Imagine the taste of the delicious crust of a creme brûlé. Sweet, but with that slight bitter, smoky taste that charms the palate. This is the magic of caramel, the bewitching element on a dessert menu – one that can be served on its own, or as a base for other, countless creations.
Seneca was already extoling its virtues back in 65 A.C., but making a perfect crème brûlé requires some extensive practice and study in order to understand properly. Why study it, you may ask, when it can be made quite simply in just a matter of minutes? Easy: because caramel will taste even more sublime when you understand the chemical processes behind it. As just about everyone knows, caramel is made by heating sugar. It’s the fusion of sucrose that, once heated to above 160°C, changes its structure: composed of two molecules, glucose and fructose, sucrose gets dehydrated, and when the water evaporates, the caramelizing process begins. The greater the quantity of evaporated water, the more delicious crust forms. And when the water is completely evaporated and the substance continues to heat? This leads to combustion and burning: absolutely not the result we want on our dessert plates.
Sucrose is the ideal sugar for an ideal, delicate caramel. Its high heating point allows you to work with it without an excess risk of burning, and sucrose gives the ideal balance between sweet and bitter notes. Sucrose is used frequently in molecular cuisine, as is a variant: maltose. Maltose melts at 180°C, but has a taste that not everyone likes. Fructose, another sugar variant, melts at 110° C, which makes it the quickest sugar to caramelize, but it’s extremely sweet so should only be used in dishes where there are slightly sour notes added as well.
Now that we know which sugars to use and when, let’s talk about the process of caramelizing. The utensils and ingredients needed are very common household items: you’ll need a double-bottomed pot (which holds a steady temperature better than single-bottomed pots), a cooking thermometer, 300 grams of sugar and 120 grams of water – if you want a liquid caramel. Pour the sugar into the pot, one spoonful at a time, and heat at a very low temperature, without stirring. Add each successive spoonful only when the one before it has melted. When all the sugar has melted, pour it into another container and mix it quickly: after just a few minutes, it could become too solid. If you want to speed up the process, you could add a few drops of lemon juice into the pot before heating the sugar: a touch of acid helps increase the caramelizing process.
If you want a liquid caramel, you’ll need to add the water. For this, pour the water into the unheated pot, add all the sugar at once and then stir well. Only then should you add heat, stirring until the mixture begins to brown. Whether making a liquid or solid caramel, you can decide how much to “brûlé” it by removing from the heat sooner or later. What is important is not to overdo it: the difference between a savory, delicate crust and a bitter, burnt flavor is just a matter of seconds and degrees of heat.