Perfect Homemade Caramel Apples {Tons of Tricks + Best Caramel to Use}

In this tutorial for perfect homemade caramel apples, I’m sharing ALL my secrets and tips with you. Everything from how to avoid bubbles to the best caramel to use. All your frequently asked questions answered!

Honey crisp apple dipped in caramel and decorated with white chocolate and graham cracker crumbs.

Caramel apples are hands down, without a doubt one of my favorite treats to make. They are stunning to look at and crazy delicious to eat. Also? They aren’t that hard to make, believe it or not. The key to a perfect caramel apple – decked out in gourmet flavor combinations and decorations – is following a couple non-negotiable tips that will ensure tried-and-true success. 

I’m sharing all of those tips with you today! After almost a decade of making gourmet, homemade caramel apples, I have the process pretty much down to a science. #nerdalert

We’re going to talk about: what type of apples to use, how to avoid pesky bubbles in the caramel, the best caramel to use (homemade or store bought), how to perfectly prep the apples for optimal dipping, the best way to add toppings/decorations, and lots more.

I make dozens of these caramel apples every year for holiday gift giving and several times throughout the year for teacher gifts, take-in meals, special occasions, and sometimes just because life demands a homemade caramel apple.  

Granny Smith apple dipped in caramel.

Five years ago, almost to the day, I posted a super quick post about gourmet caramel apples. But I didn’t include any tutorials, process shots, or in-depth tips. Today I’m making up for that. What I did include in that post was a cute little printable you can use as a hard copy how-to guide as well as some fun flavor combinations. I still use this same printout (and hand it out when I do occasional classes on how to make caramel apples). You can view a pdf version here

Printable for homemade caramel apples

Let’s get started! First up…

What type of apples to use for caramel apples.

The only two types of apples I use are Granny Smith and Honey Crisp. But really it boils down to personal preference. 

I prefer an apple that has a sweet/tart flavor to contrast with the sweet caramel and other toppings. Granny Smith are my top favorites. Their zingy, tart flavor are perfect for caramel apples.  

You can use any size of apples, but try to pick apples that sit flat so the stem divot is facing straight up. It’s not a deal breaker if they are a little wonky – I’ll tell you how to deal with that down below, but if you are hand picking apples, keep an eye on that.

Granny Smith and honey crisp apples.

How to clean the apples for homemade caramel apples.

Of anything I painstakingly type out in this post, this area right here is probably the most important. I can’t understate how critical it is to wash and clean the apples thoroughly. Like, as thoroughly as you have ever cleaned anything in your life. (If you haven’t cleaned anything in your life, now’s the time to dig deep for some cleaning superpowers.)

The idea is to remove every single bit of wax on the apples. If not, the caramel won’t stick to the apples and it increases the chance of those annoying bubbles that pop up in the caramel after dipping. 

You really don’t want your apples looking like this, do you? Cleaning the apples is the first step to avoiding Total Caramel Apple Disappointment And Dare I Say Failure.

Messed up homemade caramel apple.

First step: remove the stems and soak the apples in hot, hot water + a little vinegar or lemon juice. I don’t like to use boiling water because it discolors the apples and makes the texture on the surface slightly softer. The reason for soaking is to remove the wax and help release some of the gassiness from the apples. (Spoiler alert: if my kids read this during 3rd period when their nice language arts teacher lets them look at my blog, they will giggle out loud.)

Fill up a large pot with water, add a couple tablespoons vinegar or lemon juice and heat on the stove until the water is just under a boil. Take the pot off the heat and then carefully add the apples (no plopping them in crazy-like or you’ll get that hot water all over yourself – ouch!) and put a plate or lid on top to weigh them down. Let them hang out like that for 8-10 minutes. 

Soaking washed apples in hot water in stainless pot.

Second step: after the apples have soaked in the hot water, drain the water and prepare to scrub the living daylights out of the apples. This scrub will help eliminate the softened wax (from soaking in the hot water). 

I use either an organic-type fruit wash or just some every day dish soap. I have a cloth (pretty sure it’s a Norwex one) that is scrubby-wubby on one side and I like to use that. A sponge or rag will work – it just helps if it has a slight amount of abrasiveness to the texture without being so aggressively spiky that it takes off the peel while scrubbing. As in, maybe leave the steel wool in the cupboard for this project. 

Fit fresh wash and scrubby cloth.

Spray the fruit wash or rub a small amount of soap around the apple and scrub/wash under hot water. Go around and around the apple until it is really well cleaned. 

Washing and scrubbing apples with soapy water.

Third step: dry those apples like your life depends on it. 

Any moisture, even the tiniest bit, will mean death to your homemade caramel apple. The caramel will slide off and it will cause a lot of angst and sadness. Dry, dry, dry. 

Drying off apples with white cloth.

What kind of sticks to use for caramel apples.

I have used many different types of skewers and sticks for caramel apples. Everything from a real, live stick from our yard (you can see it in action on this post – cute, but a little hard to work with) to lollipop sticks. 

The ones I use most are 6-inch white lollipop sticks. I usually pick them up at Hobby Lobby or Amazon {aff. link}.

You can also use craft/popsicle-type sticks (these are my least favorite sticks to use) or wooden skewers {aff. links}.

Apples on sheet pan with white sticks in them before dipping in caramel.

How to pound in sticks for the caramel apples.

This really isn’t rocket science. Just nestle the stick into the little divot where the stem is (make sure to remove the stem – if it doesn’t come out all the way, don’t stress, just press it to the side while you pound in the stick) and pound lightly with a hammer or meat mallet. 

You’re just guesstimating here, but you don’t want to pound on the stick so much that it pops out the bottom of the apple. Pound lightly until you think it’s about halfway into the apple. Refrigerate the apples until ready to dip in caramel.

If your apple(s) isn’t completely flat and the stem area kind of points off to the side, still pound the stick in as straight as possible. So, the stick will be pointing straight up and down even if the apple is a little wonky like it’s looking off to the side. 

Pounding in white sticks to apples before dipping in caramel.

What kind of caramel to use for caramel apples.

When making homemade caramel apples, I use either:

-a slightly modified version of this amazing homemade caramel (recipe below) OR
-Peter’s caramel (a store bought brand that comes in a brick so you don’t get carpal tunnel unwrapping a million caramels – also, it doesn’t have an artificial after taste like a lot of other store bought soft caramel brands). Available on Amazon {aff. link} or at stores like Orson Gygi. 

Peter’s caramel (and most store bought options) are fairly pricey for the amount you’ll need to make caramel apples. Homemade caramel, although it adds extra steps and time, will be a little cheaper. 

Both of these caramel options produce a glossy, chewy caramel that is as beautiful to look at as it is to eat. The caramel in these step-by-step pictures is the easier-than-you-think homemade vanilla caramel recipe.

How much caramel do I need for homemade caramel apples? 

One batch of homemade caramel like the one I linked above (that yields a 9X9-inch pan of caramels) will make about 12-14 medium-sized caramel apples. 

A 5-pound loaf of Peter’s caramel will make about 20-24 medium-sized caramel apples. 

The exact number will depend on the size of the apples and how thickly they are coated with caramel. 

Sheet pan full of homemade caramel apples, undecorated.

What temperature should the caramel be at for caramel apples?

The temperature of the caramel is really important. Whether you’re using homemade or store bought caramel, the temperature of the caramel should be about 180 to 190 degrees F for dipping the apples. Much warmer and the caramel might slide off or form a thin layer instead of a nice, substantial caramel layer. If the caramel is too cool, it will be really difficult to dip the apples at all, the sticks might break, and you will probably end up with big blobby super thick splotches of caramel all over the apple instead of a beautiful even layer. 

I’ve scraped the warmed caramel into a slow cooker before to keep warm while dipping, but usually the extra step (and extra dish to wash) means I just keep the caramel in the pan I cooked it in, and when it starts to cool off too much, I warm it on the stove for a minute or two and keep dipping. 

How to dip the apples in caramel.

This may seem pretty straightforward, but it is another area of making homemade caramel apples where how you dip can make a difference in the outcome. Mostly, again, for those bubbles that sometimes appear on the surface of the caramel after the apples are dipped.

Can you tell those bubbles drive me completely nuts-o? I’ve mentioned them at least 50 times in this post already, because they seriously make me crazy. I’ve almost thrown caramel apples across my kitchen all because of the blasted bubbles. (Don’t worry, I refrained – mostly so my kids didn’t think throwing apples was acceptable behavior.) 

Dipping apple in homemade caramel.

A couple tips to avoid bubbles while dipping:
1) don’t stir the caramel vigorously as it cools (or if you’re warming up store bought caramel). Stirring and/or whisking quickly will introduce air into the caramel and that air forms bubbles as you dip.

You can see in the picture below there are some bubbles on the surface of my caramel – you want to avoid those if possible. But don’t panic if they are there, I’ll tell you how to avoid them. If the caramel rests for a while (you’ll want to keep it warm), those bubbles will go away. Also, store bought caramel, in my experience doesn’t produce as many bubbles as homemade caramel since homemade caramel is usually getting a pretty good stirring workout while cooking. 

2) instead of swirling the apple in the caramel to coat it, I prefer dipping one side of the apple in the caramel and very slowly lifting it completely out of the caramel before doing a quarter turn and dipping it back in. And then continuing this process around the whole apple. You’ll notice when you do this, if there are bubbles in the caramel, that slow process of lifting the apple out of the caramel will gently pop those air bubbles. 

Dipping apple in homemade caramel.

Let any excess caramel drip off the apple and then use a knife or other flat-edge kitchen implement and scrape off any long tails of extra caramel back into the pot.

You don’t want a lot of excess caramel on the bottom of the apple or else it will pool and create a lip around the bottom of the apple as it cools and sets. It’s hard to avoid a lip completely, we just want to minimize it.

Parchment paper vs wax paper

While dipping the apples in caramel, I keep a sheet pan in the refrigerator. I immediately place each caramel-dipped apple on the refrigerated sheet pan after dipping. I line the sheet pan with parchment paper. This is really, really important. Do NOT use wax paper or cooking spray or paper towels or anything else. You’ll end up with caramel apples that stick like crazy to whatever you put down that wasn’t parchment paper and you’ll curse the day you ever decided to make them. 

Parchment paper only. Got it? (No need to grease it.)

Granny Smith apple with caramel on sheet pan in refrigerator.

When all the caramel apples are dipped, make sure they have time to cool completely in the refrigerator before decorating (if the caramel apples are refrigerated longer than 20-30 minutes they may get little beads of perspiration that develop on the surface of the caramel). 

I mean, technically at this point you could just eat them/give them away as is. A caramel apple in its purest form. But if you want to go all out for an over-the-top, gourmet caramel apple finished product, keep reading. 

If the little caramel apple lip on the bottom of the apple bothers you (it bothers me), you can gently press it up all the way around the apple like so.

Pressing bottom caramel layer up on homemade caramel apples.

The best flavor combinations for caramel apples.

Now comes the fun part. The world is your oyster when it comes to potential sweet flavor combinations for the caramel apples. Here are a few of my favorites:

  • Apple Pie: caramel + white chocolate + graham crackers crumbs (mixed with a hint of nutmeg and cinnamon) – this is actually my all-time favorite caramel apple flavor profile which is shocking since I’m not a white chocolate fan in general; people go CRAZY for this one all the time
  • Oreo Explosion: caramel + white or semisweet or milk chocolate + crushed Oreos (so many Oreo flavor options!) + chocolate drizzles (optional)
  • Butterfinger Special: caramel + white or semisweet or milk chocolate + crushed Butterfingers + chocolate drizzles (optional)
  • Salted Caramel Pretzel: caramel + white or semisweet or milk chocolate + crushed pretzels + mini chocolate chips or toffee bits + chocolate drizzles (optional)
  • Kinda Like a Twix: caramel + semisweet or milk chocolate + crushed shortbread cookies + chocolate drizzles (optional)

A few ingredients that just don’t work well (because they are too heavy and fall off): M&Ms, regular or jumbo chocolate chips, large pieces of nuts.

Homemade caramel apple dipped in white chocolate with Oreo crumbs.

How to decorate caramel apples.

First of all, make sure the chocolate or candy coating you are using is warm but not hot – and also not so cooled off that it is glumpy and clumpy. 

I use the same method that I do when dipping the apples in caramel. I dip one side of the apple in chocolate, lift it out a bit, and rotate a quarter turn and dip again. I do this all the way around the apple. I feel like this gives my precious caramel apples just the right amount of chocolate coating without overpowering the caramel. Swiping the apple around and around through the chocolate produces a too-thick layer, in my opinion.

There are two ways to add toppings to the apples.

1) once the caramel apples are dipped in the wet chocolate and before it sets (candy coating will set much faster than real chocolate), gently press the sides of the coated caramel apple in the toppings of choice. Crumbly toppings will adhere better using this method than chunky toppings (like mini chocolate chips, toffee bits, etc)…and you’ll get less chocolate clinging to the remaining toppings in the bowl. 

Dipping homemade caramel apples in white chocolate and graham cracker crumbs.

2) the second method is to dip the caramel apple in chocolate and then holding the dipped apple over the bowl of toppings, grab some of the cookies or whatever and sprinkle them over the apple. I like to sprinkle a thin layer all around the apple and then go back over with a second layer of toppings and this time gently press them into the chocolate. 

No matter which method I use, I always gently press the bottom of the dipped caramel + chocolate apple in the toppings so the apple “rests” on a crunchy, crumbly toppings rather than just chocolate. This helps it not stick to the bag when packaging it up later. 

Dipping caramel apple in chocolate and Oreo crumbs.

If you find that the toppings are sliding off the chocolate, you can:

-make sure the chocolate layer isn’t too thick
-let the chocolate set just slightly before adding the toppings
-hold the apple upside down (by the stick) until the toppings start sliding too far that direction and then turn the apple right side up again for a few seconds – and continue this process (gently) until the chocolate and toppings set (this sounds strange, but the back and forth it just keeps the toppings from sliding all the way down to the bottom of the apple)

To drizzle or not to drizzle.

My sister just lately informed me she far prefers a homemade caramel apple undrizzled. After doing a little bit of soul searching about “who are you anyway, and can we still be friends, er, sisters?” I conceded that the drizzles on top may be a distraction to some.

I like them. I think they are fun and eclectic and haphazard and lovely. And they are also really good at covering up any imperfections in the decorated caramel apples. BUT, they are totally optional. I think whether or not someone chooses the drizzle says a lot about them, but what it says exactly, I don’t know. 🙂 

I go the easy route and dip a fork in the melted chocolate and swish over the top of the apple. It’s a little messy but far more my style than getting out a bag and snipping a corner.

Drizzling white chocolate on homemade caramel apple with Oreo crumbs.

Just as before, I keep that handy sheet pan WITH PARCHMENT PAPER ONLY in the refrigerator and pop the decorated, dipped, and drizzled apples straight back into the refrigerator to set up. I keep the apples refrigerated until I package them up. 

Dipped and decorated homemade caramel apples on sheet pan in refrigerator.

How to package a caramel apple. 

Once the perfect homemade caramel apples are set up, I pop each of them in a cellophane bag – about 10X4-inches or slightly bigger and tie a bit of colored twine around the bag and stick. 

So easy! And pretty darn cute. I think there are such things as caramel apple boxes. I’m sure they make a stunning presentation, but these bags are super cheap and do the job quite well. 

How far in advance can I make homemade caramel apples? 

The caramel apples can be made, decorated, and packaged 3-4 days in advance. I think they are best eaten within 1-2 days of making, but I’ve given them away up to a week later. After a couple of days the caramel will soften and get a bit “wetter” as it sits next to the skin of the apple – you only notice this when you cut into the apple. It’s not a huge deal, but there might be a very thin liquidy layer between the caramel and apple after several days.

How to package homemade caramel apples in bags with twine.

How to cut and serve a caramel apple. 

It’s actually quite simple. But one thing to remember is that if the caramel apple has been refrigerated, it’s best to let it sit at room temperature for 10-15 minutes before cutting. Not only will you be able to practice better knife safety (as in, not having to pull out the chainsaw to get through the cold caramel) but your teeth will thank you later, too.

Using my favorite knife in the history of ever {aff. link}, I just cut slabs off the apple around the core – four in total. And then I cut each of those slabs into smaller slices. That’s it! 

How to cut a homemade caramel apple in slices.

Wow. This may officially be the longest post I’ve ever written, but I have no regrets. I love making (and eating) homemade caramel apples so, so much, and I want everyone to fall in love with making them, too!

I mean, talk about rock star status! These perfect homemade caramel apples are incredible…and even though the tutorial was long and in-depth, they aren’t difficult at all, I promise!

Make sure to throw away the idea of perfection and just have fun with it! If you have any additional questions, please leave them in the comments and I’ll get answer as best as I can (and send you to google if I can’t). 🙂

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Homemade Caramel Apples

Yield: 12-14 caramel apples
Prep Time: 1 hour
Cook Time: 40 minutes
Additional Time: 1 hour
Total Time: 2 hours 40 minutes
Homemade Caramel Apples

Ingredients

  • 1 recipe homemade caramel OR 2 to 3 pounds store bought caramel (see note)
  • 12-14 medium apples, I prefer Granny Smith or Honey Crisp
  • 12-14 (6-inch) lollipop sticks or wooden sticks
  • White, milk, or semisweet chocolate or candy coating for dipping
  • Crushed Oreos, graham cracker crumbs, toffee bits, chopped candy bars, etc for decorating

Instructions

  1. Remove stems from the apples. Soak the apples in very hot water, submerged completely, for 8-10 minutes. Drain.
  2. Scrub the apples very thoroughly with soap (or a fruit wash) and hot water to completely remove the wax from the apples. This step is extremely important! Dry the apples completely. Again, this is an important step so the caramel will stick to the apples.
  3. Press a stick into the top of the apple and using a meat mallet or hammer, lightly pound in the stick until it's about halfway into the apple.
  4. Make homemade caramel (per the recipe linked in the notes or using your favorite homemade caramel recipe) and let cool to 180-190 degrees F (or warm up store bought caramel to the same temperature). Make sure not to stir the caramel vigorously - it will create air bubbles and those bubbles can pop on the surface of the caramel apples.
  5. Dip one side of the apple in the caramel and slowly lift all the way out of the caramel (this helps any air bubbles pop as the apple is gently lifted out). Give the apple a quarter turn and dip back into the caramel. Repeat this process until the apple is coated all the way around (I like to leave a small open spot at the top so you can see the color of the apple).
  6. Use the flat edge of a knife to scrape off any excess caramel on the bottom of the apple. Place the apple on a parchment-lined baking sheet and refrigerate until the caramel is set and completely cooled. Repeat with the rest of the apples and caramel.
  7. To decorate, dip the sides of the caramel apples in melted chocolate and sprinkle with toppings of choice (lots of options in the post). Refrigerate until set. Package in cellophane bags tied with twine.

Notes

Homemade caramel: My favorite homemade caramel for caramel apples is this recipe. IMPORTANT CHANGES: I don't use the vanilla bean, instead I add 1 tablespoon vanilla at the end of cooking. I also only cook it to 238 to 240 degrees if I'm using it for caramel apples. One batch of this caramel will dip about 12-14 medium sized apples.

Store bought caramel: The best store bought caramel for homemade caramel apples is Peter's - both in taste and the outcome of the apples (less bubbles, super glossy and not dull, etc). It is sold in a loaf/brick so you don't have to unwrap a million individual caramels.

*Please read through the entire blog post to get insights into other tips and tricks for success, the type of sticks I prefer using, flavor ideas for decorating, etc.

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