If there’s one time of year when you’re likely to make candy—this is it! Meringues, taffy, and brittles are all good, but caramels are classic. However, soft caramels can be tricky. Either they’re too hard and pull out your fillings, or too soft and won’t hold their shape. The secret to perfect caramels is nailing the sugar cooking temperature with absolute precision.
Once you’ve made perfect caramels, nothing sets them off quite like dipping them in chocolate. We have all the sugar and chocolate temperatures you need to make your best batch of holiday candies yet!
➤ Thermal Tip: Speed and Accuracy Matter in Candy Making!
Few foods are as temperature sensitive as chocolate and sugar. Candy making can be a finicky process, and speed and accuracy are critical. A couple of degrees can make or break perfectly soft caramels or chocolate that’s precisely in temper. You’ll need to have a reliable instant-read thermometer like a Classic Thermapen® within arm’s reach every step of the way.
Sugar cooking stages are represented by specific temperature ranges. As the temperature rises, the amount of water decreases and the sugar increases in concentration. The highest temperature reached during cooking determines what the viscosity and hardness will be when it cools.
At each temperature range, the sugar has a different level of sugar concentration and hardness. This recipe’s sugar is cooked to the soft ball stage: 235-240°F (113-116°C), 85% sugar concentration.
*See the temperatures for all sugar cooking stages in our Candy Temperatures Chart in the Learning Center of our website.
High Altitude and How it Affects Sugar Cooking Temperatures
Since candy temperatures are so precise, it is important to take altitude into account. As elevation increases above sea level, air pressure decreases (for more information on high altitude cooking, read our post, High Altitude and Its Effect on Cooking). This lower air pressure causes water to boil at lower temperatures (boiling point is 212°F [100°C] at sea level), approximately 2°F (1°C) less for every 1,000 ft. increase in elevation. Sugar concentration increases more quickly when cooking at high altitude, decreasing the target temperatures for specific sugar cooking stages.
How to Adjust Your Sugar’s Target Temperature for Altitude Based on Your Boiling Point:
The most accurate way to find your ideal final cook temperature is to know the specific boiling point at your altitude. Just a couple of degrees can make a big difference when cooking sugar.
➤ Temperature Reduction Factor
Subtract your boiling point from 212°F (100°C). This difference is your temperature reduction factor for altitude.
▪︎ Boiling Point at 4,500 ft: 203°F
212 – 203=9 Reduction Factor: 9°F
▪︎ Sugar Target Temp: 239°F
239 – 9=230 Adjusted Target Temp: 230°F
When cooking sugar and water alone it’s important not to stir it because of the risk of crystallization. But the corn syrup, evaporated milk, and cream in this recipe help prevent crystallization, and the dairy ingredients must be stirred constantly to keep them from burning (Our hi-temp silicone spatula is perfect!). See our post, Caramel Apple Tips: Best Candy Thermometer and Sugar Temps to learn more about the science of sugar cooking.
Chocolate just out of the wrapper is shiny with a pleasant snap—it’s in perfect temper. If you melt the chocolate and work with it without tempering, it will take a long time to set up, will not be shiny, and won’t snap; rather, it may be flexible, dull, and brittle, and it will melt all over everyone’s fingers.
We’ve done an entire post devoted to tempering chocolate, so we won’t take up a lot of space here on it. Suffice it to say that making the effort to temper the chocolate for these caramels is an important and impressive step to take.
Soft Caramels Recipe
- 24 oz granulated sugar
- 24 fl oz evaporated milk
- 10 oz heavy cream
- 1 vanilla bean, split and scraped
- 20 oz (by weight) corn syrup
- 1-1/2 oz butter
- 1 tsp salt
- Melted, tempered dark chocolate for dipping
- Salt for garnishing (kosher, sea salt, smoked salt, black lava salt, etc.)
- Rimmed baking sheets and parchment paper
- Chocolate dipping forks
- Silicone Spatula
- Classic Thermapen
Prepare a half sheet pan or 12 x 12″ pan by spraying with cooking spray, line with parchment paper, and oil the parchment paper.
- Cut a vanilla bean lengthwise and scrape out the seeds
- Combine the scraped vanilla bean and seeds with the sugar, evaporated milk, and cream in a heavy pot over medium-high heat. Bring to a boil, stirring constantly.
- Add corn syrup and continue cooking, stirring constantly, over medium-high heat until the mixture reaches 230°F (110°C [at sea level]).
- Spot-check the mixture with a Classic Thermapen while stirring for an accurate reading.
- When the mixture reaches 230°F (110°C) add the butter.
- Continue cooking over medium-high heat, constantly stirring. Spot-check mixture with a Classic Thermapen and cook until it reaches 239°F (115°C [at sea level]).
- Remove caramel from the heat, remove vanilla bean, and stir in the salt.
- Pour the caramel mixture into the prepared pan, cover, and cool to room temperature.
- Once the caramel is completely cooled to room temperature (65-75°F [18-24°C]), turn it out onto an oiled cutting board and cut into 1″ squares.
- Temper dark chocolate by gently melting over a hot water bath to 115-120°F (46-49°C).
- Add chopped chocolate to the melted chocolate a little at a time while stirring constantly with a spatula to cool and temper the melted chocolate to 84°F (29°C).
- Return the chocolate to the hot water bath and gently rewarm to 87-90°F (31-32°C).
- Dip caramels in tempered chocolate with dipping forks.
- Tap excess chocolate off the caramel and allow to set up on a parchment-lined pan.
- Garnish with a small pinch of salt before the chocolate sets up.
Candy making can be intimidating, but accurate temperature tracking takes all the guesswork out of it, and you can make perfect candies every time! So grab your Thermapen and discover your inner Willy Wonka.