According to the Larousse Gastronomique, caramel is simply melted sugar browned by heating. Technically, it is that simple.
However, to explain the wondrous complexities of caramel, food scientist Harold McGee is more forthcoming: ''Start with pure table sugar, a single kind of molecule, colourless, odourless and simply sweet. Add heat and you create caramel: many hundreds of new molecules, brown colour, rich aroma, sweet, tart and bitter.''
There are two basic ways to make caramel: the dry method, when sugar is heated until it reaches melting point and starts to brown; and the wet method, when sugar is dissolved in water, then brought to the boil until it starts to brown.
Dissolving the sugar first is easier for less-experienced cooks, but either way, caramel must be constantly watched as once it starts to brown, it can easily burn. Have a bowl of cold water ready to cool the pan down, as this will stop it cooking further.
I prefer the dry method, as it is quick and the caramel can be stirred all the time. With the wet method, once the sugar has dissolved and started to boil, it should not be stirred, as this can encourage crystals to form.
A clean pastry brush dipped in water is also needed to brush down the sides of the pot, to prevent crystals forming.
Whichever method you choose, there are plenty of wonderful recipes to make use of caramel. Here are three of my favourites.
Salted butter caramels
These caramels can be made with any type of sugar and butter, although the flavour is better with quality ingredients.
375g raw castor sugar
250g good-quality salted butter, diced and chilled, plus extra for greasing
5 tbsp creme fraiche
Sea salt flakes to garnish
Grease and line a 20-centimetre square slice tin with baking paper. In a heavy-based saucepan, place the sugar over a medium heat. Cook to quite a dark caramel. Turn the heat down low and carefully add the butter, a few cubes at a time, making sure it is all incorporated before adding more. Stir in creme fraiche and continue to cook until thickened (118C on a digital or sugar thermometer). Pour into tray and sprinkle over salt flakes. Allow to cool, then refrigerate until set. Cut into squares to serve.
Caramelised pork belly
Inspired by MasterChef contestant Alvin Quah's recipe, the caramel sauce for the pork belly is flavoured by the Chinese master stock.
Chinese master stock
3 cloves garlic, sliced
1 knob ginger, sliced
1 handful green onion ends
1 cinnamon stick
2 star anise
375ml light soy sauce
375ml shaoxing wine (Chinese cooking wine)
75g chinese rock sugar
1 kg pork belly
2 eschalots, finely sliced
1 tbsp rice wine vinegar
300g brown sugar
1 tbsp fish sauce
2 tbsp lime juice
Handful fresh coriander leaves
1 long red chilli, deseeded and sliced
1 tbsp black sesame seeds
For master stock, place all ingredients in a large stockpot and bring to the boil. Taste stock for balance of flavours and adjust as required. Add pork belly to master stock and gently simmer for one hour. Remove and set aside to cool. Soak eschalots in vinegar.
Heat brown sugar in deep-sided frying pan, stir and cook over medium heat until caramelised. Add one cup master stock, fish sauce and lime juice. Cook over high heat until reduced and thickened. Cut pork belly into slices and add to sauce. Mix together the coriander leaves, eschalots and chilli. Place slices of caramelised pork neatly on a plate, garnish with salad and sprinkle over sesame seeds.
To store master stock, allow it to cool. Strain through a fine sieve and refrigerate until needed. Once cooled, strained and refrigerated, master stock can be used again and again. Replenish the stock with fresh garlic, ginger, green onions and aromatics each time you use it and the flavour will continue to intensify. This stock can also be frozen.
Caramel bananas with dulce de leche ice-cream
My childhood treat of caramel bananas gets a makeover, with the addition of a super-easy ice-cream and the bitter crunch of praline. Can you ever have too much caramel?
4 over-ripe bananas
1 cup dulce de leche*
3/4 cup caster sugar
1/2 cup almonds
1/2 cup brown sugar
4 ripe bananas, peeled and cut in thick slices on an angle
For ice-cream, blend bananas in a food processor until smooth. Add dulce de leche and blend. Pour into a plastic container and place in freezer for four hours until firm. For praline, line a baking tray with baking paper. Heat a heavy-based frying pan over high heat. Slowly sprinkle in the sugar, allowing it to melt before adding more. As it melts, stir with a wooden spoon to ensure it doesn't burn. Keep adding the sugar and stirring until it is a dark golden-brown colour. Quickly add the almonds and pour the mixture onto the tray.
Allow to cool, then break into large chunks and place in a food processor. Pulse until roughly crushed. For bananas, melt butter in a pan over medium heat, add brown sugar and stir. Cook for five minutes or so, stirring, until caramel forms. Add sliced banana and continue to cook until banana is soft and golden. Remove from heat. Serve bananas drizzled with any extra caramel from the pan. Add a scoop of ice-cream and sprinkle with praline.
To make dulce de leche, place unopened tin of condensed milk in a saucepan and cover with cold water. Bring to the boil and simmer for two hours, topping up with extra water to keep the tin covered. Remove and allow to cool.