The Definitive Guide to Making the Best Homemade Caramels of Your Life: step-by-step tutorial, high speed how-to video, candy thermometer + wrapping tips…and all the other details you need for foolproof success!

This post has been a long time in coming! I’ve wanted a one-stop, comprehensive look at making the best homemade caramels ever for years. And today’s the day. 

Soft and chewy caramels stacked on one another on parchment paper.

I have a lot of caramel recipes on my site. They’re all amazing in their own right.

But my all-time favorite caramel recipe is this one. I posted about it three years ago and it’s really the only caramel recipe I’ve made since then. I love the rich flavor. I love the soft and chewy texture. I love how easy it is to make (I have the recipe memorized).

It has become my go-to homemade caramel recipe. I’ve changed it every so slightly over the years to use vanilla extract instead of vanilla beans among a few other minor changes.

Soft and chewy caramels - two stacked on one another on parchment paper with bite taken out of top caramel.

Today we are going to go through a step-by-step definitive guide to making the best homemade caramels of your life. Everything from how to make them (obviously) to the best candy thermometer to what to wrap them in. 

I even made you a 1 minute 15 second video of the whole entire caramel cooking process. It’ll take you a little longer than that in real life, but it’s time well spent. 

Basic but important tools for making caramels

  • heavy-bottomed 4- or 5-quart pot
  • flat-edge spatula for stirring
  • pastry brush for washing sides of pan {aff. link}
  • candy thermometer (lots of details below)
  • bench scraper for cutting the cooled caramels
  • wax paper or cellophane squares for wrapping (details below)

One of the most critical pieces of equipment in all homemade candy making is the pan. For these homemade caramels you want a heavy-bottomed stainless steel pan. I recommend using a pan that does NOT have a nonstick coating. Heavy-bottomed simply means the pot or pan has a thicker base. It shouldn’t be thin and tinny. This will help ensure the caramels don’t burn. 

(In the pictures of this post, I’m using an All-Clad pot.) However, you don’t need a high-end pan. For years, I used a fabulous set of heavy-bottomed Farberware pans, and they worked great for caramel making. 

Using a flat-edge rubber spatula for stirring is also key. It works better than a rounded spoon or spatula at scraping up the bottom of the pan thoroughly and preventing scorching and sticking.

Heavy bottomed pot and red spatula for caramel making.

Which candy thermometer is best? 

Ah, this is a loaded question. If I had a dollar for every candy thermometer I’ve gone through over the years, I’d be a rich woman (actually not really because I’d still be in debt for all those thermometers I purchased that held all my candy hopes and dreams). 

I am convinced there is no such thing as a perfect candy thermometer. The ones that sit perfectly on the side of the pan (like these flat Taylor thermometers) have hardly ever been accurate temperature-wise when I’ve used them, and the numbers have worn off of all the ones I’ve owned.

The classic glass bulb candy thermometers need to be retired (do they even make them anymore?). They aren’t known to be very accurate and they are prone to breaking.

I used to love and use this digital candy thermometer (and recommended it for years) until it, too, disappointed me enough times in later uses that I had to break up with it. 

I’ve finally found a solution that works for me. It’s not perfect, but it’s come the closest to being so. 

ThermoPop candy and instant read thermometer.

My candy thermometer solution

I now use a straight instant-read thermometer and use a pan clip to attach it to the side of the pot. Bonus: this thermometer can also be used for so many other things (like meat temperatures, etc).

I have this Thermopop thermometer from Thermoworks but there are a lot of inexpensive similar versions around {aff. link}. You can attach the thermometer to the pan with a pot clip, such as this silicone version or a metal pot clip.

You want to make sure that when the thermometer is clipped to the pan, there is space between the end of the probe and the bottom of the pan, otherwise the temperature reading will be inaccurate. The thermometer shouldn’t be touching the bottom of the pan. 

The instant accuracy of these thermometers can’t be beat, and this feature outweighs the only two downfalls I see with this situation:

  • the thermometer will turn off once or twice during cooking – all it takes is a quick press of the button (for this particular model) to turn it back on; no biggie
  • I haven’t found a pan clip that nestles the thermometer right up against the edge of the pan like other candy thermometers, so it does tend to get in the way of stirring just a bit – not a huge deal breaker, but make sure if you use this setup to stir underneath and around the thermometer probe or else the caramel will scorch in those spots
Candy thermometer clipped to side of heavy bottomed pan.

How to Calibrate a Candy Thermometer

Bring a pan of water to a boil and insert the tip of the thermometer in the boiling water for a full minute. Write down the temperature your thermometer registers in the boiling water.

A few rules of thumb:
-We’re making the assumption that the candy recipe being used has been written and tested at sea level (I’ll tell you below how to make further adjustments if that is NOT the case.)
-Water boils at 212 degrees F at sea level

If your thermometer registers below 212 degrees F in the boiling water, you’ll need to subtract degrees from the cooking temperature in the recipe. If it registers above 212 degrees F you’ll ned to add degrees to the cooking temperature in the recipe. *Whatever temperature your thermometer registers is your “new” 212 degrees F mark.*

For instance, if your thermometer registers 205 degrees F in boiling water, subtract 7 degrees (212-205=7) from the cooking temperature in the recipe (for this recipe, the caramels cook to 245 degrees F so you would only cook them to 238 degrees F).

If your thermometer registers 215 degrees F in boiling water, add 3 degrees to the cooking temperature in the recipe.

Potential further adjustments:
If a recipe has been tested at an elevation other than sea level (the only way to know this is if the author notes it in the recipe or if you reach out and ask), further adjustments may be needed based on the difference between the elevation YOU live at and the elevation the RECIPE was tested at. An easy rule of thumb is to add 2 degrees F for every decrease of 1,000 feet elevation and subtract 2 degrees F for every increase of 1,000 feet elevation.

For instance, if a caramel recipe was tested at 3,000 feet elevation and indicates the caramel needs to be cooked to 238 degrees F, and you live at sea level (which is a 3,000 feet decrease in elevation from where the recipe was tested), you would add an additional 6 degrees F (2 degrees for every 1,000 feet elevation change) to the final cooking temperature bringing it to 246 degrees F. This adjustment would be in addition to the adjustments made for the boiling water test.

Another example, if a caramel recipe was tested at sea level and indicates the caramel needs to be cooked to 245 degrees F, and you live at 5,000 feet elevation (which is a 5,000 feet increase in elevation from where the recipe was tested), you would subtract 10 degrees F (2 degrees for every 1,000 feet elevation change) to the final cooking temperature bringing it to 235 degrees F. This adjustment would be in addition to the adjustments made for the boiling water test.

Remember that candy-making can take some trial and error! Even with the above adjustments, you may find that you need to add or subtract a few degrees for particular recipes to achieve the best results. Usually a 2 to 3 degree difference won’t make or break or a recipe, so do your best to make adjustments based on the information above and have fun with it!

Ok. I’m glad we had this talk. Now let’s move on past candy thermometers. 

The biggest key for homemade caramel success is getting all of the cooking supplies and ingredients laid out in a very cooking show-style manner. No, but really, it’s pretty important. 

Caramel making supplies all laid out: pot, spatula, sugar, cream, butter, vanilla, thermometer.

Measure out all the ingredients and have them ready to go. 

Also, get the pan ready for when the caramels are finished cooking. You don’t want to have a bubbling hot batch of caramels at the perfect temperature only to realize you don’t have your pan buttered (they’ll continue to cook, even off the heat, while you butter that pan and you’ll be sad when your beloved caramels break off someone’s prized tooth). 

I usually just butter all the creases and corners and crevices of a straight-sided 8X8-inch pan (this recipe doubles great for a 9X13-inch pan). But you can line with parchment for easy lifting of the caramels after they’ve cooled. 

8X8-inch square pan buttered for caramels.

How to make homemade caramels

Finally! The fun part. 

In that wonderful, heavy-bottomed pan (I wish I could be complimented for being heavy-bottomed at some point in my life), combine the sugar, water and corn syrup.

Don’t go crazy here. You don’t want to splash it everywhere up the sides of the pan. Be gentle. Be careful. Those splashed sugar marks can become sugar crystals, and they can ruin a whole batch of caramel if they get stirred back into the caramel. 

That sounds kind of doom and gloom, but don’t worry. I’m going to show you how to easily rid your life of sugar crystals forever and ensure you know how to make the best homemade caramels of your life. 

Combining sugar, corn syrup, and water in pot for caramels.

Heat this mixture over medium or slightly medium-high heat until it comes to a boil. It will foam and rise up a bit at the beginning but will quickly settle down into pretty, glassy bubbles.

Why this step? A lot of caramel recipes have you combine cream (or sweetened condensed milk), butter, sugar and corn syrup from the very beginning. But cooking the sugar and corn syrup like this first means you get a whole lot of flavor and cooking done quickly without having to stir and without any milky/creamy ingredients scorching on the bottom of the pan. 

It’s brilliant.

Cooking sugar syrup for caramels in a metal pot.

This is when you want to fill a cup with water and use the pastry brush {aff. link} to wipe down the sides of the pan above the boiling sugar/water line. Just dip the brush in the water and rub it along the sugar crystals; they’ll dissolve and run back down into the boiling mixture. This is what you want.

Once the sides of the pan are cleaned, you probably won’t need to repeat this process again.  

Brushing down the sides of a pot with pastry brush dipped in water.

Clip your handy dandy thermometer – instant read or candy thermometer – to the side of the pan. Without stirring, cook the mixture to between 325 and 345 degrees F. The range in temperature is fine and won’t affect the soft chewiness of the caramels. The higher the temp in this step, the darker the color of the caramels will be. 

Cooking sugar syrup for caramels in a metal pot.

I usually cook the sugar mixture to right around 345 degrees. Over medium heat, this usually takes around 20 minutes on my stove. 

Cooking sugar syrup for caramels in a metal pot with a candy thermometer.

Immediately but slowly pour in the warm cream. The mixture is going to bubble and steam and completely freak out. It’s ok. Just keep your hands and fingers safe. This is also why it’s important to have a bigger-than-you-think pot. The mixture will rise quite a bit during this step. 

Pouring in warm cream to caramel mixture.

Add the butter and salt. 

The temperature of the caramel mixture drops significantly with the additions. 

Adding butter and salt to a cooking caramel mixture.

Once the cream, butter and salt have been added, it’s time to start stirring. You are going to stir constantly until the end of the caramel making process. This prevents scorching and burning. Just commit and stick with it. 

You only need to focus on scraping the bottom of the pot – don’t scrape down the sides as you stir. It gets all sorts of sugary crystals and hard bits into the mix, and that’s not good. You will cook the caramel mixture back up to about 245 degrees F (depending on how soft/hard you want them). 

Bubbling caramel being cooked and stirred with a red spatula.

The look of the caramels changes as the temperature increases. At the beginning, the caramel mixture is light in color and the bubbles are small and closely spaced. 

Cooking caramels to 245 degrees in a metal pot with a red spatula stirring it.
Bubbling caramel in a metal pot.

As the temperature increases, the color darkens and the bubbles get larger. 

Cooking caramels to 245 degrees in a metal pot.

With my perfectly calibrated thermometer, I cook these perfect vanilla caramels to exactly 245 degrees. This will take about 30-45 minutes, depending on your stove and how you moderate the heat.

At this temperature, they are soft but not stick-to-the-paper soft. I’d consider them slightly softer than, say, a store bought Kraft or Brach’s wrapped caramel but firmer than the caramel inside a Twix bar.

Am I making any sense? Also, why don’t they make Twix bars in dark chocolate? And if they do, why does my grocery store not carry them? These are the things that keep me up at night.

You can cook these caramels to a lower or slightly higher temperature, too, depending on how soft or firm you like your caramels to be. 

Cooking homemade caramels to 245 degrees.

Immediately take the pan off the heat and stir in the vanilla. It will bubble a bit; that’s normal. As you stir it in, don’t scrape down the sides of the pan. 

Other caramel flavors

If you want to change up the caramel flavor, now is the time! Omit the vanilla and stir in a variety of different extracts: cinnamon, anise, huckleberry or razzleberry.

The exact amount depends on the brand and flavor of the extract (and keep in mind flavored oils are much more potent than extracts so you’ll want to use less). Generally speaking I use about 1/2 to 1 teaspoon of a flavored oil and 2-3 teaspoons of a flavored extract

You can also add food coloring at this step, too, if you want. I prefer using gel food coloring because a little goes a long way. 

Stirring in vanilla to homemade caramels.

1-Minute How-To Caramel Video

Want to see that whole cooking process condensed into about a minute? Here you go. 

Once the vanilla has been stirred in, immediately pour the hot caramel into the prepared pan. You prepared the pan, didn’t you? I hope you prepared the pan. 

Don’t scrape the sides and bottom of the pot too aggressively – a little scraping is fine, but cleaning out the pot is a bad idea; it can ruin the texture of your caramels with the super hot caramel on the bottom of the pan and sugary bits on the sides.

Caramel being poured into a metal pan.

How to cut and wrap homemade caramels 

Once the caramels have completely cooled (a couple of hours), it’s time to wrap them. 

First of all, it helps to use a flat spatula to dig them out of the pan (they should come right up if the pan has been well buttered) and place the whole slab on a cutting board. 

I use this can’t-live-without bench knife {aff. link} to cut the caramels. One 8X8-inch pan of caramels will yield about 50-60 caramels. 

Cutting and wrapping homemade caramels.

Wax paper vs cellophane

I grew up on a homemade caramel assembly line where I usually got relegated to the wax paper cutting station. With a good old-fashioned pair of scissors, I cut hundreds and hundreds of wax paper shapes (they ended up being all over the square-rectangle spectrum) for the homemade caramels my mom made every year. 

Wax paper works great. But it’s a pain in the heavy-bottom to cut into pieces. As of yet, I haven’t seen precut wax paper for caramel wrapping. CORRECTION: but YOU awesome readers have. Here’s some precut wax paper squares on Amazon several of you told me about since this post went live {aff. link}

Now that I’m old and grown up with a caramel making household of my own, I go straight for the cellophane wrappers. They come in packs of 500 or 1,000 (read: they’ll last a lifetime unless you make caramels like it’s your job), and they are so super handy. Plus, I think the caramels look pretty in those clear crunchy little wrappers. 

I use these cellophane wrappers {aff. link}. There are lots of brands available – they end up being between two and three cents a piece on Amazon. You can get them cheaper online elsewhere (like Orson Gygi or this site dedicated to Caramel Wrappers – shipping costs may vary).

When using the cellophane wrappers, you have to be a little aggressive as you twist the ends or else they tend to unroll a bit, but I love them and can’t imagine making and wrapping caramels without them. 

Cutting and wrapping homemade caramels.

Also, don’t panic and worry about the bubbles in that there slab of caramel. It happens. Especially when your sweet tween is helping you make the caramels and accidentally scrapes too much out of the pan (that can cause the pesky bubbles). They aren’t noticeable once the caramels are cut and wrapped. 

I hope this definitive guide to making the best homemade caramels of your life is helpful.

Because I honestly think everyone needs to feel like a rock star in the kitchen and make homemade caramels at least once. 

There is seriously nothing like them. I’ve actually had to delegate the cutting and wrapping to my children because my self-control is nonexistent in the face of 50 little caramels staring up at me. One for the wrapper, one for me. One for the wrapper, one for me. I usually have a mild to severe stomach ache by the end. I know, I know personal problem. 

What other questions do you have? 

Please ask any other caramel making questions below and I’ll be happy to answer them or refer you to someone (ahem, google) who can! 

Homemade caramels are my absolute favorite thing to make during the holidays. I also use this caramel recipe for homemade caramel apples and it’s become my go-to for other flavors (like cinnamon or licorice).

Seriously, I’m going to end it here because I CAN TALK ABOUT HOMEMADE CARAMELS FOREVER, and I don’t want to lose your loyalty forever by droning on and on. Brian’s giving all of you the side eye, like, “seriously, who got her started??”

Love ya. Now go make yourself or your neighbors a batch of homemade caramels, ok? 

Wrapped homemade caramels stacked on each other.

The Best Homemade Caramels

4.86 stars (62 ratings)

Ingredients

  • 2 cups heavy cream
  • 2 ½ cups (530 g) granulated sugar
  • ½ cup light corn syrup
  • ½ cup water
  • 6 tablespoons (85 g) butter, cut into tablespoon-size pieces
  • ¼ teaspoon coarse, kosher salt
  • 1 tablespoon vanilla extract (see note)

Instructions 

  • Butter the bottoms and sides (get into the corners, too!) of a 9X9-inch square baking pan. (Alternately, you can line with parchment and butter the parchment – this may make it easier to pull the slab of caramels out of the pan after they have cooled in order to cut and wrap them.) Set aside.
  • Heat the cream in a saucepan or in the microwave until steaming. Keep warm.
  • For the caramels, in a large, heavy-bottomed pot (at least 5- or 6-quarts), stir together the sugar, corn syrup, and water, taking care to not splash the mixture up the sides of the pot.
    Clip a candy thermometer onto the side of the pan.
  • Bring the mixture to a boil over medium-high heat WITHOUT STIRRING or moving the pan. As it begins to boil, fill a cup with water and use a pastry brush to wash down the sides of the pan so there are no granules of sugar sticking to the sides of the pan (you probably won’t need to repeat this after the sides have been well-cleaned). This prevents the caramel mixture from crystallizing in later steps.
  • Cook until the boiling sugar mixture registers 325 degrees F on the thermometer, about 15-20 minutes (for darker but still chewy caramels, continue cooking the sugar mixture – I’ve gone as high as 345 for super intense, dark caramels; beware the next step will cause much more steaming and bubbling the higher you cook this initial sugar mixture).
  • Slowly and carefully pour the warm cream into the caramel. It will bubble and produce a lot of steam! Add the butter and salt. The mixture will bubble high during this step but will go down after a few minutes.
  • Begin stirring the caramel with heatproof rubber spatula with a flat top (a flat edge does better at preventing the caramel from burning than a rounded edge). Avoiding scraping the edges of the pan, and continue to cook, stirring constantly and slowly, until the mixture reaches 245 degrees F, about 10-15 minutes (you can go as high as 248 degrees F for a firmer, but still chewy, caramel, or take the caramel off the heat earlier for a softer caramel; 245 is perfect in my book).
  • Off the heat, stir in the vanilla without scraping down the sides of the pan – scraping the bottom of the pan is fine (this would be the time to add other flavorings/color).
  • Immediately pour the caramel mixture into the prepared pan.
    Let the caramels cool completely. I use a large, metal spatula to peel the whole slab of caramel out of the pan and onto a cutting board.
  • Cut into squares using a sharp knife or bench scraper, wrap, and store in an airtight container at cool room temperature for up to two weeks.

Notes

Vanilla: for a vanilla bean version, see this recipe.
Double Batch: this recipe can be doubled (for a 9X13-inch pan of caramels). Use a larger pan so it doesn’t boil over. A double batch will take longer to come to temperature at each step.
Time: the exact time for each step will depend on how low or high you moderate the heat – as well as if you have a gas or electric stove.
Elevation: I live at 2,400 feet elevation which is where this recipe has been tested. If you live at higher or lower elevation, you may need to adjust the final cooking temperature 2 degrees for every 1,000 feet elevation difference (subtracting for higher elevation and adding for lower elevation). For instance, if you live at sea level, you may need to add 4 degrees to the final cooking temperature. If you live at 5,000 feet elevation, you may need subtract 4 to 5 degrees from the final cooking temperature. A lot depends on the desired firmness/chewiness of the caramels, so there is some leeway in the exact number of degrees for cooking the caramel. In my experience, a difference of 2 to 4 degrees won’t make or break a caramel recipe, so don’t stress too much about this. Just keep track of the outcome and make adjustments in subsequent batches as needed. 
Serving: 1 Caramel, Calories: 69kcal, Carbohydrates: 11g, Protein: 1g, Fat: 3g, Saturated Fat: 2g, Cholesterol: 11mg, Sodium: 16mg, Sugar: 11g
Follow @MelsKitchenCafe on Instagram and show me the recipes you are making from my blog using the hashtag #melskitchencafe. I love seeing all the goodness you are whipping up in your kitchens!

Recipe Source: adapted from this recipe which was originally adapted from Cuisine at Home 2016