It’s April 5th, which means it’s Caramel Day – the perfect opportunity to go all gooey about sweet, syrupy caramel.
There are basically two ‘categories’ (for lack of a better word) of caramel. First, there’s caramelised sugar – when sugar is heated to around 170 °C, the molecules in the sugar breaks down and re-arranges itself as a smooth, shiny tan/brown syrup. When caramelised sugar cools down, it sets and becomes hard and shiny – most kids know and love this type of candy as used in caramel toffee apples, for instance, where an apple on a stick is dipped in caramelised sugar syrup and allowed to cool and set.
Then there’s the runny, creamy caramel that we find in toffees, inside caramel chocolates etc. This is something very different, and is made by cooking a mixture of butter, sugar, milk/cream and vanilla. As the mixture heats up, the sugar reacts with the amino acids in the milk, resulting in the caramel’s brown colour. This reaction between sugar and amino acids in the presence of heat is known as the ‘Maillard reaction’ – a form of non enzymatic browning. The same reaction is responsible for the browning of roasted meat and fried onions, roasted coffee and the browned crust of baked bread, among others.
The level of ‘runny-ness’ of this second category of caramel depends on the relative amounts of the ingredients, ranging from fairly solid, sticky caramel toffees through to smooth, soft and creamy caramel sauce.
From rock-hard caramelised sugar to smooth, creamy caramel sauce – the world of sweets and desserts would surely be a much poorer place without caramel!