Check the label on foods and drinks you buy and there's a good chance you'll see "caramel coloring" listed on some of the labels. It is a common ingredient in thousands of recipes, adding color to many popular foods. What most cooks don't know is they can make caramel coloring themselves with some sugar, some water and a great deal of patience. From there it's a short step to everything from creme caramel to pumpernickel bread—all without adding any preservatives or artificial colorings.
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Fill the teakettle with water. Put it on a back burner to heat so you have boiling water when you need it.
Heat a large, heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium-low heat for a few minutes and then scatter a cup of sugar around the bottom. Tilt the saucepan from side to side to spread the sugar evenly around the bottom.
Heat the sugar until its edges begin to turn brown—about 5 minutes. Gently tilt the saucepan to even out the thickness of the sugar and then lower the heat. Continue melting the sugar, tilting the saucepan back and forth periodically, until the liquefied sugar turns a uniform deep golden color.
Remove the saucepan from the heat and measure ¾ cup plus 4 ½ teaspoons (13 ½ tablespoons) boiling water. Add it gradually to the caramel, which will sputter and steam. Stir the mixture with a wooden spoon to mix evenly.
Return the mixture to the stove and simmer for a few minutes until the mixture becomes syrupy (soft ball stage). Allow it to cool before use. The recipe makes a little over 3/4 cup of caramel coloring. Keep it in a glass container.
If sugar crystals form during the final heating of the coloring, brush them from the sides of the pan using a pastry brush and some hot water.
The process of super-heating sugar is called "caramelization." Almost all American-made caramel coloring is made with corn syrup, making it safe for those on gluten-free diets. Caramelize sweetened, condensed milk to make caramel topping for ice cream or desserts.
Ingredients like Gravy Master, Kitchen Bouquet (Parisienne Essence) and Beau Monde Seasoning are combinations of caramel coloring with proprietary mixes of spices or vegetables. You may substitute your caramel coloring measure for measure but may have to adjust seasoning in some recipes.
The darker the color, the more bitter your coloring will be. Use lighter coloring for baking and deserts but use darker coloring for gravies and browning meats and poultry.