Caramel is made by heating sugar until it turns brown. It is used as a flavouring or colouring for food and drink.
The science bit
Caramelisation is the process of cooking sugar until it turns brown.
If you cook the sugar too much it burns, blackens and breaks down to carbon.
Sugar used in cooking is called sucrose. When you heat sugar, water is removed and the sugar melts. As the sugar cooks it turns from sucrose to glucose and fructose.
Caramelisation starts at very high temperatures so you must not touch or taste until the food is cool.
Sugars in foods all caramelise.
Fructose is a sugar found in honey and fruits and it caramelises at low temperatures, so if you bake products such as cakes with honey, they cook to a darker colour.
Flour sugar is called maltose.
How is it used in food products?
Caramel is used in food and drink products to give a brown colour and creamy, sweet flavour and is labelled E150.
Caramel is the most widely used food colouring. It is made by heating sugar beet or sugar cane.
It is used in ice cream, biscuits, soya sauce, caramel sauce, gravy browning, cola, dessert mixes like Angel Delight.
Allergen alert – caramel can be made from wheat, barley and milk so people with allergies must check the ingredient list.
Make some caramel
A non stick pan, 50 g white sugar, wooden spoon
Making caramel is dangerous as it reaches a very high heat.
Put the sugar in the dry pan and place in the heat.
Let the sugar dissolve and gradually turn dark brown. Swirl the pan – try not to use a spoon as a metal spoon will get very hot.
Do not taste or dip your fingers in it! If hot caramel contacts your skin, run under the cold tap.
To make a praline, can add nuts such as almonds and walnuts to the sugar then pour onto a greased baking sheet, spread and leave to cool for about 1 hour.
Break into pieces or bash with a rolling pin.
What can I cook?
Caramel is used to make sweet dishes such as creme caramel which is a creamy custard cooked on top of a layer of caramel.
50 g sugar
2 tbs water
10 g caster sugar – 2 tsp
200 ml whole milk
Heat the oven to 150C/Gas2. You need to ramekin dishes or oven proof tea cup to cook the custard in.
Make the caramel by heating the sugar and water in a saucepan to dissolve the sugar, stirring until the sugar dissolves. Boil without stirring until the sugar turns dark brown.
Pour the caramel into each of the ramekin dishes and leave to cool.
Whisk the eggs, sugar and vanilla extract with a whisk until smooth. Beat in the milk.
Stain into a measuring jug then pour into each of the ramekins.
Put the ramekins in a roasting tin which is half filled with boiling water.
Cook for 20-30 minutes in the oven until the custard is set.
Cool before serving. Chill in the fridge if possible.
To serve loosen the edges of the custard, cover with a plate and tip out the custard onto the plate with the caramel topping.
Oranges in caramel – serves 4
Slices of orange soaked in caramel sauce – delicious with Greek yogurt.
2 large oranges
100 g sugar
100 ml water
Prepare the oranges by cutting off the peel with a sharp knife.
Slice each orange into very thin rounds and put in a dish along with any of the juice.
To make the caramel, heat the sugar and water in a large saucepan and swirl around to dissolve the sugar. Bring to the boil without stirring and let the syrup become a dark gold colour.
Add the oranges to the pan and stir very quickly to absorb the caramel. If you take too long the caramel will stick to the pan. Tip the oranges onto a flat plate and leave to cool.
Take care not to touch or taste the caramel as it reaches a very high temperature!
Did you know
The lady owner of a grocery shop in Seaford, Sussex made up jars of caramel syrup by heating sugar until golden brown and then adding water. She sold it to customers to use in gravies and puddings.
Use the internet to find 10 products which have caramel as one of their ingredients. In each case explain why it is used.
Why do I need to know the science of caramelisation?