Updated: Jun 16, 2020
A few years ago, I attended my first Northwest Chocolate Festival. It's an annual event here in Seattle. At the time I wasn't a huge fan of chocolate, but I went because I love to bake and I wanted a better sense of the finer points of it so I could do a good job when I bake for other people. I sat at the culinary stage all weekend, learning some tips and tricks.
What surprised me was when Autumn Martin from Hot Cakes did a demo on making caramel and DIY cold-smoking chocolate. While I was still learning to like chocolate, I already knew that I LOOOOOOOOOOVED caramel. I was super surprised to learn how easy it is to make. I was especially thrilled when she mentioned that you can easily substitute coconut milk for heavy cream, thereby making the caramel vegan. While I'm not vegan, I have a number of friends who avoid dairy and I like to have something special for them when they come over for dinner.
If you see a recipe for making caramel that essentially amounts to melting butter, brown sugar, and corn syrup together: that's not really caramel! Caramelization can only occur when sugar is applied to heat. It's the process of browning the sugar that gives it that rich caramel flavor.
As the heat is applied to the molecule, it makes the atoms move faster. In room temperature, the sucrose is still slightly moving, but still standing in one place. The heat causes the atoms to be more freely flowing and turn into a liquid. The force of the heat and the moving of the atoms becomes stronger than the force that holds together the atoms. These break apart and come together to form the caramel. The Maillard reaction is a chemical reaction between amino acids and reducing sugars. It typically happens when head is raised rapidly from 140 to 165 °C. This happens at a lower temperature than caramelization, but it is what gives it its brown color.
This caramel sauce has been called "liquid gold" by the people I've given jars to as gifts. Just sayin', this makes a great gift for birthdays, graduations, or holidays! No one has ever been unhappy getting this from me. That tip? Just my little gift for you.
Dairy-Free Vanilla Bean Salted Caramel Sauce
2 c. sugar, divided
2 c. canned coconut milk (I just use one can of Thai Kitchen organic coconut milk)
1 Tbsp sea salt
1 vanilla bean
Pour your coconut milk into a microwave-safe container (a glass measuring cup for liquids works great for this), and warm it in the microwave for 1 minute. It should be lukewarm/room temp, not hot or boiling. Set aside.
Split your vanilla bean lengthwise, scrape the seeds into a small dish. Set aside.
Heat your pot over medium heat. (If you are using an electric stovetop, let your pot heat up a bit before adding the sugar. If you're using a gas stovetop, you don't need to wait.)
Pour 1 c. sugar into the pan. LEAVE IT ALONE and let the sugar crystals start to melt around the edges.
Once the sugar starts melting, use a wooden spoon or silicon spatula to stir the melted areas and slowly start incorporating the unmelted sugar crystals into the melted sugar. Keep the sugar moving so that it doesn’t burn, and only incorporate a little bit of sugar at a time.
Once all of the crystals from the initial cup of sugar have melted into a smooth amber liquid, add a bit of sugar from the remaining 1 c. and stir to incorporate. Continue adding sugar just a bit at a time, stirring constantly and letting the crystals melt completely before adding more. Do this until all the sugar is gone.
Once all of the sugar is incorporated, remove the pot from heat.
Slowly stir in a small amount of coconut milk (approximately 1 Tbsp) while stirring continuously. DO NOT STOP STIRRING until the small amount of coconut milk is fully incorporated. The caramel sauce will bubble and hiss when you pour in the coconut milk, and will continue doing so until that bit of coconut milk is fully incorporated. Continue adding small amounts of coconut milk in this way until the caramel sauce receives the coconut milk without bubbling or hissing. At this point, you may stir in the rest of your coconut milk and whisk to fully combine.
Stir in the vanilla beans (if using) and salt.
Let cool, then pour into an airtight container. Store in the refrigerator. Reheat if necessary for use.
Be sure to use canned coconut milk, because it's thicker and more like heavy cream. Boxed coconut milk WILL NOT work in this recipe.
You can use as little as 1/4 tsp salt if you don’t like salted caramel.
The vanilla beans are optional; they add a little flavor, and make the sauce very pretty, but they are not necessary. You can skip them if they're a little too pricey for your taste. If you still want a bit of vanilla taste, you can add up to 1 Tbsp vanilla extract to stir in at the end.
I prefer using my heavy-bottom Revereware 4-quart soup pot with spouted sides for making caramel. The light color of the stainless steel allows me to see where I am in the caramelization process, and the spouted sides make it easy to pour into a jar when I’m finished. Some people prefer to use pans that don’t have any corners so that the sugar doesn’t have anywhere to collect and “hide” during the cream integration process. Experiment and figure out what works best for you.
This recipe can easily be halved.
It helps to warm the coconut milk for a minute in the microwave so that it's about room temperature. This way, it is less of a shock to the caramel and helps prevent the sugar crystals from seizing up.
If it starts clumping where you're trying to incorporate them, you're adding too much of the dry sugar into the melted sugar. Try incorporating a bit less. As more of your sugar melts and caramelizes, you can mix in more of the dry sugar. It's about keeping the proportion of melted-to-dry sugar weighted more toward the melted. This is because