I decided to make creme caramel, something I am fairly surprised I haven’t attempted before. I went for the ginger infused variety, and the one large variety rather than individual ones, just FYI. If you haven’t done it yourself (ie you are the only other person in the universe who hasn’t), you first make the caramel and put it into a tin/dish where it sets hard, hard like toffee-hard. Custard is then poured over the top, a long slow bake till it’s jelly-like in consistency, and then you pop the whole thing in the fridge. For days. At least one, but preferably more. And somehow, miracle of miracles, the toffee turns back into a sauce! In the fridge! This just seemed so counter-intuitive I had to find out the why. Down the internet rabbit hole I went. And here follows the results of my investigations into the science of caramel.
What is it?
Caramel is sugar. Simple. There might be other Fakey-McFake Face versions, but suck it up, people: caramel is sugar and that is why it is delicious. Caramel can have other things added – often protein like milk, cream, butter (which may, just quietly, enhance it’s deliciousness), and of course salt for the ubiquitous salted caramel. But at it’s heart it is sugar.
Heat causes sugar (sucrose) to break down into its component sugars, glucose and fructose. Then they break down into other molecules that react with one another to create hundreds of new compounds, such as bitter-tasting phenols, fruity-smelling esters, and others that taste buttery, sour, nutty, and malty.
The caramelisation process starts around 160 deg, when the sugar melts into clear molten sugar. Around 175 deg the color changes to light straw or pale caramel brown. It’s at around here that you can make spun sugar and those cool brittle strands you see on a croquembouche, for example. Around 180 deg it goes a medium brown and will still be hard. When we head toward 190 deg it gets very dark and will cool to a softer, stickier texture. This is the point at which things like cream are often stirred in. 195 deg is where the caramel continues to darken quickly and at 210 deg it’s known as black caramel or baker’s caramel, a less sweet and more bitter-tasting browning agent used to colour a heap of things including soft drinks.
There are two types of caramel: wet and dry. Dry caramel is made purely with sugar… spread it across the bottom of a pan and heat until it liquefies and browns. This requires careful attention, as the sugar tends to darken quickly (this can be verified by me. See *) and less evenly.
Wet caramel involves mixing the sugar with a bit of water. The water dissolves and distributes the sugar to promote even browning. Because the water boils off as the sugar caramelizes, the wet method also prolongs the total time that the sugar is heated, allowing more complex flavors to develop. And since the sugar browns more slowly, it’s easier to create a light or medium caramel instead of a dark brown one. However wet caramel is more prone (proner?) to crystallisation, which is why recipes often tell you to keep basting the edges of the pan with a damp brush. And also to minimise stirring, as the edges of the pan and a stirring implement is where crystals often form and they will multiply quickly.
Sugar, or sucrose, has no smell and a simple taste-sweet-but when heated, it melts and darkens, developing complex aromas and flavors that taste decreasingly sweet and increasingly toasty.
Caramel can range from being light (and sweet) to darker (and verging on bitter). Personally, I am a big fan of taking it to the edge – getting it as dark as I can without burning it*.
*This predilection has resulted in many pans of burnt sugar being scraped in the sink. MANY.
The fun facts.
Nearly forgot to explain why the caramel ‘melts’ in the fridge when you are making creme caramel… it is because sugar is hydrolitic. It absorbs moisture from the things around it – in this case the custard. So it turns into that delicious runny amazingness that runs all over the dish when you invert it. Cool, huh?
It’s not really a rant, more an observation and a bit of a sigh. All the quitting sugar (and in fact any demonisation of one ingredient or food group) saddens me. We should all just eat a wide range of things, and cook a lot more food ourselves, and the world would be a better healthier place. Focusing on one thing as the cause of obesity or the demon that is ruining our lives deflects from what I see as the big issue: when we eat processed food or food that has been prepared somewhere else by someone else, we have no idea what is going into our bodies.
My food hero, Michael Pollan, said there is a single change we could make that would exponentially improve our health. And that one thing is… (drum roll) cook your own food. I guarantee this would reduce the amount of sugar, fat, salt, goopy preservatives and mysterious chemicals going into our temples (bodies).
Even if we baked and ate our own biscuits every single day we would not be taking in nearly as much sugar as we do drinking a bottle of soft drink.
Cook your own food. Everything in moderation. Rant over 🙂
Remember, as (rest his soul) Anthony Bourdain once said: