It is made by dissolving sugar in water, then reducing that sugar syrup until it caramelizes; the water acts as a conduit to help the sugar caramelize evenly.

Wet caramel takes longer to make than dry caramel—all that water has to evaporate off before the sugar can start to caramelize—and stands a higher change of crystallizing. On the flip side, this method lowers the risk of burning, making it a great choice for caramel beginners.

wet caramel - southern living

Caitlin Bensel; Food Styling: Torie Cox

Dry caramel is the more challenging method. It’s made by heating sugar directly in the saucepan, letting it dissolve and cook to a dark amber color—no liquid added. Without water as a buffer between the sugar and the direct heat, the sugar has much greater potential to burn.

You have to mix the sugar around to prevent one pocket from burning—but mix too much and the sugar will lump up or harden. The perk is that this route is faster than wet caramel, making dry caramel a good choice for more experienced home bakers confident in their confectionary skills. 

The Many Colors of Caramel

Caramel comes in a whole spectrum of shades. As a general rule, the darker the caramel, the deeper and more robust the flavor. Too pale and the caramel will lack flavor, but too dark and the sugar will turn bitter.

Many cooks (myself included) favor a caramel that leans towards a dark amber color, a slight note of bitterness adding complexity to the sauce. For a crowd-pleasing caramel, my suggestion is to aim for a golden-amber color.

How To Know When Caramel Is Done

Detecting when exactly to remove your caramel from the heat is a pivotal point in the process. As the caramel bubbles up and often obscures the true color beneath the surface, it can be difficult to gauge precisely when the caramel is done.

Before the caramel takes color, it will come to a rolling boil; then, as the sugar begins to acquire a golden hue, the bubbling will calm to steady pops. Sugar does not heat evenly, so you may notice certain spots darkening faster than others. Don’t worry—that’s normal. Resist the urge to mix the caramel, which will result in crystallization.

You know you’re getting close when you hear the caramel hiss and smell the caramelizing sugar. Watch closely as it changes from light gold to amber.

Once your caramel reaches the desired color, add the butter and cream to stop the cooking process. Remember that the caramel may continue to darken after you remove it from the heat.

stirring butter into caramel

Caitlin Bensel; Food Styling: Torie Cox

Top Tips for Baking the Best Caramel

Determining the precise moment to remove caramel from heat takes practice, but there are a few tips that will help you set yourself up for success.

Be prepared. Before setting the sugar to boil on the stove, have all your other ingredients measured and ready to go. Get the cream heating on the stove, and store the cubed butter in the fridge. Once you reach that pivotal moment of combining all the ingredients, you won't have to waste any precious time cutting butter into cubes.

Use a light-colored pot. This is not the time for cast iron. Help yourself out by using a light-colored saucepan, so you can easily see when the caramel changes color. Using a pan with a dark interior will make it much more difficult to gauge when the caramel has reached the desired color.

Add corn syrup. Corn syrup is an invert sugar that you’ll find in many recipes for caramel. It prevents the sugar from crystallizing, resulting in a silky, smooth caramel.

Don't mix. Once the sugar-water mixture comes to a boil, you want to mess with it as little as possible. To check the color, you can swirl the pan gently, running a wet pastry brush along the inside of the pan to dislodge any sugar particles that stuck to the sides. 

Stay by the stove

No matter how many times you’ve made caramel, each batch requires your undivided attention, like a lovable but still-teething puppy. Don’t walk away even for a moment—watch the pot closely for traces of caramelization. 

Warm the cream. One of the common mistakes cooks make is to add cold ingredients to the piping-hot sugar, therefore shocking the caramel and causing it to clump up. There are ways to save caramel that’s seized (place it back over the heat and mix), but this reaction is preventable by warming the cream: Gently warm the cream on the stove (if it comes to a boil, that’s fine, but be sure that the pan does not overflow). Combining warm ingredients will prevent the temperature from dropping dramatically, causing the caramel to seize. Now, there’s one exception to this rule…

Keep your butter cold. Adding cold butter to the mix will result in an extra-glossy caramel sauce. Cube the butter into 1-inch pieces, and store in the fridge until ready to add into the caramel. Add piece by piece, whisking thoroughly to ensure that the fat fully emulsifies.

Beware the steam. When making caramel, you’ll want to take a few safety precautions to make sure you don’t get burned. Most recognize that the boiling-hot sugar will immediately singe your skin, but you might not know that the steam can be just as dangerous. Steam burns are most common when making large batches of caramel, but take precautions by not reaching over the pot. Use a long whisk to keep your hand far away from the boiling sugar.

A Final Note About Making Homemade Caramel

Caramel is a confection that never lets you get too comfortable. One of the things I like about making caramel is that I learn something new every time.

This variety of confection still keeps me on my toes—and once you’ve made the perfect pot of caramel, there are endless ways to use it.

We're using the wet caramel method in this recipe, making it simple for even caramel newbies. This easy method produces a beautiful batch of lightly-salted caramel sauce to flavor buttercream, drizzle on cakes, or jar up for ice cream sundae night. Remember that the caramel will thicken as it cools; after refrigerating, heat to loosen.


  • 1 cup granulated sugar

  • 2 Tbsp. light corn syrup

  • 1/3 cup water

  • 1/2 cup heavy cream

  • 4 Tbsp. unsalted butter

  • 1/2 tsp. salt


  1. Gather ingredients:

    Cut butter into cubes, and refrigerate until ready to use.

    Southern Living How to Make Caramel ingredients

    Caitlin Bensel; Food Stylist: Torie Cox

  2. Start caramel:

    Combine sugar, corn syrup, and water in heavy-bottomed saucepan. Stir to incorporate and set on stovetop over medium-high heat.

    Southern Living How to Make Caramel sugar and wet ingredients in a saucepan

    Caitlin Bensel; Food Stylist: Torie Cox

    Once the sugar begins to bubble, do not stir. Brush the inside of the pan with a wet pastry brush to dissolve any sugar clinging to the sides.

    Southern Living How to Make Caramel sauce starting to bubble and using a pastry brush to clean the sides

    Caitlin Bensel; Food Stylist: Torie Cox

  3. Warm cream:

    Meanwhile, in a separate saucepan, heat the cream over medium heat until it reaches a simmer, but do not let it boil. Remove from heat, and set aside.

  4. Continue to cook caramel:

    After 10 to 15 minutes, the sugar will begin to take on color. Watch closely, as it turns from golden to burnt very quickly.

    Southern Living How to Make Caramel first stage of caramel changing color

    Caitlin Bensel; Food Stylist: Torie Cox

    Southern Living How to Make Caramel second stage of caramel turning color

    Caitlin Bensel; Food Stylist: Torie Cox

    Southern Living How to Make Caramel third stage of caramel turning color

    Caitlin Bensel; Food Stylist: Torie Cox

    Once the sugar reaches an amber-gold hue, remove from heat, and add cold butter piece by piece to the pot, whisking to emulsify.

    Southern Living How to Make Caramel adding the butter to the caramel

    Caitlin Bensel; Food Stylist: Torie Cox

    Once all the butter has been incorporated, stream the warm cream into the pot, whisking continuously. It will bubble up—be sure not to reach your arm over the pot to avoid steam burns.

    Southern Living How to Make Caramel adding the cream to the caramel

    Caitlin Bensel; Food Stylist: Torie Cox

    Stir in salt.

    Southern Living How to Make Caramel adding the salt to the sauce

    Caitlin Bensel; Food Stylist: Torie Cox

    Transfer caramel to heat-safe bowl and let cool completely. Store, refrigerated, in an airtight container for up to 2 weeks.

    Southern Living How to Make Caramel sauce in a bowl

    Caitlin Bensel; Food Stylist: Torie Cox

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