Caramel is made by heating sugar until all of the inherent moisture evaporates and the molecules break down and re-form. It’s a tricky process, but it’s not hard to do once you have the basics down:
So. You have two options when making caramel. You can either make a solution of sugar and water, and cook that until the water evaporates and the sugar caramelizes, or you can cook sugar in a skillet, dry, until it caramelizes.
The first method, the “wet” method, is slightly easier but runs a higher risk of not turning out; the second, the “dry” method, is more reliable but needs some fiddling. With either method, use a much larger pan than you think you need, and keep a bowl of ice water handy.
For the wet method, in a scrupulously clean pan, heat a 1:1 ratio of sugar and water together over medium-high heat, swirling the pan occasionally. Don’t stir. It won’t take color until the water evaporates; when it starts, start swirling the pan aggressively until the caramel is just shy of the color you want it.
For the dry method, you’ll need a heatproof rubber spatula. Heat sugar in a heavy-bottomed pan over medium heat until it starts to color around the edges. Once that starts happening, use your spatula to pull the colored bits in towards the center. It’ll look sort of lumpy at first but eventually—after about 5 minutes or so—all the sugar will melt into an even amber and you’ll be good to go.
For either method, once your caramel is the color you want, be ready to move quickly to finish your recipe. If you have to, dip the bottom of the saucepan into the bowl of ice water to stop it from taking on any more color.
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