Step aside pumpkin spice: Salted caramel wants to be No. 1
Salted caramel is a classic flavor mashup that the French mastered centuries ago, but its stateside popularity has bubbled over in recent years. Go to the grocery store and you'll find salted caramel-flavored brownie mixes, ice cream, peanut butter — even vodka. Cold Stone Creamery serves a Salted Caramel Frappe, and Starbucks has its Salted Caramel Mocha.
Salted caramel could be on track to replace pumpkin spice as the "it" fall flavor. According to data gathered by the health-tracker app MyFitnessPal, pumpkin spice consumption dropped 7.3 percent from 2014 to 2015, while demand for salted caramel products increased by 7 percent.
Unlike pumpkin spice, the salty-sweet flavor is enjoyed year-round. And it might have more staying power.
A classic: Salt and caramel "is one of those classic combinations that will never go out of style," says Christopher Elbow, the chef who founded Elbow Artisan Chocolates and Glacé Artisan Ice Cream.
The best-selling item at Elbow Artisan Chocolates is the Fleur de Sel caramel, a jewel-like orb of chocolate encasing liquid caramel flavored with sel gris, a coarse French sea salt. At Glacé, the top-selling scoop is Fleur de Sel ice cream.
Caramel is delicious on its own, Elbow says, but something magic happens when you introduce salt.
"Every time I make caramel, I put a little bit of salt in it," he says. "It really makes that caramel flavor pop."
Choosing salts: The type of salt matters. Elbow likes the subtle mineral flavors of sel gris, but other salted caramel recipes call for English Maldon sea salt, which is less bitter than table salt and has pyramid-shaped crystals.
Jonathan and Amy Pitcher of Bizz & Weezy Confections sprinkle their popular dark chocolate caramels with Murray River sea salt from Australia. The pink flakes have a touch of earthy minerality that complements the chocolate, Jonathan says.
The salted caramel combination is a no-brainer. But making caramel from scratch? That can be tricky.
The tricky part: When the Pitchers started making caramel four years ago, they ruined nearly $15,000 of product. Most of the bad batches were burnt.
"Caramel can be temperamental if you don't follow some key rules," Elbow says.
The tricky part is heating the sugar just until it develops its deep caramel flavor — and pulling it from the heat before it turns bitter, crystallizes or burns. Elbow recommends swirling the pan as the caramel cooks.
"You never want to stir it, because that promotes crystallization," Elbow says.
But be careful when swirling, because molten sugar is extremely hot.
Tim Veith of Ibis Bakery in Lenexa, Kansas, perfected his caramel skills working at Elbow Artisan Chocolates for three years and is also a fan of the swirl method. He also recommends cooking sugar with water (the "wet method" as opposed to the "dry method") and a lid that traps steam and washes sugar granules down the sides of the pot before they can form crystals.
"Those one or two crystals can cause the whole batch to turn to a solid mass," Veith says.
Low temp: Jonathan Pitcher, who is now a caramel pro, is all about the low and slow method. He cooks caramel at 275 degrees on an induction range. It takes longer, he says, but the caramel is harder to burn at that heat.
Many batches get ruined when the sugar is scorched by the bottom or sides of the pan. If that happens, Pitcher says it's important to not scrape the sides of the pan.
"If you think you've ruined it, add more cream" or butter, he says. You might find that it tastes just fine — and even better with a healthy pinch of salt.
Caramel Pretzel Bars
Salty pretzels and sticky-sweet caramel top off these shortbread bars, which will keep up to a week when stored in an airtight container.
Makes: 32 bars
For the shortbread:
1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened
1/3 cup brown sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
For the caramel topping:
3/4 cup (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter
1 1/4 cups light brown sugar
1/4 cup honey
1/4 cup maple syrup
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup heavy cream
6 cups (about 9 ounces) small pretzel twists, lightly broken up
To make the shortbread: Position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat to 350 degrees.
Line a 9-by-13-inch baking pan with parchment paper, folding paper up and over the sides of the pan.
In a small bowl, whisk together flour and salt, and set aside.
In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat together the butter and brown sugar at medium speed until combined, about 1 minute. Beat in the vanilla, change speed to low, and add the flour-salt mixture. Mix until crumbly, 10-15 seconds.
Pat the dough evenly into the bottom of the parchment-lined pan, and prick dough all over with a fork.
Bake 15-18 minutes, until just golden brown around the edges. Remove from oven and allow to cool slightly.
To make the caramel: In a large saucepan over medium heat, combine the butter, brown sugar, honey, maple syrup and salt. Stir regularly until mixture is foamy and slightly thickened, about 10 minutes. Add cream and cook, stirring occasionally, until a candy thermometer inserted into the caramel registers 240 degrees (soft ball stage), about 11 minutes. Add the crushed pretzels and quickly incorporate into the caramel.
Pour the pretzel-caramel mixture over the baked shortbread, spreading the mixture evenly. Return to the oven until the topping is bubbling, 12-15 minutes. Remove from the oven and allow to cool completely. Remove from the baking pan by lifting the edges of the parchment paper; unfold the paper and slice into bars.
Per bar: 178 calories (50 percent from fat), 10 g total fat (6 g saturated), 30 mg cholesterol, 21 g carbohydrates, 2 g protein, 177 mg sodium, trace dietary fiber.
Fleur De Sel Caramels
A sprinkling of French sea salt balances the sweetness of homemade caramels.
Makes: About 40 candies
1 cup heavy cream
5 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into pieces
1 teaspoon fleur de sel
1 1/2 cups sugar
1/4 cup light corn syrup
1/4 cup water
Line bottom and sides of an 8-inch square baking pan with parchment paper, then lightly oil parchment.
Bring cream, butter and fleur de sel to a boil in a small saucepan, then remove from heat and set aside.
Boil sugar, corn syrup and water in a 3- to 4-quart heavy saucepan, stirring until sugar is dissolved. Boil, without stirring but gently swirling pan, until mixture is a light golden caramel. Carefully stir in cream mixture (mixture will bubble up) and simmer, stirring frequently, until caramel registers 248 degrees on a deep-fat/candy thermometer, 10 to 15 minutes. Pour into baking pan and cool 2 hours.
Cut into 1-inch pieces, then wrap each piece in a 4-inch square of wax paper, twisting 2 ends to close.
Per candy: 74 calories (47 percent from fat), 4 g total fat (2 g saturated), 12 mg cholesterol, 9 g carbohydrates, trace protein, 58 mg sodium, no dietary fiber.
Salted Caramel Brownies
How do you up the decadence level of fudge brownies? Add a layer of silky-smooth caramel sauce and a dusting of flaky salt.
Makes: 12 brownies
1/2 pound (2 sticks) unsalted butter
8 ounces plus 6 ounces semisweet chocolate chips
3 ounces unsweetened chocolate
3 extra-large eggs
1 1/2 tablespoons instant coffee granules
1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar
1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour, divided
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
5 to 6 ounces good caramel sauce, such as Fran's
2 to 3 teaspoons flaked sea salt, such as Maldon
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Butter and flour a 9-by-13-inch baking pan.
Melt the butter, 8 ounces of the chocolate chips, and the unsweetened chocolate together in a medium bowl set over simmering water. Allow to cool for 15 minutes.
In a large bowl, stir (do not beat) together the eggs, coffee granules, vanilla and sugar. Stir the chocolate mixture into the egg mixture and allow to cool to room temperature.
In a medium bowl, sift together 1/2 cup of the flour, the baking powder and salt and add to the chocolate mixture. Toss the remaining 6 ounces of chocolate chips and the remaining 2 tablespoons of flour in a medium bowl and add them to the chocolate mixture. (Note: It is very important to allow the batter to cool before adding the chocolate chips, or the chips will melt and ruin the brownies). Spread evenly in the prepared pan.
Bake for 35 minutes, until a toothpick comes out clean.
As soon as the brownies are out of the oven, place the jar of caramel sauce without the lid in a microwave and heat just until it's pourable. Stir until smooth.
Drizzle the caramel evenly over the hot brownies and sprinkle with the sea salt.
Cool completely and cut into 12 bars.
Per brownie: 476 calories (54 percent from fat), 30 g total fat (18 g saturated), 95 mg cholesterol, 54 g carbohydrates, 5 g protein, 519 mg sodium, 3 g dietary fiber.
Source: Barefoot Contessa Foolproof: Recipes You Can Trust (Clarkson Potter 2012)
Salted Caramel Crispy Treats
Golden caramel deepens the flavor and color of traditional crispy treats.
Makes: 12 servings
Nonstick cooking spray
6 cups crispy rice cereal (about half a 12-ounce box)
1 stick unsalted butter, cut into pieces
1/2 cup dark brown sugar
1/4 cup heavy whipping cream
1 tablespoon light corn syrup
1 teaspoon flaky sea salt, such as Maldon, plus more for sprinkling
1 10-ounce bag mini marshmallows
Spray an 8-inch square cake pan with nonstick spray.
Put the cereal in a large heatproof bowl and set aside.
Melt the butter in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat. Once melted, stir in the brown sugar, heavy whipping cream and corn syrup. Cook until thick and syrupy while stirring frequently, about 7 minutes. Stir in the salt.
Turn off the heat and stir in the marshmallows. Keep stirring until the marshmallows are smooth and melted.
Quickly pour the caramel marshmallow sauce over the cereal and stir all together.
Pour into the prepared pan and press down with a piece of parchment paper sprayed with nonstick spray.
Sprinkle lightly with flaky sea salt.
Cool completely, then cut into squares.
Per serving: 249 calories (34 percent from fat), 10 g total fat (6 g saturated), 27 mg cholesterol, 41 g carbohydrates, 1 g protein, 318 mg sodium, trace dietary fiber.