Make a thick, sweet and creamy caramel sauce by simply cooking it down to the desired thickness. You can also use traditional or non-traditional thickening agents to help add body to the caramel. Each option has its merits -- and also the potential for ruining the sauce. Choose your thickening method carefully to optimize your chances for success.
Using the reduction method to thicken caramel is a double edged sword -- simple in its lack of additional ingredients, but tricky because you don't want to burn the caramel. In general, to reduce liquids, bring the mixture to a boil, which turns some of the moisture to steam. As the steam evaporates, there's less liquid in the pot. As you continue the process, the mixture naturally thickens. Because caramel can easily go from golden perfection to scorched mess, it's essential to keep a close eye on the sauce as you reduce it.
To maximize your chances for success, Cooking Light recommends using a candy thermometer to monitor the temperature. Once the caramel hits approximately 335 degrees F, take it off the heat and place the pot in an ice bath to halt the cooking process and prevent the sauce from seizing or becoming too hard to pour.
If reducing the caramel doesn't give you the desired result or you just want to try something a little different, adding a thickening agent can add the body and thickness you want. Some widely used options include:
- cornstarch, one of the more common options that can be found in nearly every pantry. To thicken a caramel sauce with cornstarch, mix 1 teaspoon of cornstarch in 1 tablespoon of cold water or cream for each cup of caramel. Whisk it into the hot caramel and stir the mixture constantly while cooking it for approximately two minutes to thicken the caramel and cook out the cornstarch flavor.
- arrowroot, which thickens similarly to cornstarch, but it typically gives you glossier results. Because arrowroot thickens best at lower temperatures, allow the caramel to cool slightly before combining 1 1/2 teaspoons of arrowroot in 1 tablespoon cold cream or water, and whisking it into the caramel.
- tapioca starch, which comes from the cassava plant's root. Much like arrowroot, tapioca starch or flour thickens similarly to cornstarch, but with glossier results. For each cup of caramel, whisk in 1 1/2 teaspoons of tapioca starch. Similar to other starch thickeners, tapioca can cause lumps. To avoid this, mix the tapioca starch with enough water or cream to form a paste.
- sweet rice flour, which comes from short-grain "sticky rice." Its high starch content makes it an effective thickener for sauces. To thicken a sauce such as caramel, add 1 tablespoon of sweet rice flour for each 1/2 cup of cream that you're using to make the sauce. Whisk it into the cold cream before combining the mixture with the other ingredients of your caramel. Bring the mixture to a boil and cook it until you achieve the desired thickness.
Some of the newer thickeners available to home cooks fall under the umbrella concept of molecular gastronomy, according to Wayne Gisslen, author of Professional Cooking. These cutting edge methods, including agar-agar and vegetable gums such as guar gum, use new and innovative techniques and ingredients to achieve the desired outcome.