William Werner’s Secret to Perfect Caramels

William Werner on Caramel - Bake From Scratch
Photo courtesy Elle Wildhagen

By Jennifer V. Cole

William Werner, the sugar genius behind San Francisco’s Craftsman and Wolves, dishes on the secret to perfect caramels. 

William Werner on Caramel - Bake From Scratch
Photo courtesy Elle Wildhagen

Why is caramel so magical? 

Caramel is the sweet world’s beurre blanc. There’s a mystery around it.

What is the biggest challenge for a home cook?

Fear. Fear of burning the caramel or themselves. That’s what I hear nine times out of ten when I do a cooking demo or a class. But it’s not a terribly involved process. I think we sometimes overcomplicate it.

What’s the most important part of the process?

As with all confections, it’s about temperature. For my caramels, that’s 118 degrees Celsius. I cook it at a medium-high heat with a rapid boil. Bring it to a boil quickly and keep it there until you hit the temperature mark. If you slowly bring it to a boil, you’ve lost all of the momentum and reach that degree mark at a slower rate, and your caramel won’t work. Like with making jam, you want to cook it fast and get it done to get more flavor and texture. Once you’ve hit your temperature mark, add cold butter to stop the cooking. It won’t cool the caramel down, but it will stop the carryover heat and keep it from continuing to cook.

How do you monitor the temperature?

We use a really expensive digital probe thermometer from Ebro. It’s an investment, but it will last forever and is insanely accurate. But ThermoWorks makes some good thermometers with long lead lines and probes with alarms. You can set it to go off when the temperature is 117 degrees Celsius so you’re right there when it hits 118. If you’re going digital, don’t use the hand-held thermometers like you’d use with a pork roast. You want some distance between you and the boiling caramel like you get with a long lead device. Or, you should wear some really heavy gloves. You don’t want molten caramel on your hands.

Do you need a digital thermometer?                    

You don’t need anything fancy. What’s good are those classic candy thermometers that you actually stick in the pot that have mercury. Those are really accurate. Temperature is so important here—accuracy really matters. You just have to pay attention. This is not the time to go put clothes in the dryer or feed the dog.

What texture are you looking for?

For my candies, I go for a soft caramel stage. The caramel should be al dente. You should be able to bite into it and leave a mark from your teeth. You want it to have some chew and be tender, but not stick to your teeth. It should melt on your tongue, but not be a gloppy mess.

Is there a common mistake most home cooks make?

Adding cold cream to the caramel and making a hot mess. No matter what kind of caramel you are making, if you deglaze with cream or any other liquid, that liquid should always be hot. Not boiling. But it should be too hot to comfortably touch when you put your finger in it. If you add cold cream to your caramel mixture, it will go bananas and you’ll have a volcanic mess, and it won’t set in a pan.

You’re known for interesting flavor combinations. What’s your favorite?

Hands down it’s our chocolate caramel. The sugar is deeply caramelized, we emulsify with dark chocolate, and add big chunks of salt crystals. And we add in white shoyu, a white soy sauce with light floral notes that gives it rich salinity, like an umami Tootsie Roll. 

Read the whole article in Bake From Scratch Fall 2016.

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4 COMMENTS

  1. Awesome article and interview with William Werner. It was so helpful. I am known for making really great salted caramel sauce – now I can perfect it even more thanks to this article. He’s a genius. Thanks for sharing.

    • Thank you for the wonderful feedback, Jane! We are thrilled this article will benefit you in your caramel sauce-making endeavors.

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