(with Butterscotch Alternative)
August 30, 2022
Baking Basics is a series on Slumber & Scones all about some of my favorite repeat ingredients that can easily be made at home. See all Baking Basics posts under Guides.
A drizzle of warm and gooey caramel or butterscotch can take your favorite dessert to the next level, and as a bonus, it’s easier to make than it sounds! Master this simple recipe for caramel sauce and elevate every treat you make.
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What You Need to Get Started
You can easily find all of the ingredients for caramel sauce or butterscotch sauce at your grocery store:
- Pantry: White sugar (or brown sugar for butterscotch), Corn syrup
- From the Fridge: Butter, Heavy cream
- Optional: Vanilla extract, Sea salt, Rum or Whiskey
- Equipment: Saucepan, Thermometer, 8oz Mason jar
How to Make Caramel Sauce
Making caramel at home is super easy, and there are tons of recipes out there with varying techniques and tricks. This is the method I use every single time I make caramel sauce, because it’s reliable, easy, and has consistent results thanks to a basic understanding of the science.
Caramel is produced when sugar is heated to a high enough temperature that it begins to brown, which allows it to release different flavors than sugar does on its own. Caramel is usually described as rich, sticky, and a little bit nutty. But heat it too much, and it can quickly turn from delicious to burnt.
Caramel sauce includes a few additional ingredients beyond just the caramelized sugar, and each one is an important part of the puzzle to form the perfect caramel sauce.
To get started making your caramel sauce, add sugar, corn syrup, and water into a small saucepan. I like to use a light-colored pan so I can watch the gradual change of color, but any pan will do the job here. The water is used to help the sugar dissolve, which makes it a bit easier to work with the caramel, as it heats more evenly.
The corn syrup helps keep the caramel from crystalizing as it cools. This is because it’s an invert sugar, which has to do with the molecular structure. This is not the same as high-fructose corn syrup, which is a manufactured product, so don’t be concerned about using it here.
Stir these three together over medium heat, until the sugar and corn syrup have both dissolved into the water. At that point, you can stop stirring, but continue to allow the mixture to cook. It will begin bubbling and start to turn a light golden color.
This is when I generally start taking the temperature of the syrup. If you have one with a clip, you can leave it in the pot to get a constant read-out. Or, simply check frequently. Once your instant-read thermometer measures 325°F, turn off the heat.
At this point, immediately and carefully add in the butter and heavy cream, and stir until the caramel is smooth. Both of these are fats, which enhance the flavor and help the sauce keep its smooth texture as it cools. Adding the cold ingredients to the very hot caramel will likely cause it to seize and bubble violently, so be aware and avoid splashes.
If you are splashed with caramel or the hot syrup at any point during the cooking process, immediately run the area under room-temperature water. Do not put hot caramel fingers in your mouth (which can be instinctual) or you may end up with even worse burns in more sensitive places.
If you are making caramel candies or something that needs to be more solid, you would continue cooking after this point, until the mixture reaches a specific temperature, depending on whether you want hard or soft candy. I have two chewy caramel candy recipes you can try: apple cider smoky caramels and soy sauce caramels.
Since we are making a simple sauce, there’s no need to heat this any longer. However, this is the right time to stir in any extra flavoring ingredients, like vanilla extract, sea salt, or even a splash of your favorite alcohol. Caramel pairs excellently with dark rum, whiskey, and plenty of cordials and liqueurs.
Then transfer the caramel to a jar and set it aside, loosely covered until it’s cool enough to handle. After about fifteen minutes, you should be able to spoon it over your favorite treats, or save it for later. Caramel sauce will be fine at room temperature for up to a day.
Make it Butterscotch
Caramel and butterscotch have a lot in common, like the general method you can use to make each one. But the biggest difference is the sugar used to start. To make butterscotch instead, simply replace the white sugar in the recipe with an equal amount of brown sugar.
Then, there’s one more major change to look out for, which is the temperature. Because brown sugar contains molasses, which can burn much more quickly, you should only heat your butterscotch sauce to 230°F before turning off the heat.
Toffee is a similar flavor to butterscotch, which is also made with brown sugar instead of white. The terms are often used interchangeably, but I tend to think of toffee as being harder or more brittle, whereas butterscotch is a drizzly sauce. If you want to call yours toffee sauce, I’m all for it. I do that in my butternut squash cheesecake.
Storing Butterscotch or Caramel Sauce
Wait until the sauce has cooled to room temperature in the jar before tightly sealing it. Then, you can store your caramel or butterscotch in the fridge for a couple months. Reheat the sauce in the microwave in 30-second increments, stirring after each, until it reaches your desired consistency.
You can also freeze these, but be sure not to store it in glass, as the liquid can expand when frozen.
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Let’s get back to the basics when it comes to baking and desserts: learn to make butterscotch or caramel sauce!
How to Use Caramel Sauce
There are so many uses for caramel sauce or butterscotch sauce. If you keep a jar on hand or in the fridge, you’ll be able to make so many delicious dishes:
- Scoop plenty over a big bowl of your ice cream (Try butterscotch with chocolate for my favorite combo!)
- Replace the maple syrup on top of your go-to waffle or pancake recipe.
- Dip a spoon in caramel before stirring it into warm apple cider.
- Spoon out the top of a cupcake and add a pool of caramel underneath the frosting for a fun and gooey surprise!
- Fold cooled caramel into whipped cream for simple caramel mousse.
- First add caramel, then steamed milk, then espresso into a mug for a quick and easy caramel macchiato.
- Drizzle over your favorite fruit bake, like a quick weeknight apple crisp or any kind of pie.
- Dip the rim of a glass in caramel, or drip some down the sides, for an elegant upgrade to a sweet cocktail!
- Mix in some baking spices to add more flavor to your caramel.
- Cut up fresh apple and pear slices and dip each one before munching.
Or use your caramel sauce or butterscotch sauce as an ingredient one of these decadent dessert or brunch recipes:
Baking Basics: Caramel Sauce (and Butterscotch Alternative)
- ½ Cup Sugar
- 1 tsp Corn Syrup
- 2 Tbsp Water
- 4 Tbsp Butter
- ¼ Cup Heavy Cream
- 1 tsp Vanilla extract
- ½ tsp Sea Salt
- ¾ oz Rum, Whiskey, or flavored liqueur
- In a small saucepan, combine the sugar corn syrup and water. Heat on medium, stirring to dissolve the sugar.
- Once it begins to bubble, stop stirring. Continue cooking, as the mixture bubbles and begins to turn a light golden color.
- When an instant read thermometer measures 325°F, turn off the heat. Immediately add in the butter and heavy cream, and stir until smooth. The caramel may seize and bubble when you add the cold cream, so be careful.
- If desired, stir in any vanilla, sea salt, or alcohol. Then transfer to a jar and set aside, loosely covered until cool enough to handle.
- Butterscotch Alternative:
- Replace the white sugar in the recipe with an equal amount of brown sugar.
- When taking the temperature, heat the mixture only to 230°F
- Make ahead tips: Wait until the caramel has cooled to room temperature, then seal tightly and store in the fridge for 1-2 months. Reheat in the microwave in 30-second increments, until liquid.