Caramel is often eaten as little brown, sweet, buttery nuggets wrapped in cello-phane, but it is also delicious in candy bars and on top of fresh popcorn. The best caramels are sweet and just a bit chewy. Caramels can, in fact, have a variety of textures. Caramel manufacturers use the term "short" to characterize a caramel that is too soft (perhaps too moist) or "long" for a caramel that is quite chewy. Caramels are, in some ways, rather similar to other candies in that the basis for candy is generally sugar, com syrup, and water. However, caramels vary in an important way in that they also contain milk and fat. While hard candies are plastic or malleable at high temperature, but glass-like (clear and easily cracked) when cooled, caramels are plastic at both high temperature and room temperature. Caramels are softer because they have been cooked to a lower temperature than hard candies (to approximately 245°F [118°C], or the firm ball stage) and contain more moisture. Because of this soft texture, caramel may be extruded at lower temperatures, inserted into a mold, and put into a variety of other candies or candy bars to add flavor, binding, and texture.
What makes a caramel a caramel? The action of the heat on the milk solids, in conjunction with the sugar ingredients, imparts a typical caramel flavor to these sweets. Essentially, the entire batch of candy undergoes a chemical reaction referred to by chemists as the Maillard reaction. In a conventional caramelization process, the sugar syrups are cooked to the proper moisture level, added to the fat and milk, heated, and then allowed to caramelize (develop the characteristic flavor and brown color) in a browning kettle. The confectioner can watch the chemical reaction take place in the kettle as the batch turns from a milky white color to rich brown. The nose can smell the slight burning of the milk solids, too—and a pleasant odor it is. If cooked even further, to about 290°F (143°C), the mixture essentially becomes toffee, a hard-crack caramelized candy.
There is no question that chocolate is a wonderful ingredient in candies, but what would a Snickers bar, a caramel apple, or Milk Duds be without caramel? If not used in a bar, the caramel batch may be poured into a pan, scored, and cut apart in squares for plain consumption. Vanilla caramels, the type most frequently eaten, are flavored with vanilla; chocolate caramels have a bit of chocolate added to the batch, turning it a deep brown color. However, maple caramels, those with molasses and brown sugar, and cream caramels are other delicious varieties. Most Americans have only tasted mass-produced caramels. However, many small confectioneries are springing up that manufacture caramels in fairly small quantities, making them gourmet treats. Caramels are fairly easily made at home as well.
It is difficult to know when humans first craved the sugar that gave them that extra bit of energy and satisfied their sweet tooth cravings. Many believe that the earliest sweet treat was honey—simple to acquire and needs no processing. The Arabs and the Chinese prepared candies of fruits and nuts dipped in honey. But during the Middle Ages, refined sugar of any kind was very expensive and a rare treat. Even in the New World sugar was an expensive commodity, and refined sugar was purchased in a cone or a loaf and pieces were carefully cut off with sugar nips. But by about 1650, Americans were boiling water and sugar and making hard candies in deep kettles in the fire-place. Surely someone added fat and milk to these concoctions and made caramels.
By the early nineteenth century, Americans used sugar beet juice to make new candies. Still, hard candies were the primary confections. By the mid-1800s, there were nearly 400 American candy manufacturers that were producing primarily the hard candies often sold in general stores—they were cheap to make, easy to transport, and did not spoil easily. Caramels were made at these small confectioneries as well. In fact, Milton Hershey began his chocolate empire not with chocolate, but with caramel. Hershey was born in 1857 in Pennsylvania, and rather than become a printer, he founded a candy-making business in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. By 1886, he had founded the Lancaster Caramel Company, surely utilizing traditional recipes that were found in many regional cook-books. He learned about chocolate-making because he sought new coatings for his famous caramels. Other long-lived candy companies were founded upon caramels, including Goetze's Candy Company, which began in 1895 and is still going strong making cream caramels, among other things.
Originally, the production of caramels occurred using copper pots over direct gas flames, watched carefully by a master confectioner who used a candy thermometer to monitor the temperature, and poured out the cooling caramel batch onto a marble slab or a water-cooled table and scored it into squares. The heavy, deep candy kettles (that some gourmet caramel-producers still swear by) have given rise to batch cookers with vacuum systems for quick cooling of the caramel syrup that run with little assistance from a machine operator. Brach's Confections, Inc. is among the largest caramel manufacturers in the country, with caramels being a staple of their output.
The raw materials vary with the manufacturer and type of caramel under,, production. However, the most frequently made caramel, the vanilla caramel, contains many ingredients if it is mass-produced. The ingredients include milk, sometimes sweetened condensed milk, corn syrup, sugar, oil, whey, calcium carbonate, salt, flavor, butter, another type of fat such as vegetable oil, molasses, and corn starch. Milk is essential to distinguish the caramel from a hard candy, and it is the milk solids that change chemically to produce the caramel. Corn syrup lends additional sweetness to the candy batch but also keeps the mixture from becoming grainy, which would indicate there is too much sugar in the batch (graininess will ruin a batch of caramels). Corn syrup also lends body to the slurry. At least one fat is added to the mixture as well. Butter is often the only fat added by gourmet caramel-makers as it provides superior taste, but this proves to be very expensive for mass-production. So other fats are added along with a fairly small amount of butter. As maple caramels or other flavored caramels are produced, the ingredients vary accordingly.
The Manufacturing Process
There are a number of different caramel-making systems used for the mass-production of these candies. The process described below utilizes one of the many different systems for this purpose. The process is essentially the same, however—the batch is machine mixed, cooked steadily, cooled, extruded, and formed into small squares.
- All of the ingredients listed above are automatically batched and weighed using a batching and dissolving machine made expressly for the manufacture of caramels. The liquid and the dry ingredients are loaded into the machine. Then, the ingredients are weighed with great precision by computer in the upper weigh tank. The ingredients are mixed by propellers in this upper weigh tank.
- After blending, this milky slurry drops automatically to the lower mixing and dissolving tank. Steam heat brings the mixture up to a pre-determined temperature. In the mix tank, gear-driven agitation equipment dissolves the ingredients thoroughly. Surface scrapers skim along the bottom and sides where burned protein solids have a tendency to accumulate. These burned solids are redistributed and mixed back into the slurry to ensure that the whole mixture is a homogeneous batch.
- The heated mixture is then sent to the heated surge tank. An operator's command transfers the batch into a stainless steel scraped surface heat exchanger for the final evaporation. Here a small variable-speed gear motor drives a scraping system within the evaporator. The syrup is forced through a small space that is jacketed with steam, thus forcing evaporation within the mixture.
- The batch has now had much of its moisture removed and is thickening. It is gravity-fed into a steam-jacketed caramelizing tank where the caramelizing is ensured by exposing the batch to steam. The caramelizing mixture is re-circulated from the bottom to the top of the tank, with incoming syrup mixing with the caramelizing slurry, promoting homogeneity of the product. A discharge valve directs the mixture into the next processing machine, the cooling wheel.
- This caramel candy, now at about 240°F (116°C), has to be cooled. There are many ways to cool the caramel, including moving it into cool rooms and running it through cooling tunnels. The system described above utilizes as cooling wheel. The caramel is water-cooled on the outside surface of a large wheel that is four feet wide and twelve feet in diameter. The caramel is laid in a film about 1/8-inch (3.2-mm) thick on this wheel. The wheel completes a halfturn and the caramel comes off the wheel, becoming solid and of a consistency so that the candy may be cut and packaged.
- A batch roller takes the caramel film and shapes it into a rope. The rope is then shaped and sized into the thickness of a finished caramel. Caramels are not molded; instead, they are shaped by being cut from the thick rope. As the caramels are cut they are automatically individually wrapped. From there, the caramels may weighed and placed in a sealed bag and packed into cartons for shipping. If caramels are cooked to just the correct temperature, they can be shipped easily in any type of weather and will hold their shape. If they are undercooked just by a few degrees, they may do poorly after packaging and become too soft.
The machinery involved in the process of candy making is automated. The making of caramels requires precise measurements of ingredients, since too much sugar makes the candy grainy (the sugar does not entirely dissolve in the liquid) and makes it an inferior product. If there is too much moisture in the product, the caramel will be too gooey in warm weather. Too little moisture and cooked at too high a heat, and a "long" or chewy caramel is the result. So, the machinery must be very carefully checked and calibrated for accuracy in the mixing and weighing of materials. Temperature controls, too, must be extraordinarily accurate, since just a few degrees can affect the consistency of caramels. Human operators on the floor use their eyes and hands in order to maintain quality. Master caramel-makers are essential to the production of gourmet caramels, made in smaller batches of 30-50 lb (14-23 kg) at a time. Their experience can detect any slight variation that may result in an inferior batch just by the look, smell, and feel of the batch.
As with all food manufacture, the quality of all consumable ingredients must be checked for quality. Corn syrup must be of the high quality needed for this candy manufacture. All other ingredients must be tested for quality as represented by the suppliers.
Where to Learn More
Rombauer, Irma S., and Marion Rombauer Becker. The Joy of Cooking. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1953.
Hershey Foods Corporation. http://www.hersheys.com (December 13, 2000).
National Confectioners Association. http://www.candyusa.org (December 13, 2000).
car·a·mel / ˈkarəməl; -ˌmel; ˈkärməl/ • n. sugar or syrup heated until it turns brown, used as a flavoring or coloring for food or drink: [as adj.] caramel ice cream. ∎ the light brown color of this substance: the liquid turns a pale caramel | [as adj.] a caramel sweater. ∎ a soft candy made with sugar and butter that have been melted and further heated.
Caramel ★★★ Sukkar Banat 2007 (PG)
Modernity collides with custom as five women, portrayed mostly by local nonprofessionals, lament on issues involving sex, religion, and family at a beauty salon in Beirut, Lebanon (where apparently the titular sticky-sweet treat is used to remove unwanted hair). Even when it gets a bit soapy, actor/writer/director Labaki (a stunner both in front of and behind the camera) deftly winds the personal and cultural impact of each woman's dilemma into a story of universal sisterhood. The result is a cut above most Western chick-flickery, with a refreshing lack of Hollywood gloss. 95m/C DVD . FR Nadine Labaki, Yasmine Al Masri, Joanna Moukarzel, Gisele Aouad, Sihame Haddad, Aziza Semaan; D: Nadine Labaki; W: Nadine Labaki, Jihad Hojeily, Rodney Al Haddad; C: Yves Schnaoui; M: Khaled Mouzanar.