There are few things more delicious than a deeply flavored caramel. It’s versatile and can turn the simple into the sublime. Warmed and spooned over vanilla ice cream, used as a dip for fresh apple slices, or drizzled over desserts right before serving, it is always a welcome sight.
Caramel is simply sugar cooked until it melts, darkens, and turns brown in color. The heat breaks down the sucrose (white sugar) into glucose and fructose. As it cooks, the glucose and fructose react and create the complex flavor that we know as caramel. The simple, sweet sugar is transformed with heat and time into the buttery, slightly bitter caramel flavor. It’s a bit magical really to think that something so complex and delicious could be created with such simple ingredients.
There are two main types of caramel: wet and dry. The dry version is made by heating sugar until it liquefies. The wet version involves combining sugar with water and heating it until the mixture darkens and thickens. Wet caramel recipes are more forgiving but require more time while dry caramels are less forgiving and allow much less room for error.
Both types of caramel require a degree of timing, patience, and attention to detail. Cook the caramel too long until it reaches too high a temperature and the sugar solids will burn and scorch. At that point, there’s no saving the caramel. In fact, it becomes nearly impossible to even remove it from the pan.
If a caramel isn’t cooked long enough and doesn’t reach the right temperature, it will not develop that trademark caramel flavor and color. Instead, it will merely be a sweet syrup, a one note wonder in the flavor department.
The magical caramelization begins when the mixture reaches a temperature around 320 degrees Fahrenheit. A candy thermometer is essential to the task of correctly boiling a caramel to the right temperature. Care must be taken to prevent burns. A single drop of the hot liquid as it pops and boils on the stove can burn skin badly.
While I love the flavor of caramel and have made both types successfully, I don’t always have the time and attention to properly tend to a batch of caramel on the stove. These mixtures are a bit temperamental and can go from underdone to scorched very quickly. Believe me, I’ve watched it happen right in front of me.
So, when I read that I could make caramel without needing to tend the bubbling pot, I couldn’t wait to give it a try. This method requires only one ingredient: sweetened condensed milk. No fancy tools are needed and I have found it to be absolutely foolproof. The results are delicious every single time.
Sweetened condensed milk is the perfect base for making a wet caramel. It is basically milk that has had more than half of its water content removed before being sweetened and packed in cans. It is thick, rich, and shelf stable. A can of condensed milk typically contains only two ingredients: milk and sugar.
This caramel is made by simply boiling the sweetened condensed milk for several hours in the can. As heat is applied, the sugar naturally caramelizes. Because the milk is boiled inside its can, there’s no need to worry about it becoming too thick or scorched as the moisture cannot evaporate. There’s no need to use a candy thermometer or to tend the pot constantly.
Thanks to this recipe, we always have thick, delicious caramel in our pantry. We use it for making pies, tarts, ice cream sundaes, and for dipping those fresh New England apple slices. I hope that you will give this delicious caramel recipe a try for yourself. The process is so simple and you’ll be able to produce a delicious caramel to share with your friends and family!
Condensed Milk Caramel
This recipe is so simple that it seems far too good to be true. Believe me, it is true and will produce a thick, delicious caramel with very little effort. Take care to use a deep pot and to ensure that water consistently covers the top of the cans or jars, adding more water if needed. If the water level drops below the top of the containers, they may burst. I like to use a canning rack to keep the containers from resting on the bottom of the pot. You can learn how to easily make your own canning rack to fit any pot in your kitchen.
Most recipes for this type of caramel call for the condensed milk to be boiled in the can it is purchased in. With BPA in the news, I decided to experiment and found that the condensed milk could easily be poured into glass canning jars and boiled as if you were canning its contents. I find that jelly sized Mason jars work very well. I simply divide a can of condensed milk (14 ounces) between two half pint (8 ounce) canning jars. Add a canning lid and ring and process the jars as you would if you were canning. The resulting caramel will be every bit as delicious.
I like to boil several cans/jars at the same time so that I can keep our pantry stocked. Unopened jars of caramel keep in our pantry for several months. As they age, you may notice a few hardened toffee like bits of sugar in the caramel. Don’t worry, they’re perfectly safe to eat and absolutely delicious!
Sweetened condensed milk
If you plan to boil the caramel in the cans the condensed milk comes in, simply remove the paper labels from each can. Otherwise, open the cans and pour the condensed milk into canning jars before adding a canning lid and ring. Place the cans and/or jars in the boiling pot, using a canning rack if glass jars are used.
Add enough cold water to the pot to cover by at least an inch, more if the pot allows. Place the lid on the pot and place the pot over high heat. When the water has come to a boil, reduce the heat to a low simmer. Simmer for three hours, checking the water level every so often and adding more water if needed to ensure that the containers remain fully submerged in the water. If you use canning jars, you will notice the caramel taking on a deeper color as time goes on.
When the three hours have passed, turn off the heat and remove the lid from the pot. Allow the water to cool completely to room temperature. Remove the cans/jars from the pot and allow them to cool completely before labeling and storing in the pantry.
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