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
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.
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.
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.
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).
— Nancy E.V. Bryk