Commercial caramel sauce can't compare to homemade sauce's velvety smooth texture and intense buttery flavor. The sauce is fairly easy to make and calls for just a few simple ingredients. You can then use it as the base for any number of desserts, to top ice cream, as a dip for apple slices, to flavor frosting or as a glaze for a quick spice bread.
Plain granulated sugar is the key ingredient for a caramel sauce. Whipping cream and butter provide the creaminess. Some versions of caramel sauce use corn syrup or honey to keep it smooth. A bit of salt is all you need to enhance the sauce's flavor.
Make a Caramel Base
Create a basic caramel to serve as the base for a rich, pourable sauce. Cook sugar, water and just a tablespoon or two of honey or corn syrup in a saucepan over medium-high heat. Aim for about 1/4 cup of water for every cup of sugar. A moistened pastry brush helps you remove any sugar that creeps up the insides of the pan as the mixture cooks; excess sugar crystals will make your caramel grainy. The addition of a squeeze of lemon juice can also help discourage the sugar from crystallizing. Allow the mixture to boil, and swirl the pan regularly to prevent the sugar from burning. After about 5 to 7 minutes, the mixture takes on a golden hue, which is your cue to remove it from the heat. If it cooks too long, the caramel will turn bitter. Overcooked caramel also seizes up and solidifies to a hard ball when it cools, which could alter the smoothness of your sauce. If you have a candy thermometer, you should pull it from the heat at 350 degrees Fahrenheit.
Turn It Into a Sauce
Once you've removed the caramel from the heat, stir in enough warmed whipping cream to create the desired thickness; usually 1/2 to 3/4 cup suffices. You might use a whisk to help incorporate the cream more easily. The cream will bubble quite a bit, so be cautious as you stir. Add in a few tablespoons of butter and stir as it melts to add even greater richness to the sauce. The sauce may be stored in the refrigerator for as long as two weeks; reheat it carefully in the microwave or on top of a double boiler.
A splash of pure vanilla extract adds a simple flavor to your caramel sauce. You can get more creative by stirring in a bit of liqueur, such as rum or whiskey. A tablespoon of liquid espresso makes a coffee-caramel. If you want to infuse your caramel with spicy flavors, such as cinnamon or cardamom, avoid adding the spices to the finished sauce as they may create an unpleasant texture. Instead, steep whole cinnamon sticks or cardamom pods in the heavy cream as it heats. Remove the spices before adding the cream to the caramel.