Salted caramels hit the American food scene in 2008 and have stayed popular for good reason. The combination of salty-sweet flavors make most people’s mouths water, whether it’s a piece of caramel candy covered in chocolate with a sprinkling of sea salt on top, or a salted caramel latte.

“When you add salt to something overly sweet, it really mellows out that richness and gives your palate a surprise — a different taste,” said Laura Hagen, Cascade Culinary Institute chef instructor and certified pastry chef.

Salted caramels came from France, where “heavily salted butter caramels are a traditional treat in Brittany,” according to reporter Kim Severson in a 2008 New York Times article about the trend.

We’re going to tackle salted caramel sauce today with Chef Hagen. She guided us through pumpkin crème brulee in October and hazelnut brittle in November.

“We’ve been working with sugar for the past few Cook Like a Chef articles, and from brulee to brittle to caramel, we are now taking the sugar to the edge of burning it. It’s a little dangerous, but fun! I like to try and push it as close as I can to that point where it’s deep, dark mahogany caramel,” Hagen said.

Salted caramel sauce has a lot of applications: stir a couple of teaspoons of it into a latte, hot chocolate or hot milk steamer; drizzle it over an ice cream sundae, baked apple, cinnamon roll or pie; or shake up a salted caramel martini (see recipe).

“It’s a really versatile sauce. Some salted caramel sauces have butter in them, but the one we’re making doesn’t. The butter versions add a silkiness to the sauce, but sometimes the butter will separate out if not incorporated well, and will layer on the top. This recipe is easier for the home cook,” Hagen said.

Hagen recommends using a digital programmable probe thermometer when making caramel.

“You can set it for a specific temperature, and it beeps when it hits that temperature. In Bend, we set it for 320 to 330 degrees because we’re at a higher altitude and sugar cooks faster. In a traditional recipe, caramel stage is 335 degrees,” Hagen said.

To make the salted caramel, first bring heavy cream to a boil and then take it off the heat.

Next, in a heavy pan, combine the sugar, water and lemon juice and bring it to a boil. Once the mixture begins to brown, turn the heat to low and keep an eye on the thermometer.

“When I turn the heat to low, I let it cook slowly until I get the color I want, and it’s almost the color of a cherrywood coffee table — it’s pretty dark, and that’s when I pull it off the heat, and then shock the pan in ice water to stop the cooking,” Hagen said.

Hagen told us it’s important to pay close attention to sugar while it’s cooking.

“Just don’t walk away from cooking sugar. Ever. Even as a pro, I don’t walk away. It burns easily, and gets smoky, and the house will smell terrible. This recipe looks simple, but it’s not so simple. You should go at it fearlessly and don’t be afraid to try it. And remember, sugar is relatively inexpensive, so if you burn it, just start over,” Hagen said.

The cooked cream is added to the caramel next, along with any extra flavorings, such as rum or bourbon, and the salt. The sauce will be thin when you first add the cream, but after the salted caramel sauce cools it thickens, and it can be served immediately or refrigerated for later use.

You can watch Hagen making salted caramel in the Cook Like a Chef video at www.bendbulletin.com.

Salted caramel is a fad that seems to be sticking around. This sauce is an impressive addition to any home cook’s repertoire. Enjoy it at home, or give it as a gift.

“Salted caramel sauce makes a great hostess gift, or New Year’s gift. It will last indefinitely in the refrigerator, since it contains so much sugar, but it’s best to use it within a month,” Hagen said.

— Reporter: ahighberger@ mac.com

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