The Definitive Guide to Making the Best Homemade Caramels of Your Life

The Definitive Guide to Making the Best Homemade Caramels of Your Life: step-by-step tutorial, high speed how-to video, candy thermometer + wrapping tips…and all the other details you need for foolproof success!

Soft and chewy caramels - two stacked on one another on parchment paper.

This post has been a long time in coming! I’ve wanted a one-stop, comprehensive look at making the best homemade caramels ever for years. And today’s the day. 

I have a lot of caramel recipes on my site. They’re all amazing in their own right.

But my all-time favorite caramel recipe is this one. I posted about it three years ago and it’s really the only caramel recipe I’ve made since then. I love the rich flavor. I love the soft and chewy texture. I love how easy it is to make (I have the recipe memorized).

It has become my go-to homemade caramel recipe. I’ve changed it every so slightly over the years to use vanilla extract instead of vanilla beans among a few other minor changes.

Soft and chewy caramels - two stacked on one another on parchment paper with bite taken out of top caramel.

Today we are going to go through a step-by-step definitive guide to making the best homemade caramels of your life. Everything from how to make them (obviously) to the best candy thermometer to what to wrap them in. 

I even made you a 1 minute 15 second video of the whole entire caramel cooking process. It’ll take you a little longer than that in real life, but it’s time well spent. 

Basic but important tools for making caramels

  • heavy-bottomed 4- or 5-quart pot
  • flat-edge spatula for stirring
  • pastry brush for washing sides of pan {aff. link}
  • candy thermometer (lots of details below)
  • bench scraper for cutting the cooled caramels
  • wax paper or cellophane squares for wrapping (details below)

One of the most critical pieces of equipment in all homemade candy making is the pan. For these homemade caramels you want a heavy-bottomed stainless steel pan. I recommend using a pan that does NOT have a nonstick coating. Heavy-bottomed simply means the pot or pan has a thicker base. It shouldn’t be thin and tinny. This will help ensure the caramels don’t burn. 

(In the pictures of this post, I’m using an All-Clad pot.) However, you don’t need a high-end pan. For years, I used a fabulous set of heavy-bottomed Farberware pans, and they worked great for caramel making. 

Using a flat-edge rubber spatula for stirring is also key. It works better than a rounded spoon or spatula at scraping up the bottom of the pan thoroughly and preventing scorching and sticking.

Heavy bottomed pot and red spatula for caramel making

Which candy thermometer is best? 

Ah, this is a loaded question. If I had a dollar for every candy thermometer I’ve gone through over the years, I’d be a rich woman (actually not really because I’d still be in debt for all those thermometers I purchased that held all my candy hopes and dreams). 

I am convinced there is no such thing as a perfect candy thermometer. The ones that sit perfectly on the side of the pan (like these flat Taylor thermometers) have hardly ever been accurate temperature-wise when I’ve used them, and the numbers have worn off of all the ones I’ve owned.

The classic glass bulb candy thermometers need to be retired (do they even make them anymore?). They aren’t known to be very accurate and they are prone to breaking.

I used to love and use this digital candy thermometer (and recommended it for years) until it, too, disappointed me enough times in later uses that I had to break up with it. 

I’ve finally found a solution that works for me. It’s not perfect, but it’s come the closest to being so. 

ThermoPop candy and instant read thermometer

My candy thermometer solution

I now use a straight instant-read thermometer and use a pan clip to attach it to the side of the pot. Bonus: this thermometer can also be used for so many other things (like meat temperatures, etc).

I have this Thermopop thermometer from Thermoworks but there are a lot of inexpensive similar versions around {aff. link}. The clips are just a couple of bucks online or in stores; I happened to have a couple pan clips laying around my kitchen from who knows where. I’m still looking for one that gets the thermometer closer to the side of the pan, but it works for now.

You want to make sure that when the thermometer is clipped to the pan, there is space between the end of the probe and the bottom of the pan, otherwise the temperature reading will be inaccurate. The thermometer shouldn’t be touching the bottom of the pan. 

The instant accuracy of these thermometers can’t be beat, and this feature outweighs the only two downfalls I see with this situation:

  • the thermometer will turn off once or twice during cooking – all it takes is a quick press of the button (for this particular model) to turn it back on; no biggie
  • I haven’t found a pan clip that nestles the thermometer right up against the edge of the pan like other candy thermometers, so it does tend to get in the way of stirring just a bit – not a huge deal breaker, but make sure if you use this setup to stir underneath and around the thermometer probe or else the caramel will scorch in those spots

Candy thermometer clipped to side of heavy bottomed pan

How to test the accuracy of a candy thermometer

UPDATE: lots of comments rolling in about calibrating your thermometer. Consult the comment section if you want more details on alternate ways to calibrate or to read other’s thoughts about this. As a point of reference, water boils at 207 degrees where I live. 

If you already have a candy thermometer, the biggest piece of advice I can give you is to test the accuracy of your candy thermometer. It’s really, really simple. 

  1. Figure out what temperature water boils at depending on your elevation. Here’s a handy chart (scroll down past the graphs). Write down your special number. 
  2. Take a reading of your thermometer in rapidly boiling water (let it sit in the water for a couple of minutes; don’t let the thermometer touch the bottom of the pan). Write down THIS special number, too.
  3. If the two numbers are the same, you’re golden. That means your thermometer is accurate. If the number from the chart and the number from your thermometer are different, you’ll need to adjust your candy making temperatures accordingly (see below). 
  4. It’s not a bad idea to test your thermometer each time before making candy if you have had inaccuracy problems in the past. 

Example: if water boils at 206 degrees where I live and my thermometer reads 203 degrees in boiling water, I’ll need to adjust candy and caramel recipes by three degrees lower. If the caramel recipe says to cook until 245 degrees, I’ll want to cook until 242 degrees. 

Another example: if water boils at 212 degrees where I live and my thermometer reads 218 degrees in boiling water, I’ll need to adjust candy and caramel recipes by six degrees higher. If the caramel recipe says to cook until 245 degrees, I’ll need to cook until 251 degrees. 

High altitude caramel making: I believe if you live at a high enough altitude where the water boils at 202 degrees, you’ll need to also subtract an additional 2 degrees for every 1,000 feet above sea level for the temperature point listed in the recipe. You might want to do some additional googling for more info (I don’t live at high altitude). 

Ok. I’m glad we had this talk. Now let’s move on past candy thermometers. 

The biggest key for homemade caramel success is getting all of the cooking supplies and ingredients laid out in a very cooking show-style manner. No, but really, it’s pretty important. 

Caramel making supplies all laid out: pot, spatula, sugar, cream, butter, vanilla, thermometer

Measure out all the ingredients and have them ready to go. 

Also, get the pan ready for when the caramels are finished cooking. You don’t want to have a bubbling hot batch of caramels at the perfect temperature only to realize you don’t have your pan buttered (they’ll continue to cook, even off the heat, while you butter that pan and you’ll be sad when your beloved caramels break off someone’s prized tooth). 

I usually just butter all the creases and corners and crevices of a straight-sided 8X8-inch pan (this recipe doubles great for a 9X13-inch pan). But you can line with parchment for easy lifting of the caramels after they’ve cooled. 

8X8-inch square pan buttered for caramels

How to make homemade caramels

Finally! The fun part. 

In that wonderful, heavy-bottomed pan (I wish I could be complimented for being heavy-bottomed at some point in my life), combine the sugar, water and corn syrup.

Don’t go crazy here. You don’t want to splash it everywhere up the sides of the pan. Be gentle. Be careful. Those splashed sugar marks can become sugar crystals, and they can ruin a whole batch of caramel if they get stirred back into the caramel. 

That sounds kind of doom and gloom, but don’t worry. I’m going to show you how to easily rid your life of sugar crystals forever and ensure you know how to make the best homemade caramels of your life. 

Combining sugar, corn syrup, and water in pot for caramels

Heat this mixture over medium or slightly medium-high heat until it comes to a boil. It will foam and rise up a bit at the beginning but will quickly settle down into pretty, glassy bubbles.

Why this step? A lot of caramel recipes have you combine cream (or sweetened condensed milk), butter, sugar and corn syrup from the very beginning. But cooking the sugar and corn syrup like this first means you get a whole lot of flavor and cooking done quickly without having to stir and without any milky/creamy ingredients scorching on the bottom of the pan. 

It’s brilliant.

cooking sugar syrup for caramels

This is when you want to fill a cup with water and use the pastry brush {aff. link} to wipe down the sides of the pan above the boiling sugar/water line. Just dip the brush in the water and rub it along the sugar crystals; they’ll dissolve and run back down into the boiling mixture. This is what you want.

Once the sides of the pan are cleaned, you probably won’t need to repeat this process again.  

Brushing down the sides of the pot with pastry brush dipped in water

Clip your handy dandy thermometer – instant read or candy thermometer – to the side of the pan. Without stirring, cook the mixture to between 325 and 345 degrees F. The range in temperature is fine and won’t affect the soft chewiness of the caramels. The higher the temp in this step, the darker the color of the caramels will be. 

cooking sugar syrup for caramels

I usually cook the sugar mixture to right around 345 degrees. Over medium heat, this usually takes around 20 minutes on my stove. 

cooking sugar syrup for caramels

Immediately but slowly pour in the warm cream. The mixture is going to bubble and steam and completely freak out. It’s ok. Just keep your hands and fingers safe. This is also why it’s important to have a bigger-than-you-think pot. The mixture will rise quite a bit during this step. 

Pouring in warm cream to caramel mixture

Add the butter and salt. 

The temperature of the caramel mixture drops significantly with the additions. 

Adding butter and salt to caramel mixture

Once the cream, butter and salt have been added, it’s time to start stirring. You are going to stir constantly until the end of the caramel making process. This prevents scorching and burning. Just commit and stick with it. 

You only need to focus on scraping the bottom of the pot – don’t scrape down the sides as you stir. It gets all sorts of sugary crystals and hard bits into the mix, and that’s not good. You will cook the caramel mixture back up to about 245 degrees F (depending on how soft/hard you want them). 

cooking caramels to 245 degrees

The look of the caramels changes as the temperature increases. At the beginning, the caramel mixture is light in color and the bubbles are small and closely spaced. 

cooking caramels to 245 degrees

As the temperature increases, the color darkens and the bubbles get larger. 

cooking caramels to 245 degrees

With my perfectly calibrated thermometer, I cook these perfect vanilla caramels to exactly 245 degrees. This will take about 30-45 minutes, depending on your stove and how you moderate the heat.

At this temperature, they are soft but not stick-to-the-paper soft. I’d consider them slightly softer than, say, a store bought Kraft or Brach’s wrapped caramel but firmer than the caramel inside a Twix bar.

Am I making any sense? Also, why don’t they make Twix bars in dark chocolate? And if they do, why does my grocery store not carry them? These are the things that keep me up at night.

You can cook these caramels to a lower or slightly higher temperature, too, depending on how soft or firm you like your caramels to be. 

cooking homemade caramels to 245 degrees

Immediately take the pan off the heat and stir in the vanilla. It will bubble a bit; that’s normal. As you stir it in, don’t scrape down the sides of the pan. 

Other caramel flavors

If you want to change up the caramel flavor, now is the time! Omit the vanilla and stir in a variety of different extracts: cinnamon, anise, huckleberry or razzleberry.

The exact amount depends on the brand and flavor of the extract (and keep in mind flavored oils are much more potent than extracts so you’ll want to use less). Generally speaking I use about 1/2 to 1 teaspoon of a flavored oil and 2-3 teaspoons of a flavored extract

You can also add food coloring at this step, too, if you want. I prefer using gel food coloring because a little goes a long way. 

Stirring in vanilla to homemade caramels

1-Minute How-To Caramel Video

Want to see that whole cooking process condensed into about a minute? Here you go. 

Once the vanilla has been stirred in, immediately pour the hot caramel into the prepared pan. You prepared the pan, didn’t you? I hope you prepared the pan. 

Don’t scrape the sides and bottom of the pot too aggressively – a little scraping is fine, but cleaning out the pot is a bad idea; it can ruin the texture of your caramels with the super hot caramel on the bottom of the pan and sugary bits on the sides.

Cutting and wrapping homemade caramels

How to cut and wrap homemade caramels 

Once the caramels have completely cooled (a couple of hours), it’s time to wrap them. 

First of all, it helps to use a flat spatula to dig them out of the pan (they should come right up if the pan has been well buttered) and place the whole slab on a cutting board. 

I use this can’t-live-without bench knife {aff. link} to cut the caramels. One 8X8-inch pan of caramels will yield about 50-60 caramels. 

cutting and wrapping homemade caramels

Wax paper vs cellophane

I grew up on a homemade caramel assembly line where I usually got relegated to the wax paper cutting station. With a good old-fashioned pair of scissors, I cut hundreds and hundreds of wax paper shapes (they ended up being all over the square-rectangle spectrum) for the homemade caramels my mom made every year. 

Wax paper works great. But it’s a pain in the heavy-bottom to cut into pieces. As of yet, I haven’t seen precut wax paper for caramel wrapping. CORRECTION: but YOU awesome readers have. Here’s some precut wax paper squares on Amazon several of you told me about since this post went live {aff. link}

Now that I’m old and grown up with a caramel making household of my own, I go straight for the cellophane wrappers. They come in packs of 500 or 1,000 (read: they’ll last a lifetime unless you make caramels like it’s your job), and they are so super handy. Plus, I think the caramels look pretty in those clear crunchy little wrappers. 

I use these cellophane wrappers {aff. link}. There are lots of brands available – they end up being between two and three cents a piece on Amazon. You can get them cheaper online elsewhere (like Orson Gygi or this site dedicated to Caramel Wrappers – shipping costs may vary).

When using the cellophane wrappers, you have to be a little aggressive as you twist the ends or else they tend to unroll a bit, but I love them and can’t imagine making and wrapping caramels without them. 

cutting and wrapping homemade caramels

Also, don’t panic and worry about the bubbles in that there slab of caramel. It happens. Especially when your sweet tween is helping you make the caramels and accidentally scrapes too much out of the pan (that can cause the pesky bubbles). They aren’t noticeable once the caramels are cut and wrapped. 

I hope this definitive guide to making the best homemade caramels of your life is helpful.

Because I honestly think everyone needs to feel like a rock star in the kitchen and make homemade caramels at least once. 

There is seriously nothing like them. I’ve actually had to delegate the cutting and wrapping to my children because my self-control is nonexistent in the face of 50 little caramels staring up at me. One for the wrapper, one for me. One for the wrapper, one for me. I usually have a mild to severe stomach ache by the end. I know, I know personal problem. 

What other questions do you have? 

Please ask any other caramel making questions below and I’ll be happy to answer them or refer you to someone (ahem, google) who can! 

Homemade caramels are my absolute favorite thing to make during the holidays. I also use this caramel recipe for homemade caramel apples and it’s become my go-to for other flavors (like cinnamon or licorice).

Seriously, I’m going to end it here because I CAN TALK ABOUT HOMEMADE CARAMELS FOREVER, and I don’t want to lose your loyalty forever by droning on and on. Brian’s giving all of you the side eye, like, “seriously, who got her started??”

Love ya. Now go make yourself or your neighbors a batch of homemade caramels, ok? 

wrapped homemade caramels stacked on each other

The Best Homemade Caramels

Yield: 50-60 caramels
Prep Time: 15 minutes
Cook Time: 45 minutes
Total Time: 1 hour
The Best Homemade Caramels

Ingredients

  • 2 cups heavy cream
  • 2 1/2 cups (18.75 ounces) granulated sugar
  • 1/2 cup light corn syrup
  • 1/2 cup water
  • 6 tablespoons butter, cut into tablespoon-size pieces
  • 1/4 teaspoon coarse, kosher salt
  • 1 tablespoon vanilla extract (see note)

Instructions

      1. Butter the bottoms and sides (get into the corners, too!) of a 9X9-inch square baking pan. (Alternately, you can line with parchment and butter the parchment - this may make it easier to pull the slab of caramels out of the pan after they have cooled in order to cut and wrap them.) Set aside.
      2. Heat the cream in a saucepan or in the microwave until steaming. Keep warm.
      3. For the caramels, in a large, heavy-bottomed pot (at least 5- or 6-quarts), stir together the sugar, corn syrup, and water, taking care to not splash the mixture up the sides of the pot.
        Clip a candy thermometer onto the side of the pan.
      4. Bring the mixture to a boil over medium-high heat WITHOUT STIRRING or moving the pan. As it begins to boil, fill a cup with water and use a pastry brush to wash down the sides of the pan so there are no granules of sugar sticking to the sides of the pan (you probably won't need to repeat this after the sides have been well-cleaned). This prevents the caramel mixture from crystallizing in later steps.
      5. Cook until the boiling sugar mixture registers 325 degrees F on the thermometer, about 15-20 minutes (for darker but still chewy caramels, continue cooking the sugar mixture - I've gone as high as 345 for super intense, dark caramels; beware the next step will cause much more steaming and bubbling the higher you cook this initial sugar mixture).
      6. Slowly and carefully pour the warm cream into the caramel. It will bubble and produce a lot of steam! Add the butter and salt. The mixture will bubble high during this step but will go down after a few minutes.
      7. Begin stirring the caramel with heatproof rubber spatula with a flat top (a flat edge does better at preventing the caramel from burning than a rounded edge). Avoiding scraping the edges of the pan, and continue to cook, stirring constantly and slowly, until the mixture reaches 245 degrees F, about 10-15 minutes (you can go as high as 248 degrees F for a firmer, but still chewy, caramel, or take the caramel off the heat earlier for a softer caramel; 245 is perfect in my book).
      8. Off the heat, stir in the vanilla without scraping down the sides of the pan - scraping the bottom of the pan is fine (this would be the time to add other flavorings/color).
      9. Immediately pour the caramel mixture into the prepared pan.
        Let the caramels cool completely. I use a large, metal spatula to peel the whole slab of caramel out of the pan and onto a cutting board.
      10. Cut into squares using a sharp knife or bench scraper, wrap, and store in an airtight container at cool room temperature for up to two weeks.

Notes

Vanilla: for a vanilla bean version, see this recipe.

Double Batch: this recipe can be doubled (for a 9X13-inch pan of caramels). Use a larger pan so it doesn't boil over. A double batch will take longer to come to temperature at each step.

Time: the exact time for each step will depend on how low or high you moderate the heat - as well as if you have a gas or electric stove.

Recommended Products

As an Amazon Associate and member of other affiliate programs, I earn from qualifying purchases.

Follow @melskitchencafe on Instagram and show me the recipes you are making from my blog using the hashtag #melskitchencafe. I love seeing all the goodness you are whipping up in your kitchens!

Recipe Source: adapted from this recipe which was originally adapted from Cuisine at Home 2016

Disclaimer: I am a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for me to earn fees by linking to Amazon.com and affiliated sites. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.