Salted butter caramels have officially replaced cookies as my holiday treat of choice. They are equal parts sweet and savory — and when done right, the end result is chewy, gooey, and utterly delectable.
The first caramels I experienced were the cheapo, store-bought kind that come in little plastic wrappers. I remember them being dried-out, crunchy, and basically flavorless, and in my kid brain I couldn’t work out why anyone liked these. For years, this was my conception of “what caramels were like”.
My mind wasn’t changed until years later, when I tried handmade caramel for the first time. The difference was like night and day. These ones were bursting with flavor, much more complex and delicious than the ones I had tried so many years before. If only I had known!
In good caramel, the sweet, smoky flavor of toasted sugar is complimented by the richness of heavy cream. And butter — lots and lots of butter. Salt is essential for balancing the sweetness and making the candy feel less like a pure sugar bomb and more like the rich, scrumptious treat that it ought to be.
About This Recipe
The recipe I’ll share with you today is my own personal twist on a recipe by David Lebovitz. Years ago, when I first started making caramels, I followed his directions exactly and liked the flavor of the candies I got, but wanted them to be softer and chewier. So, over the years, I started making little tweaks and adjustments to perfect the texture and taste.
To make the most perfect, decadent, chewy caramels, I use extra cream and extra butter, and I don’t skimp on the salt. All of these are key ingredients for that rich, yummy flavor. And while many traditional caramel recipes will tell you to use corn syrup, I make mine with agave nectar. I think it keeps the candies a bit softer, and it also has a lower glycemic index than corn syrup, so I like to think it makes a “healthier” dessert. (How’s that for marketing?!)
If you’re new to the world of candy making, one thing you will want to invest in is a candy thermometer. Candy is a little finicky in that you need to cook it to just the right temperature in order to get the desired texture and firmness (I’ve got more info on this process below). A specialized thermometer can be fit onto the side of your pan and will tell you when your syrup is done cooking.
Apart from that, these caramels only require a few simple ingredients, and they’re super quick and easy to make — you can prep and cook the syrup in about 30 minutes — but remember that it’ll need an hour or so to cool down before you can cut it into pieces and eat it.
A Quick Primer on Candy Making
There are different “stages” that candy syrup will go through as it heats. 235-245°F is known as the “soft ball stage” because the syrup forms a soft “ball” when dropped into a glass of cold water. In my experience, the perfect temperature for caramel is about 240-245°F. So when the temperature reaches this range, I start drizzling my syrup into cold water and taste-testing it (which I’ll explain how to do in the recipe) to catch it right when the texture is perfect.
I find that once the caramel heats up, the temperature starts to rise quickly, and just a minute or two can make the difference between a perfectly-cooked batch and hard, brittle candy. Again, personally, I’m not a fan of crunchy caramel. If you like yours that way, you could cook it until the “hard ball” stage (250-265°F). I like mine to stay nice and soft, though, so I don’t let it get over 245°F before pulling it off the stove.
The point is that the longer you cook your candy, the less water content it will have and the more crunchy and brittle it will become. If anything, I would err on the side of cooking your candy a little softer than you think you should. That’s why I do the cold-water test instead of solely relying on temperature to tell me when the candy is finished. Remember, too, that your candy will firm up a bit more once it’s fully cooled and set.
Prep time: 5 mins
Cook time: 25-30 mins (but needs an hour to cool before cutting and wrapping)
Makes about 40-50 candies
- 1 cup heavy cream
- 1 stick (8 TBs) butter, preferably salted
- 1 tsp. vanilla extract
- 1 ½ tsp. coarse salt, plus extra for finishing
- ½ cup agave nectar
- 1 cup granulated or cane sugar
- Candy thermometer
- Small baking dish or loaf pan (I use a 9” x 5” pan)
- Foil for wrapping
How To Make
1. Lightly grease the baking dish or loaf pan, preferably with butter or ghee. Set aside for now.
2. In a small saucepan, combine the cream, butter, vanilla and salt over medium heat, stirring occasionally until the butter is melted and the mixture just begins to boil. Remove from heat and cover to keep warm.
3. In a heavy, 4-quart (or larger) pot, combine the sugar and agave nectar. Warm over medium heat and stir to help the sugar melt evenly until all of it has dissolved.
4. Slowly pour the hot cream mixture into the molten sugar blend; stir just until combined. The mixture will bubble and foam up at first (which is why you’ll need a big pot!), but it should settle down again after a minute or two.
5. Fit your candy thermometer onto the side of the pot and submerge the tip into your caramel syrup. Turn up the heat to medium and let it bubble and cook, stirring only as needed to keep the mixture from burning (over-stirring liquid sugar can cause it to crystallize, which is not what you want!).
6. Once the syrup reaches 240-245°F, drizzle a spoonful of it into a glass of cold water. Let cool for a few seconds, then do a taste test to check the texture. You want your syrup to hold its shape in the water, but still be quite soft and chewy when you bite into it. If it disintegrates as soon as it hits the water, it’s going to come out more like a caramel sauce that you’d put on a sundae.
7. As soon as you’re happy with the texture of your syrup, turn off your heat immediately and pour the molten caramel into your baking dish or pan. Leave the candy uncovered and allow it to cool to room temperature.
8. Once it’s cool enough to handle, pop the caramel out of its mold and onto a cutting board (you may need a spatula or knife to pry it out of the pan). You can see that mine is still soft and a little squishy — that means means it’s perfect for eating!
Then, using a sharp knife, cut candy into small, bite-sized squares. Finish the caramels with a dusting of salt over the top.
9. Grab a pair of scissors and cut your foil into small squares (approximately 4”x4”). Use one square to wrap each piece of candy, twisting the ends to secure in place. Keep caramels in a mason jar or other sealed container to retain freshness and they should last for at least a couple of weeks — if you can keep them around that long!
10. Savor every bite of salty, buttery deliciousness. Share with friends and family (if they’re nice and you’re feeling generous).
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