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What is Caramel?
Blog / Confectionary / What is Caramel?

What is Caramel?

Caramel, a beloved sweet treat, is a marvel of culinary chemistry and a staple in dessert menus across the UK.

Caramel is a delectable symphony of sugar, heat, and time, transformed into a golden, luscious substance through caramelisation.

Whether it's the star of a dessert, a drizzle on your favourite coffee, or a simple candy, caramel's appeal lies in its perfect balance of sweetness, slight bitterness, and smooth, chewy texture.

What is Caramel?

Caramel is a confectionery product made by heating a variety of sugars.

This process, known as caramelisation, results in a medium to dark-orange confection with a distinctively rich, sweet, buttery flavour.

The basic process involves slowly cooking sugar until it becomes a deep amber.

The temperature at which this occurs varies, but it typically starts around 170°C (340°F).

The simplest form of caramel is made from sugar alone, but it can also be created with added ingredients such as water, milk, butter, and cream.

These additions affect the final texture and flavour of the caramel.

For instance, when milk and butter are added, the result is a softer, creamier caramel, often used as a filling or topping for desserts and confections.

Caramel's unique taste and texture make it a versatile ingredient in the culinary world.

It's used in various ways – from a drizzle over ice cream and cakes to a key component in candies like caramel toffees and brittles.

It's also popular as a flavour enhancer in beverages like caramel lattes or hot chocolates.

What is Caramel Made Of?

Caramel is primarily made from sugar.

Making caramel, known as caramelisation, involves heating sugar slowly to around 170°C (340°F).

As the sugar heats, it melts and undergoes a series of chemical changes, turning into a rich, golden-brown liquid with a deeply sweet, slightly nutty flavour.

The basic ingredient in caramel is:

  • Sugar: This is the foundation of caramel. Granulated white sugar is most commonly used, but brown sugar, cane sugar, or corn syrup are options, each imparting subtle flavour variations.

In addition to sugar, other ingredients are often added to create different types of caramel:

  • Water: Frequently used in the initial stage to help the sugar dissolve more evenly and to prevent crystallisation.

  • Cream or Milk: Adding cream or milk after caramelising sugar creates a softer, creamier texture. This type of caramel is often used in sauces, fillings, and candies.

  • Butter: Incorporating butter adds richness and a silky texture. It's often combined with cream in recipes for caramel sauces or chewy caramel candies.

  • Salt: A pinch of salt can be added to balance the sweetness and enhance the overall flavour profile, particularly in the increasingly popular salted caramels.

  • Flavourings: Vanilla is a common addition, but other flavourings can also be used to create unique variations.

The key to making good caramel is carefully controlling the heat and timing.

The process transforms the sugar into a complex compound mixture that gives caramel a distinctive colour and flavour.

Is Caramel Chocolate?

Caramel and chocolate are distinct confections, each with its own unique ingredients and flavour profiles.

Caramel is made by heating sugar alone or with added ingredients like milk, cream, butter, and vanilla.

The caramelisation process gives it a rich, golden colour and a sweet, buttery flavour with hints of nuttiness.

Caramel can be soft and gooey or hard and brittle, depending on the preparation method and ingredients.

Chocolate, on the other hand, is made from cocoa beans.

It includes ingredients such as cocoa solids, cocoa butter, sugar, and, in the case of milk chocolate, milk solids.

Chocolate has a distinct flavour that ranges from sweet (in milk chocolate) to bitter (in dark chocolate), characterised by its cocoa content.

While caramel and chocolate are different, they are often combined in confections and desserts.

A Jar of Caramel

What Does Caramel Taste Like?

The flavour of caramel can be described as buttery with a hint of nuttiness and often a touch of bitterness, which balances its inherent sweetness.

The extent of this bitterness depends on how long the sugar is cooked; the darker the caramel, the more intense and slightly bitter the flavour becomes.

This gives caramel a distinctive taste that is much more complex than plain sugar.

When cream, butter, or milk are added to caramel, it takes on a rich, creamy quality.

This type of caramel, often used in sauces or soft candies, combines the deep sweetness of the caramelised sugar with the smooth, velvety richness of dairy.

The result is a luscious, melt-in-your-mouth texture with a decadent flavour.

What is the History of Caramel?

The history of caramel is a fascinating journey that dates back centuries and spans multiple continents.

While the exact origins of caramel are somewhat murky, it's widely believed that caramel began as a simple form of candy made from melted sugar in the early 17th century.

  • Early Beginnings: The concept of heating sugar for confectionery dates back to the 17th century. In these early days, sugar was an expensive commodity, and the candies made from it were considered a luxury.

  • Evolution in America: Caramel gained significant popularity in America during the 19th century. This was when sugar became more affordable and widely available due to advancements in sugar refining and reduced cost. American confectioners began experimenting with adding fat and milk to boiled sugar, creating the soft, chewy caramel we're familiar with today.

  • Industrialisation: The Industrial Revolution played a crucial role in the evolution of caramel. With the advent of mass production, caramel candies could be produced on a larger scale, making them more accessible to the general public. This period saw the birth of many classic caramel-based candies and treats.

  • Innovation and Variety: As culinary techniques and ingredients evolved, so did the variety of caramels. Different types of sugars, milk, creams, and flavourings like vanilla and salt were added to create a wide range of caramel products - from soft, chewy candies to rich, creamy sauces and everything in between.

  • Global Popularity: Today, caramel is beloved around the world. It's used in various culinary applications, from confectionery to desserts and beverages. Innovations in caramel recipes continue, with chefs and confectioners constantly finding new ways to incorporate its rich, sweet flavour into various dishes.

The history of caramel is thus a story of transformation from a simple melted sugar candy to a versatile and beloved sweet treat.

Its journey mirrors the changes in society's relationship with sugar and confectionery, reflecting technological advancements and evolving culinary tastes.

How is Caramel Used?

Caramel is a versatile and popular culinary ingredient known for its rich, sweet flavour.

It is used in various ways across different types of dishes and cuisines. Here are some common uses of caramel:

  • Desserts: Caramel is a star ingredient in many desserts. It's used as a topping for ice cream, cakes, and puddings, adding a rich, sweet flavour. For an extra layer of sweetness, caramel sauce can be drizzled over desserts like cheesecakes, brownies, and apple pies.

  • Candies and Confectionery: One of the most popular uses of caramel is in candies. Chewy candies, caramel-covered apples, and chocolate bars with caramel filling are beloved treats. Caramel is also used in making brittles, toffees, and pralines.

  • Beverages: Caramel syrup is commonly added to coffee drinks like lattes and cappuccinos for a sweet twist. It’s also used in hot chocolates, milkshakes, and alcoholic beverages for a unique flavour profile.

  • Baking and Cooking: Caramel is often used in baking as an ingredient and decoration. It can be swirled into brownie or blondie batter, used as a filling for pastries and pies, or as a layer in multi-textured bars. In cooking, caramelised sugar is used in some savoury dishes to add depth and a hint of sweetness.

  • Garnishes: Caramel can be artistically drizzled over plates or used to create decorative elements like spun sugar cages or caramel shards, adding flavour and visual appeal to dishes.

  • Sauces and Glazes: Caramel sauce, with its rich, deep flavour, is used as a glaze for fruits or in savoury dishes like barbecued meats. It adds a unique sweetness that can complement a variety of flavours.

  • Seasonal and Festive Treats: During certain seasons, such as autumn and winter, caramel is particularly popular in various seasonal treats and festive dishes, often combined with spices like cinnamon and nutmeg.

The use of caramel is only limited by the chef's or confectioner's creativity.

What Are the Different Varieties of Caramel?

Caramel, with its rich and indulgent sweetness, comes in various forms and varieties, each offering a unique taste and texture experience.

Here are some of the different types of caramel:

  • Classic Caramel: This is the traditional, plain caramel made from sugar, water, and sometimes cream or butter. It has a smooth, chewy texture and a deep, rich flavour.

  • Salted Caramel: A modern favourite, salted caramel includes a pinch of salt, typically sea salt, which enhances its flavour and adds a delightful contrast to its inherent sweetness.

  • Soft Caramel: Made with a higher proportion of cream, butter, or milk, soft caramel has a tender, chewy texture. It's often used as a filling in chocolates and pastries.

  • Hard Caramel: Cooked for a longer time, this variety results in a harder, brittle texture that snaps when broken. Hard caramel, like caramel toffees or brittles, is often used for candy making.

  • Caramel Sauce: This is a thinner form of caramel, made with additional cream or milk and often a bit of vanilla. It's pourable and used as a topping for desserts like ice cream, cakes, and puddings.

  • Caramel Syrup: Like caramel sauce but typically thinner and more fluid, caramel syrup is used in beverages like coffees and milkshakes.

  • Burnt Caramel: Characterised by a slightly bitter, smoky flavour, burnt caramel is made by cooking the sugar until it's just shy of burning. It offers a complex flavour profile and is used by chefs for a more sophisticated taste.

  • Dulce de Leche: A Latin American variety, dulce de leche is made by slowly heating sweetened milk until it becomes thick and caramel-like in texture and colour. It's used in a variety of desserts and sweets.

  • Caramel Creams or Caramel Custard: These are soft, creamy varieties of caramel, often used as a spread or filling. They blend caramel with cream, butter, and sometimes eggs.

Whether you prefer the classic chewy caramel or the richly complex burnt caramel, there's a type of caramel to suit every palate.

Can You Make Vegan Caramel?

Traditional caramel is made with ingredients like butter and cream, which are animal-derived products.

However, various plant-based alternatives can be used to create a vegan version of caramel that is just as rich and delicious.

Here’s a basic recipe for vegan caramel:


  • 1 cup of coconut cream or full-fat coconut milk acts as a creamy base, replacing dairy cream.
  • 1 cup of brown sugar or coconut sugar: These sugars add a depth of flavour.
  • 2 tablespoons of coconut oil or vegan butter: These add richness and smoothness to the caramel.
  • A pinch of salt: This enhances the flavour.
  • Optional: 1 teaspoon of vanilla extract for added flavour.


  • Combine Ingredients: In a saucepan, combine the coconut cream (or coconut milk), sugar, and coconut oil (or vegan butter).

  • Simmer: Cook the mixture over medium heat, stirring constantly. Once it starts to boil, reduce the heat to low and let it simmer. Keep stirring to ensure that it doesn’t burn.

  • Thicken the Caramel: Continue to cook the mixture until it thickens and becomes a deep amber colour. This usually takes about 15-20 minutes.

  • Add Flavourings: Once the caramel has thickened, remove it from the heat and add a pinch of salt. You can also add vanilla extract at this stage.

  • Cool: Let the caramel cool down. It will continue to thicken as it cools.

This vegan caramel can be used in various ways, like traditional caramel.

It's perfect for drizzling over desserts, adding to coffee, or using it as a filling for cakes and candies.

How Do You Pronounce Caramel?

In the UK, the pronunciation of 'caramel' can vary regionally, but the most common pronunciation is as "CAR-uh-mel."

This pronunciation consists of three syllables, with the emphasis typically placed on the first syllable ('CAR'). The second syllable is pronounced like 'uh', and the third syllable as 'mel'.

It's worth noting that in some regions and dialects, particularly in the United States, it may be pronounced as "CAR-mel", with only two syllables.

Where Can You Buy Tasty Chocolate?

Whitakers Chocolates, renowned for our long history in crafting delicious and affordable chocolates, offers a range of options suitable for everyone, including vegetarian, vegan, and gluten-free choices.

Our top-selling products, such as indulgent Coffee Creams, Neapolitans, Chocolate Wafer Thins, Stem Ginger and Luxury Chocolate Truffles, are perfect for enhancing your mocha coffee experience.

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Some Notes From an Expert Chocolatier

As an expert chocolatier, I have always found that adding caramel to chocolate products elevates them to a new level of indulgence.

The rich, buttery sweetness of caramel wonderfully complements the depth and intensity of chocolate, creating a harmonious blend of flavours.

In my experience, incorporating caramel into chocolate adds a delightful contrast in taste and an appealing textural play.

I particularly enjoy experimenting with different types of caramel, such as salted caramel, which brings a perfect balance of sweet and salty, enhancing the chocolate's flavour profile.

Final Notes On Caramel

Caramel stands as a testament to the simple magic of culinary transformation.

From its humble beginnings as heated sugar to its evolution into a multifaceted ingredient, caramel has captured the hearts of confectionery lovers worldwide.

Its versatility enables it to blend seamlessly into various culinary creations, from the heart of a luscious chocolate truffle to a delicate drizzle atop a gourmet dessert.

The allure of caramel lies in its unique balance of rich sweetness and a hint of bitterness, making it a favourite in both traditional and innovative recipes.

It’s a classic ingredient that will continue to be celebrated and reinvented in kitchens and confectioneries worldwide.