A good caramel sauce starts sweet and finishes just short of bitter. Picture: Instagram (jennystrasser)
While chocolate is perfectly nice, and we'll be seeing plenty of it during this sentimental season, caramel is the truly sensual treat.

Tawny-gold and glossy, a good caramel sauce starts sweet and finishes just short of bitter. 

Let's look at the basic process: Boiling, melting, burning (almost), enriching.

Boiling involves evaporating all the water in the sugar to yield pure sucrose that can get hot enough to melt. 

Paradoxically though, when I make caramel, I begin by adding water to the sugar. 

This method, called a "wet" caramel, takes a few minutes longer but ensures a more even caramelisation. 

For the "dry" caramel method, you simply heat the sugar in an empty pan until melted.

It's quick and direct, but the risk is that some parts of the sugar melt faster than others, and can burn before the rest had made it even to light amber. 

The way to make the dry method work is to swirl the melting sugar gently and strategically for a uniform result.

For either method, choose a pot with a heavy base to help prevent hot spots and one whose sides are high enough to contain the caramel sauce as it bubbles during cooking. 


As the sugar liquefies, a crystal can reform at any moment and begin a domino effect which, before you know it, will produce a chunky mess.

You may discover many techniques to avoid this, including cooking with the lid on to create steam to dissolve sugar crystals; sluicing the inside walls of the pot with a water-soaked pastry brush to wash down any crystals and never letting a spoon come close to the initial sugar syrup.

If you see that your sugar syrup is starting to look like a pond covering over with ice, don't worry. Keep cooking it. 

Those new crystals will eventually melt again and start behaving.

Burning/not burning. Once the melting begins, good things occur. 

You must pay attention as you cook, using both sight and smell as your guides.

You may not achieve your personal caramel perfection the first time you make the sauce, because, unfortunately, you can't taste for doneness. 

So perhaps err on the lighter side until you're comfortable with finding that edge. 

If you decide that your finished caramel sauce is too sweet, you can always cook another 1/4 cup of sugar to a darker stage and whisk your sauce into it, for a boost of bitter.

Visually, you should strive for a very deep amber colour, like that of strong iced tea. 

The aroma will go from cotton-candy sugary to nutty with a tiny bit of burnt sugar.

The latter is the moment to stop the temperature climb by adding liquid.


Most caramel sauces and confections use cream for this, but there's no law saying dairy has to be involved. 

I make a citrus-juice caramel sauce that is truly scrummy.

Once you've got your liquid caramel, it's time to enrich and customise the flavour. 

The classic additions are cream, vanilla and salt. 

But creme fraiche instead of cream, a splash of dark rum and a drop of almond extract, are all delicious options.

Caramel sauce keeps quite well in the fridge, for up to a month, and it freezes just fine in a zip-top freezer bag for about three months.

So go all-in on this easy and impressive sauce and the two others, with plenty to give to your loved one(s) for Valentine's Day and enough left over for yourself and a pint of ice cream on any day.