Caramel is most likely one of the candies of our childhood. Everyone has eaten it in one form or another from confectionaries, glazes, or sauces. It is varied in all kinds of flavors for each taste and ages, and it is one of the most versatile sweets we can find today. You can use it for toppings on food and desserts, small treats and people have even tried making ramen with it !
One question, aside from how do you actually make caramel, is whether this delicious treat has any dairy in it. After all, there’s got to be something in it to make it soft and creamy. So is it dairy or something else ? And is there such a thing as dairy-free caramel ? Here’s what we’ve learned.
Does caramel have dairy?
Caramel does contain dairy, in the form of butter and/or cream. The caramel you find for sale contains butter and cream to make it have a more pleasant texture and to keep it from becoming hard and brittle (like glass). Commercial caramel usually has a flavor added to it, and those flavors may also include some dairy, such as a milk chocolate flavor.
There are several forms of caramel, but most of them contain dairy in some way or another. And yes, there are dairy-free versions of caramel and caramel sauce, and we’ll talk about them as well.
Caramel nowadays comes in all shapes, sizes and flavors so that anyone can find a way to enjoy them. From the chocolate we all love to salt, bourbon and even coffee. Some of the more unusual flavors you may find and interest you are:
- ginger – while not the most obvious pairing, a slightly spicy and refreshing caramel is an interesting take, and it works amazingly well with some cinnamon and cardamom on the side.
- miso – don’t gawk just yet, this is a play off the delicious salted caramel, but with an umami twist
- rose water – this brings a delicate, floral note to the caramel, and pairs very well with either dark or white chocolate
Caramel is also great for toppings. We all know about caramelized apples and caramel popcorn, or caramel cake glazes. And caramel is a often asked sauce in many of our favorite drinks, especially coffees. We all know the seasonal pumpkin spice latte and its best friend, the caramel sauce. And last but not least ice cream, whether it’s caramel sauce, flavor, or crispy bits.
Another way to enjoy caramel is with nuts added to it. If you use just sugar to make your caramel and add nuts or even raisins to it then it will result in a great snack to enjoy at home. And since it does not perish easily, it is a great snack to enjoy on road trips. Yes, we’re talking about the old-fashioned nut brittle that is a childhood favorite.
What is caramel made of, actually ?
Caramel is traditionally made from melted sugar and some form of dairy, be it milk, butter, cream, or all three. Most commercial caramel products are made out of a mixture of sugar, corn syrup, molasses, and oil. There can be dairy in some of them, but this shortens their shelf life considerably.
But let’s take a closer look at the word caramel. People generally mean one thing when they say caramel: the flavor of melted sugar, be it in brittle form, sauce, or a soft fudge-like form. In essence, caramel is only the melted sugar. But left to its own devices it would harden and become like rock candy.
So butter, oil, milk, water, or another such ingredient is added to keep the caramel from hardening, and to turn it into a softer version. When dairy is added, the extra fat helps the sweetness taste even better. Plain caramel tastes a bit disappointing compared to one with any sort of milk added, dairy or not.
Caramel, butterscotch and toffee may all contain dairy
While caramel can have a lot of flavors or be used in combination with a lot of things, there are also different types of caramel. The most common caramel is granulated sugar melted down with butter, cream and different types of flavors added.
Butterscotch is caramel made with brown sugar, where you can add water to thin it or add butter and cream to give it a soft texture. So butterscotch may be made dairy-free, and you may also try adding a plant-based milk instead of water for a nice in-between.
Toffee is made by melting sugar
or molasses but this time it’s a must to add butter
, and sometimes even flour. Toffee is made at a higher temperature.
Even if they all have sugar as a base ingredient they are so different from each other in taste, texture and process to create them. These differences come from the cooking temperatures, ingredients added, and the sugar base: white or brown sugar.
DIY dairy-free caramel sauce
The caramel being sold usually has dairy, but that doesn’t mean caramel must have butter or cream. In the end at its base caramel is melted sugar which can be made at home without adding anything extra to it. All you need is a pan and sugar, and another ingredient to soften the caramel. Dairy free examples can be anything plant based, but full-fat coconut milk works like a charm.
The key to great caramel lies in a pan that is both wide and tall, and patience. Slowly melting the sugar, and always, always swirling the pan. Don’t stir ! Just slowly swirl the pan around so the edges don’t burn too much. In essence you just have to wait for the sugar to melt, release its moisture, and add in another ingredient at the end.
Heating the sugar, start melting it and begin the caramelization process. Wait for the mixture to slowly turn into a light brown color and start to thicken as the moisture evaporates.
Next, take the caramel off the heat. It should be a little loose, but not completely dry or very thick. Prepare to pour in the full fat coconut milk, or whatever dairy-free ingredient you choose. Please, please be mindful of hot splashes. Caramel can and will bubble at you, so be very careful.
Once you’ve added your ingredient you should stir, to get it evenly incorporated into the caramel. You now have a home-made caramel sauce ! If it’s a little runny you can always simmer it down, but again this will take a whole lot of time.
Why is there salt in caramel ?
Some caramel has salt in it simply for contrast, and this makes the sweetness of caramel stand out even more. Our tongues can feel five primary tastes which are: salty, bitter, sour, sweet and umami. Combining these tastes might not work all the time but when they do they create magic on our taste buds.
Sweet and salty might seem opposites but salt is a flavor enhancer. That’s why we add it to plenty of things and people want more of it on their food. By enhancing the sweetness of the caramel with a bit of salt, we create a unique flavor that goes surprisingly well together. Opposites do attract.
The amount of salt you add to caramel can vary. By default caramel does not call for salt, but it’s common practice to add just a pinch of salt to any batch of caramel. And the tubs of caramel sauce that say ‘salted caramel’ , there is an extra dose of salt added.
What is caramel coloring ?
You might find that a lot of products also use caramel color. It is made by heating sugars, but instead of adding butter or cream it is made by adding acids, salts or alkalis. It is one of the oldest food colorings in the world.
A lot of our favorite beverages contain caramel color and a lot of products use it. Famous examples are all the dark colored sodas out there, the characteristic color of dark rum, and cheap soy sauce
. It is the most widely used food coloring in the world, demanded by almost all food producers in the world.
Is caramel coloring dairy-free ?
Yes, caramel coloring is dairy free since it only uses the color from melted sugar. There is no dairy added to it to change the color, or flavor.