Apples dipped in caramel are one of life’s sweetest treats. It’s simple, nostalgic, and tasty, too. Knowing how to make caramel is a key kitchen skill, a must-do, something that should most certainly be in your repertoire. Sugar, heat, and a little bit of time can do amazing things. I fully understand there are storebought apple dips and jars of caramel sauce — and there are some really great products available. I also know how incredible the homemade versions can be. Homemade Caramel Sauce and Apple Dip make great holiday gifts. Read on to learn how to make them.
First of all, I am not even going to pretend this is “healthy.” The apple is healthy. Caramel is an indulgence — but well worth it. Once again, I prefer to think of things in big picture/little picture. Eat and enjoy in moderation and when you do eat something decadent — make certain it is GOOD!
Caramel is also a kitchen superstar. It’s a multi-faceted technique that can produce many different recipes and results. My grandparents (yes, both) made the old-timey caramel sauce for Southern-style multi-layer Caramel Cakes. Sometimes they would make pralines during the holidays studded with buttery pecans. The familiar grainy consistency was my benchmark. Later, I learned how to make caramel sauce when I was an apprentice with Nathalie Dupree. She was and still is a fiend for simple water or juice-based caramel sauce, served with thin glasslike slivers of orange. My introduction to caramel sauce made with rich butter and cream came in France apprenticing in patisserie at a Micheline one-star. I made liters upon liters every week. Later, my caramel knowledge expanded making perfectly shaped wax-bound confections for a Martha Stewart Christmas special.
Can’t Take the Heat?
I can now make caramel in the blink of an eye. In the beginning, of course, I was nervous. We’re talking about 350°F sugar that will burn you. It is hot. But that’s pretty much it — and lots of things will burn you in the kitchen. It’s all just a matter of patience, planning, and practice. You can do it. The technique is the same for the sugar for all types of caramel. You start with “burning the sugar” or taking the sugar through the cooking stages. The changes in the consistency of the results come from what ingredients are added and their ratio.
The process of becoming caramel is pure science. Unless you are going to make hard candy, there’s a lot you can skim over — but I want to share because I think it’s important to understand what is happening in the pot.
The final texture of candy depends on sugar concentration. As the syrup is boiling water evaporates, the sugar concentration increases, and the boiling point rises. A given temperature corresponds to a particular sugar concentration. The stage refers to the reaction of a spoonful of sugar syrup that has been drizzled into cold water.
Thread Stage – 230°F to 235°F
At this relatively low temperature, there is still a lot of water left in the syrup. When you drop a little of this syrup into cold water to cool, it forms a liquid thread that will not ball up, but simply dissolves in the water. Cooking sugar to this stage simply produces syrup, not candy.
Soft-Ball Stage – 232°F to 240°F
At this temperature, sugar syrup dropped into cold water will form a soft, flexible ball. Fudge, classic pralines, and fondant are made by cooking sugar to the soft-ball stage.
Firm-Ball Stage – 242°F to 250°F
Drizzle a little of this syrup in cold water and it will form a firm ball, that will retain it’s shape when you take it out of the water, but remains pliable and will flatten when squeezed between your fingers. Caramels are cooked to the firm-ball stage.
Hard-Ball Stage – 250°F to 268°F
At this stage, the syrup will form thick threads as it drips from the spoon. Very little water remains and the sugar concentration is rather high. The syrup drizzled into cold water will form a hard ball. If you take the ball out of the water, it won’t flatten, but you can still change its shape by squashing it. Nut brittles, nougat, marshmallows, and divinity are cooked to the hard-ball stage.
Soft-Crack Stage – 270°F to 290°F
As the syrup reached soft-crack stage, the bubbles on top will become smaller and closer together. When you drop a bit of this syrup into cold water, it will solidify into threads that, when removed from the water, are flexible, not brittle. They will bend slightly before cracking and breaking. Butterscotch is cooked to the soft-crack stage.
Hard-Crack Stage – 300°F to 310°F
The hard-crack stage is the highest temperature before caramel. If you spoon a little of the molten syrup in cold water and it will form hard, brittle threads that crack and break when bent. Toffee and lollipops are cooked to the hard-crack stage.
Caramel – 330° – 350° F
At the lower end of the temperature range of caramel all the water has boiled away and the pure sugar is liquid and light amber in color. As the temperature rises the sugar becomes richer and darker. Caramelized sugar is used for spun sugar and can also be used to give a candy coating to nuts. Above 350° caramel tastes burnt and bitter.
Helpful Hints for Making Caramel
- Have a metal bowl of cold water at the ready. You can use if to stop the cooking if your sugar starts to burn, simply tip the bottom of the pot in the cold water. You can also use it for clean up — and it’s ready if you happen to get a spatter.
- Have a good thermometer, at least to start until you know your stages.
- Go low and slow. There’s no reason to rush. Rushing can lead to burning.
- Use a heavy-duty pot that’s less likely to have hot spots.
- Don’t stir once the sugar has melted. Swirl the pot instead. If sugar crystals form they can turn your intended caramel into rock candy — and Southern-style caramel icing. In this instance, we don’t want crystals.
- Just because you take the sugar off the heat doesn’t mean it stops cooking. You often need to pull it just before you think you should. This is where practice comes in.
If you take caramel sauce off the heat and remove it to a bowl it will firm as it starts to cool – and you have apple dip! I love to serve it with a bowl of chopped nuts, too. Caramel will set until firm or nearly firm in the refrigerator. All you have to do is zap it for a moment in the microwave.
We included Apple Dip as part of a fun video series I am creating with my dear friend Claire Perez to encourage people to #vote over on my Instagram. Check it out!
Wrap it Up
If giving for gifts, caramel sauce may simply be poured into clean and sterilized jars. Make a note to your recipient to store it in the refrigerator. One recipe makes 1 1/2 cups and can be doubled if you use a larger pot. I find that mini mason jars are a perfect size for a sweet present.
Thanks so much for reading. I hope you enjoy this recipe for real honest-to-goodness caramel sauce and apple dip. If you give it a try, let me know what you think! Stay safe — and if you haven’t already, make sure you vote!
Bon Appétit, Y’all
- 1 cup sugar
- ½ cup water
- Juice of ½ lemon
- ½ cup 1 stick unsalted butter
- ½ cup heavy cream
- 1 vanilla bean split and scraped, or 1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract
- Pinch of fine sea salt
- In a heavy saucepan, combine the sugar, water, and lemon juice. Heat over low heat, swirling the pan occasionally, until the sugar dissolves. Increase the heat to high and bring to a boil. Continue to boil, without stirring, until it begins to turn golden around the edges.(It is important not to stir, or the syrup may crystallize).
- I KNOW you are looking for a cook time. The cook time will depend on your stove strength and the type metal pot you are using. It wildly vary from cook to cook. Don't leave it. Don't go talk on the phone or start looking at Instagram. Stay with it. It should take about 8 to 20 minutes.
- Meanwhile, combine the butter and cream in a small saucepan. Heat until the butter melts. Keep warm. When the syrup begins to color, lower the heat, and continue boiling to a deep golden color 335°F to 350°F. It will darken rapidly. Remove the pan from the heat and add the butter and cream. (Be very careful because the syrup will furiously bubble up in the pan.) Return the pan to the heat and stir until the caramel is completely dissolved. Add the vanilla and a pinch of salt. Stir to combine.
- Serve warm or at room temperature. Store the sauce in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 1 month; it will solidify. Reheat it over a double boiler or in a heavy saucepan over very low heat, adding a bit of warm water if it is too thick and not of sauce or pouring consistency.
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