Perfect Vanilla {Bean} Caramels {Step-by-Step}

Just in time for holiday caramel making…get ready, because this recipe (with a step-by-step tutorial!) for soft and chewy vanilla bean caramels is the best and easiest caramel recipe ever!

Step-by-Step Perfect Vanilla Bean Caramels

If I had to admit the one post I’m most excited about this December, it would be these caramels. Not to minimize the awesomeness of all the other recipes that have and will be posted…but these caramels.

THESE CARAMELS!

I thought I was finished needing new recipes for caramels. I have my mom’s old recipe. There’s this recipe for foolproof no-stir caramels. I can’t forget about black licorice caramels. Or cinnamon caramels. I even have a chocolate caramel.

I most definitely was not actively seeking out a new and improved caramel recipe when this one basically hit me in the face and forced me to try it.

The reason it appealed to my caramel sensitivities is that the method is totally different than any other caramel recipe I’ve ever made. It intrigued me enough that I figured it wouldn’t hurt to at least try it, right?

Instead of going small scale, I decided to make 600 of them for my BYU presentations last month.

To say I was elbow deep in caramels for a week straight would be an understatement. Thank you to all the willing souls who reside under my roof who wrapped caramels for days.

Step-by-Step Perfect Vanilla Bean Caramels

I figured I wouldn’t ever get that large of a test audience in one spot again. I wanted certain confirmation if these caramels were “blog worthy” or not.

So I asked the people who were in attendance (many of you!) to give me your feedback on these delightful vanilla bean caramels. And give me your feedback you did!

I’ve been inundated with close to a hundred emails asking when I’ll post the recipe. You’ve also let me know the caramels were amazing. And a few aggressive souls even suggested they may hunt me down if I don’t get the recipe up ASAP.

Rave reviews? I’ll say.

I’ve since made this recipe for vanilla bean caramels at least another 8-10 times. In fact, I’ve made it so many times, I feel as though I’ve navigated almost every issue that could come up when making these.

Judging by the hundreds of BYU attendees’ positive feedback, combined with all the friends and family I’ve shared with since then, you should fee very confident trying this recipe, too.

Step-by-Step Perfect Vanilla Bean Caramels

The good news? They are the most foolproof caramels I’ve ever made thanks to that cooking method I alluded to earlier.

Instead of boiling all the caramel ingredients together (like most recipes) and risk scorching (like cream and sweetened condensed milk are wont to do), the simple sugar syrup boils first.

Once it comes up to the right temperature (325 degrees), the cream and butter are added, which lowers the temperature of the caramels.

At this point, the mixture is stirred constantly for 10 or so minutes until it reaches the perfect caramel temperature. 245 degrees F in my world, but you can go for a firmer caramel at 248 if you want or go super soft and gooey at 238 to 240 or so.

Because I’ve made these vanilla bean caramels so many times, I’ve learned that you can even overshoot the 325 temperature by 20 degrees and they will still work out.

Says the girl who walked away from the boiling candy to help a child with homework only to discover a shocking temperature of 345 when she returned.

Cooking the sugar syrup to a higher temperature will still result in soft and chewy temperatures (as long as you don’t exceed that 245 degree temp in the last step).

But the higher the temp goes above 325, the more intense caramel flavor the candies will have…and they’ll also get increasingly darker.

Step-by-Step Perfect Vanilla Bean Caramels

I know candy thermometer and cooking temperatures can seem stressful, especially if you are new to (or scared of) making caramels, but I promise, this is the recipe you should try whether you are a beginner caramel maker or whether you can make them in your sleep and already think you have The Only Caramel Recipe You’ll Ever Need.

Not only is the cooking method for these caramels easier, in my opinion (and yes, I have tried the famed microwave caramels, and while good, they don’t hold a candle to the flavor of this legit cooked recipe), the caramels themselves are ridiculously delicious.

Perfectly chewy with a velvety, creamy and slightly buttery texture, these vanilla bean caramels are hands-down my favorite caramels ever.

I know in the land of hyperbole food blogging (of which I am as guilty as the next food blogger), it’s hard to know if a “new, best-ever” recipe is just that or if the excitement is being exaggerated.

I can assure you, these vanilla bean caramels are definitely best-ever in my book.

In order to dispel any concern or questions, I’ve included a step-by-step tutorial below the recipe.

And even though the recipe looks long, it’s only because I’ve tried to literally give every single detail I can in order to help you feel peace and comfort and joy as you make these.

Step-by-Step Perfect Vanilla Bean Caramels

Here are a few more caramel notes and answers to FAQ’s I get about caramel making: 

What do you wrap your caramels with?
I used to use good ol’ wax paper, which is a great caramel wrapping tool. However, I have since discovered precut (PRECUT!!) cellophane wrappers, and I’ll never go back. My friend, Melissa, gave me some from Orson Gygi; they are available there (usually about $8 shipping) or on Amazon prime. With 1,000 in a package, I’d be calling your caramel bestie and offering to split a package of these babies.

What candy thermometer do you use and love?
I’ve had this style of candy thermometer for years. I’ve owned a couple different ones since a child of mine who shall remain nameless dunked one in a sink full of water and another thermometer was used – by that same child, ahem – as a take-apart science project without my knowledge. It’s my all-time favorite candy thermometer.

I’ve had the worst luck with the long, thin (Taylor brand) or bulb candy thermometers (numbers wearing off, super inaccurate temps). I have a very accurate instant-read thermometer that I always pop into the caramels at the beginning along with the candy thermometer. I use it as a second line of defense to make sure the candy thermometer is reading correctly.

It usually is, but if it’s a degree or two off from the reading on the instant-read thermometer, I just do the math in my head and know to cook the caramels a few degrees lower or higher. I can explain this more if you have questions in the comments.

Step-by-Step Perfect Vanilla Bean Caramels

What kind of pot should I use? 
It’s really important when making candy (caramels, toffee, etc) that you use a heavy-bottomed pot. What do I mean by that? The bottom of the surface shouldn’t be thin. Ideally, it should have a thick metal lining on the bottom to insulate and not scorch the caramels.

I have a very, very old set of Farberware pans that I use (18/10 stainless steel), and they work great and are not expensive. Just make sure your pot is not super thin and wimpy.

What do you use to cut the caramels? 
The very best tool for cutting caramels is a sturdy bench knife (a fantastic tool that can be used for a million other things, too). It’s the only thing I use to cut them. Works wonders. It’s fast and easy and won’t cut your little fingers off.

Do I really have to do the whole pastry brush dipped in water thing? 
Yes, yes you do. Wiping down the sides of the pot in that first step where the sugar syrup boils is really important. Sugar granules on the sides of the pot can turn the entire batch into sugar, or cause it to crystallize or separate.

I’ve always resisted this step in other candy recipes, too, but it’s important here and not hard at all. This is the pastry brush I have (and I show you how to do the washing down action in the step-by-step tutorial below). But if you don’t have a pastry brush, you can use a wet cloth. Carefully drip the water onto the sides and wash the sugar off with the rag, rinsing and using clean water a couple times throughout the process. You only have to do it once in the recipe, so don’t let it deter you from making these.

What about vanilla beans? Is there an alternative? 
Absolutely! While vanilla beans give a delicious flavor and offer those undeniably pretty speckles, you can also omit the vanilla beans and use pure vanilla extract. I’ve given all those details below in the recipe.

Step-by-Step Perfect Vanilla Bean Caramels

So there you go! I’ve included several other notes below in the recipe and in the step-by-step tutorial, so please MAKE SURE YOU READ THROUGH THE RECIPE before you make these vanilla bean caramels. It will help prevent any angst over mid-recipe surprises (the worst).

I really, really, really (a million reallys) hope you make these vanilla bean caramels. I want everyone to love them as much as I do!

Nothing says the holiday season quite like homemade caramels!

One Year Ago: Decadent Double Chocolate Mint Cookies
Two Years Ago: White Chocolate Pecan Brownies
Three Years Ago: Homemade Peppermint Patties

Perfect Vanilla {Bean} Caramels

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Ingredients:

  • 1 to 2 vanilla beans, split and scraped (video tutorial on how to work with vanilla beans here)
  • 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
  • Fleur de sel or coarse sea salt for sprinkling (optional)

Directions:

  1. Butter the bottoms and sides (get into the corners, too!) of a 9X9-inch square baking pan. Set aside.
  2. Place the vanilla bean and scraped seeds in a saucepan and pour in the heavy cream. Heat the mixture over medium heat until steaming. Remove from heat, cover and let sit (for at least 20 minutes) – go ahead and start making the caramels while the vanilla cream steeps.
  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.
  4. Clip a candy thermometer onto the side of the pan.
  5. Bring the mixture to a boil over medium-high heat WITHOUT STIRRING or moving the pan. Right as it starts 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).
  6. The sugar mixture will bubble and start to darken. If you haven’t already, take the vanilla bean pod out of the cream mixture so it’s ready to go once you need it.
  7. Cook until the mixture registers 325 degrees F on the thermometer, about 25-30 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).
  8. Slowly and carefully pour the steeped vanilla cream mixture into the caramel – it will bubble and produce a lot of steam! Add the butter and salt. The mixture will have expanded during this step but will “fall” back to a lower level as the temperature lowers due to the added ingredients.
  9. Stir the caramel with a clean heatproof spoon or spatula (if it’s the one you used in the 3rd step, be sure to wash it to avoid introducing sugar granules to the caramel), 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, and even take it off earlier for a softer caramel; 245 is perfect in my book).
  10. Immediately pour the caramel mixture into the prepared pan.
  11. Let the caramels cool completely. Sprinkle with fleur de sel, if desired. I use a large, metal spatula to peel the whole slab of caramel out of the pan and onto a cutting board.
  12. Cut into squares using a sharp knife or bench scraper, wrap, and store in an airtight container for up to two weeks.

Notes:

Ok, bear with me here. This recipe is actually one of the easier caramel recipes out there, but I want to ensure success, so here are a few additional notes:

-It really is important to make sure the sides of the pan start clean – I use a pastry brush (this is the one I have) dipped in water, per the recipe. If you don’t have a pastry brush you can dip a clean washcloth/rag in water and wash down the sides of the pot that way, rinsing out once or twice so the sugar is washed off well.

-This recipe is delicious with vanilla beans…but, it’s also delicious just using vanilla extract. I’ve done it both ways. If using vanilla beans, follow the recipe and decide whether you want to add the extra vanilla extract in at the end. If NOT using vanilla beans, still heat the cream to steaming and let cool slightly before using in the recipe. After the caramels reach 245 degrees F, stir in 1/2 to 1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract before pouring the caramels into the pan.

-I always use coarse, kosher salt for this recipe. If using table salt, I’d cut the amount down slightly. Sometimes I sprinkle them fleur de sel, sometimes I don’t. That part is optional and they are delicious either way.

-I’ve also been lazy about the vanilla bean/cream mixture and have instead microwaved it for three minutes instead of using a pot on the stove.

-I used to use wax paper for wrapping caramels. Works great…but the last year or so, I’ve used these precut cellophane pieces and I’ll never go back.

-This is the candy thermometer I’ve had for years. Works great and is the most accurate one I’ve used (I always calibrate it with my instant-read thermometer really quickly while I make the caramels to make sure I can adjust if it’s a few degrees off, which it hardly ever is).

-Finally, I’ve doubled this recipe many, many times for a 9X13-inch pan. Make sure to use a 10-quart pot so the caramel doesn’t boil over!

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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 a recipe in Cuisine at Home December 2016 (increased and adapted a few ingredients for a richer caramel and added notes for using vanilla extract instead of vanilla beans)

Disclaimer: this post contains affiliate links for products I’ve bought and loved from Amazon; feel free to shop around for the best deal.

Step-by-Step Perfect Vanilla Bean Caramels

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