Does "Real" Caramel Frosting Need To Be Made With Caramelized Sugar?


Photo: Caitlin Bensel; Food Stylist: Torie Cox

In a lot of Southern households, doing things the “old-fashioned” way is the only way. Pre-grated Cheddar for pimiento cheese? Never! Instant grits? Blasphemy! Store-bought sponge rounds for strawberry shortcake? Not in a million years.

Then there’s caramel cake. Traditionally made with yellow cake, it’s a decadent sweet that's defined by its thick, glossy, buttery icing that the whole cake is named for. But what actually is caramel icing? Is it made with caramel?

What's Your Definition Of Caramel?

The answer depends not just on who you ask, but on your definition of caramel. If you look up a recipe for the sticky confection, you’ll discover a complicated world of melted sugar, possible smoke, candy thermometers, and explicit instructions about stirring, boiling up, and standing back. But Ashley Cannon, pastry chef for Oak Steakhouse in Highlands, North Carolina, says that Southern caramel can be made with brown sugar. “Brown sugar has molasses in it, which gives it a deeper, more 'Appalachian' flavor and color,” she explains. “It also adds the necessary acidity to your caramel.” 

That might explain why recipes for caramel icing are so varied. Some require the cook to melt white sugar to the proper doneness — also known as make caramel – before pouring it into a pot of hot milk, butter, and white sugar. The mixture is then boiled to a specific temperature and whipped (and whipped) until it is thick and smooth. It’s time-consuming and, if you burn the sugar even the tiniest bit, it's unfixable to the point that you’ll need to start over. 

While I had expected this version to reign, I was surprised to discover that several older cookbooks from all over the South (as well as the 1984 version of The Joy of Cooking) utilized the brown sugar method. Here, brown sugar is mixed with butter and milk, and cooked for a specific amount of time before varying amounts of confectioner’s sugar is added and the concoction is beaten cool. It’s still a lot of work, but certainly easier and a lot more forgiving than browning white sugar. 

Instead of taking sides, many cooks opt out entirely. A number of volumes in my collection of Southern community cookbooks, including a 1980’s-era Charleston Receipts Repeats, do not include a recipe for caramel cake. James Beard-nominated chef Jessica Shillato, who owns The Spotted Salamander in Columbia, South Carolina, says that getting the sugar right is so exacting that she decided not to include a caramel cake in her offerings, which include a number of elaborate scratch-made cakes, cookies, and other sweets. 

Brown Sugar Caramel Versus Browned Sugar Caramel

The question of brown sugar caramel versus browned sugar caramel gets even more complicated by history. Many recipes that are considered “newfangled” take advantage of convenience foods like bagged caramels and non-dairy whipped topping. Brown sugar caramel icing, while less complicated than icing made with skillet-browned sugar, definitely falls into the “made from scratch” category. 

And how do they taste? Caramel made with sugar that’s been allowed to cook to a deep nut brown is the least sweet of the bunch, a smooth, sophisticated swirl of flavor with just an edge of bittersweet darkness. When made with brown sugar, the toothsome icing delivers a deep, rich sweetness wrapped in a soft graininess akin to fudge.

The Verdict

Though caramel icing made with browned sugar is probably more traditional, brown sugar caramel is equally delicious and certainly more foolproof. And, no matter which method you choose, your audience will love the results.

“In recent memory we can’t recall having a slice of caramel cake that we didn’t like,” says author and journalist Ted Lee. “True, some more transcendent than others, but have you ever been served a slice of caramel cake that was truly bad?!”

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