Today is Halloween, the most sugar laden day of the year, and in honor of that I have a post entirely devoted to sugar. Or more precisely about sugar and water and a little argument that they have been having since the beginning of time. I also have a recipe for salted bourbon caramel sauce, that is so delicious that my knees buckled when I tasted it.

Salted Bourbon Caramel Sauce on

If you are just here for the sauce, I really don’t blame you. It is redonkulous. Scroll right down to it. But if you are a food science dork, like me, you may want to read the stuff between here and there about the battle of sugar and water. Because I am not being hyperbolic when I say that this little battle, and understanding it, is one of the top five most important things to know about cooking.

home-made caramel sauce and science about sugar on

The War of Sugar and Water:

There is a tiny little war going on every time you cook. Did you know that? A little tiny microscopic war between sugar and water. This war has two sides to it. Water and Sugar. These two are in disagreement and will always be because

  1. Water boils at 212 degrees.
  2. Sugars caramelize between 230 degrees and 356 degrees.

Sugars cannot caramelize and win the war while there is water around keeping things at 212 degrees.


The Battle of Caramel Sauce:

Let’s talk about that first: If you have ever made caramel sauce then you know that a mixture of sugar and water won’t go above 212 degrees F until all of the water is evaporated. It will boil and boil and boil staying at exactly 212 degrees for a while. The water is winning the battle. Then all of a sudden, once the water is evaporated, the temperature of the whole solution will start to rise. Up up it goes and then the whole thing starts to darken, or caramelize. The sugars win the battle! In other words: when it gets above the boiling point the sugars can start to caramelize.

how to make salted Bourbon caramel sauce and food science about caramelization of sugars on

Caramelization is pretty complex and I don’t really remember all the details from Cooking Theory class, but I think what happens is that the complex sugars are broken down, become sweeter to us, and the also produce caramel flavors. Or some such junk. Really all you need to know is that when sugars caramelize our mouths get happy. We want that a lot of time in cooking. Like for example when we sear meat, before a braise. It adds richness, and flavor. Another example would be the difference between golden brown roasted potatoes and a boiled potatoes. The difference is in caramelization of the sugars on the outside of the potatoes.

sugars caramelize after the water is evaporated at 340 degrees on

So here’s the second important thing: sugars burn if they get too hot, so… duh don’t let them get too hot. How do we control that? Well one way is to stop cooking something. Yeah, simple, just pull it off the heat. Another way is to bring water (or something with water content) into the cooking equation. You can control the amount of caramelization in any recipe by using water. From roasting to sautéing to searing. And it doesn’t have to be just water, it can be water containing ingredients that provide the water, and subsequent drop in temperature.

Sugars caramelize at 340 degrees F

Let’s go back to that saucepan with the caramel sauce boiling there for a minute. When you are cooking something, say chopped onions for example, each cell of that onion is like a tiny little pot of caramel. On a mini level, when the water gets cooked out of the cell, the sugars will caramelize. This happens from the outside in. Where the onion is touching the hot saucepan, skillet, oil, the water will sizzle/steam right out, and those exterior sugars will caramelize. The water on the inside is still fighting the fight at 212 degrees.


Have you ever heard the expression to sweat an onion? Sounds gross, but it just means to cook it in a moist environment, slow enough so that it will not brown. You can do this by never letting it get hot enough to allow it to sear and create dry contact (water free) with the skillet. One way of doing this is by using the lid to keep the moisture in or starting your onions in a cold skillet.


The reason we preheat our skillets is to make sure that we are getting a jump on the water. Preheating the skillet way up over 212, will ensure a sear and some caramelization before the water comes out of whatever you’re sautéing. If you skillet is really hot, and your food is low in water, you can beat it, and never let the water win, and stay above 212. If you are too low, and or your food has a high water content, the water will come out, and your temp will drop to 212, and caramelization will stop.


The real reason I am saying this today is that I believe that as cooks, we cannot be bystanders on the edge of the battle field. We have to be in the trenches, negotiating and controlling the dynamics between the two sides. When we do that we become better cooks, our food tastes better and we can even cook without a recipe (without fear. )
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Some lessons to take away:

If you want caramelization you should preheat your skillet or saucepan.


If you want to cook something without it getting brown, keep the sugars from getting too hot


Oil (being water free) can get hotter than 212, will ensure that the food doesn’t stick, and it makes the best contact with the surface of the food.


This little war is why food from a slow cooker can taste boring if you don’t brown it in a skillet first.


If your food is browning too much, turn the temperature down, cover it, or add a touch of liquid.


If your food is not browning enough, there is too much liquid present or there is not enough heat. {This happens if the food is too crowded too, and it insulates itself, keeping it at 212.)
Salted Bourbon Caramel SauceNow let’s talk about this knee bucklingly good Salted Bourbon Caramel Sauce.

  • You can let this get as dark as you want to a degree. You really don’t even need a thermometer for this. You are just looking for the color. I would say shoot for the color of light amber or maple syrup. If you’re using a thermometer, know that anything over 350 is way too dark, and will be bitter. I would say shoot for about 340 or so. With this small amount of sauce, once it starts to climb, it happens very fast, so pull it as soon as you’re close. The carryover heat will bring it up as you remove it from the heat. But if you want a more mellow caramel flavor, and a lighter colored sauce, pull it when it is a nice light amber color.
  • Make sure your pot is large enough so that there is room for the sauce to bubble up, but that it is narrow enough so that you can get an accurate reading on your thermometer.
  • I like to keep a little bowl of water and a pastry brush next to my saucepan, so I can brush any sugar crystals down with it. This will prevent the sauce from becoming “seeded” by stray crystals and seizing.
  • I really mean undisturbed. For the same reason, you want to brush down the crystals, you do not want to stir. Doing so will cause the sugar to crystallize on the sides of the saucepan.

Salted Bourbon Caramel Sauce

Salted Bourbon Caramel Sauce on

salted bourbon caramel sauce

  • Author: Katie Webster
  • Prep Time: 15 minutes
  • Cook Time: 15 minutes
  • Total Time: 15 minutes
  • Yield: 1 cup 1x
  • Category: Condiment
  • Method: Stove Top
  • Cuisine: American


Simple home-made caramel sauce from scratch with sugar, water and cream. Flavored with Bourbon and salt.



  • 1 cup sugar
  • ¼ cup water
  • ½ cup whipping cream
  • 2 teaspoons Bourbon
  • ½ teaspoon salt


  1. Stir sugar and water in a medium heavy-bottomed saucepan, and set over medium high heat. Do not allow flames to lick the sides of the saucepan. Cook, stirring until the sugar is dissolved, and the mixture becomes clear, and starts to bubble along the edges.
  2. Wet a pastry brush with cold water, and run along the edge of the bubbling sugar mixture, brushing down any crystals of sugar. Set a sugar thermometer on the side of the saucepan so that the indicator is submerged into the simmering sugar.
  3. Let simmer over medium to medium-high, undisturbed until the mixture starts to darken along the edges, 7 to 8 minutes. Gently swirl the pan and continue cooking until the mixture is amber colored.
  4. Quickly remove from heat and pour in whipping cream and Bourbon. The mixture will bubble vigorously. Whisk in salt. If mixture is not smooth. Set over medium heat, whisking until smooth, about 1 minute.


  • Calories: 144
  • Sugar: 24 g
  • Sodium: 148 mg
  • Fat: 6 g
  • Saturated Fat: 3 g
  • Carbohydrates: 24 g
  • Fiber: 0 g
  • Protein: 0 g