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Caramelizing sugar is a simple process involving just a few ingredients and cooking utensils. The caramelization process turns white granulated sugar a golden brown color, the color of caramel candy. It is often used for topping desserts such as flan, as a flavoring for cake frostings, or an ingredient in caramel candies. The cooking process is relatively easy, but vigilance during boiling and simmering is essential.
A thin caramelized sugar solution is used as a topping for dessert like flan, while a thicker version of caramelized sugar is often fashioned into decorative shapes for cakes and cookies. Caramelized sugar is often combined with milk and butter to create caramel candies and fillings for chocolate-covered sweets.
To make caramelized sugar, some cooks simply place sugar in a pan with a heavy bottom and cook it on top of the stove. As it warms, the sugar melts — sometimes unevenly — and browns, but with care, it can reach a uniform desired color. Sugar cooked with this method frequently burns easily, however, and it can also "seize," a term cooks use to refer to a substance that has become rigid rather than soft or liquid. To learn to make caramelized sugar this way, it may be necessary to make some practice batches, as any burnt or seized sugar must be discarded.
Less experienced cooks typically add a small amount of water to the sugar before cooking. The sugar-water solution cooks down to a smaller amount, so it is generally best to use twice as much sugar and half as much water as the desired outcome. For example, for half a cup of caramelized sugar, start with one cup of sugar and one-fourth cup of water. If this does not produce the thickness desired, add less water or cook the solution longer until it reaches the right consistency.
The cooking process is simple but requires constant and careful attention. Place the sugar and water in a pan and bring the mixture to a boil. Once the water cooks down enough to make the sugar turn a light golden color, turn the heat down to between medium and low. Watch the solution carefully, swirling the pan gently if the edges start to brown more quickly than the center. Scrape the sides of the pan down into the solution so all the sugar crystals are in the liquid so that the crystals on the side of the pan do not burn.
During cooking, try not to touch the simmering liquid with the scraping utensil. In fact, disturbing it as little as possible is best, so do not stir or swirl the substance constantly. Disrupting the process can inhibit it, and because melting sugar can cause very serious burns, limiting contact with it is advisable. Once the sugar solution has cooked down to the desired consistency and color, take it off the heat immediately and pour over a dessert or into other mixtures, such as frosting bases.
When making caramelized sugar, it is important to monitor the temperature of the sugar closely so it does not burn. Sugar acquires a bitter taste if it burns. If you will not be using it right away, to prevent the sugar solution from overcooking once it is removed from the heat, place the hot pan in a bowl of ice to halt the cooking process. As it cools, the solution will thicken, eventually hardening to a solid glassy substance, so be sure to use it as soon as possible.
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