Caramel Icing – Made the Old Fashioned Southern Way | Cupcake Project

Caramel Icing – Made the Old Fashioned Southern Way


A true caramel icing, I’ve learned, takes time.  As you stand stirring the saucepan of caramel icing in the making, you’ll have an unusual moment of quiet – a chance to come up with ideas even better than your shower-time epiphanies.  But, if you’re like me, thirty minutes of slow, repetitive stirring motion will hypnotize you.  You’ll soon find yourself simply staring into the sweet confection, monitoring the reading on your candy thermometer as it crawls up and observing the thickening caramel with wide eyed wonder.

You might hear about caramel icing shortcuts, but there is a reason that Southern women have been making their caramel icing using two spoons (one for the saucepan and one for the cast iron skillet) for generations.  This caramel icing may be the best you’ve ever tried, so be thankful that it takes so long to make (if it didn’t, you’d be eating it way too often).

Caramel Icing Recipe

I got the caramel icing recipe from My Yellow Bluff.  I looked at many, many recipes and this one struck me as the most authentic.  I am reprinting it here with a bit more detail and my notes.

Yield: Enough to frost 24 cupcakes with plenty left over (I filled my cupcakes with the extra caramel)

  • 2 1/2 C sugar
  • 1/2 C unsalted butter (the original recipe called for margarine, but I only use butter)
  • 3/4 C evaporated milk
  • 1/2 tsp vanilla extract
  1. In a medium-sized saucepan over medium heat, mix butter, evaporated milk and two cups of sugar.
  2. Heat and stir until sugar dissolves.  Do not allow to come to a boil.
  3. Once sugar dissolves, reduce heat to low.
  4. In a small cast iron skillet on medium-low heat, melt half cup of sugar – stirring constantly until liquid and brown (as shown below).
  1. Pour the browned sugar into the saucepan and quickly stir to incorporate.
  1. Stir regularly until the liquid reaches the soft ball stage.  It’s easiest to check for the soft ball stage with a candy thermometer (the caramel should be about 235 F). If you don’t have a candy thermometer, you can test by dropping a small amount of caramel into water to see if it forms a soft ball (hence the name). It may take up to thirty minutes to reach the soft ball stage.  Here’s where the patience kicks in.  Resist the temptation to turn up the heat because the caramel can easily burn.
  2. Let cool slightly.  If you wait too long, the caramel will become difficult to spread.
  3. Mix in vanilla.
  4. Spread on caramel cake cupcakes (or anything).
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53 Responses to Caramel Icing – Made the Old Fashioned Southern Way

  1. Cherry Blossoms September 2, 2010 at 7:41 pm #

    Sounds wonderful

  2. Raquita September 2, 2010 at 8:30 pm #

    my great gran taught me how to make caramel icing for a five flavor cake that isn’t too far off this one and takes forever to stir no shortcut ever works.. heed my warning cupcake-alites

  3. Cupcake Activist September 3, 2010 at 9:16 am #

    Yum! Can’t wait for the caramel cupcake recipe!

  4. Holly September 3, 2010 at 10:46 am #

    Looks delectable! I don’t have an iron skillet could I use something else?

  5. Kelly September 3, 2010 at 1:05 pm #

    Mmm… gooey caramely goodness! I would love to try this sometime!

  6. Joanne September 3, 2010 at 1:53 pm #

    why didn’t i check this last night?! i attempted caramel icing for the first time last night and made such a mess :(

  7. MsRuckus September 3, 2010 at 6:18 pm #

    Forgot to heat up skillet before putting in sugar so i heated it along with the skillet and it ended up being a clumpy mess. Plus, my can of evaporated milk was from 2008 so I had to toss it and use 1/2 cup of vanilla soymilk instead. Yet, somehow, it is still friggin’ amazing!

  8. Virginia September 3, 2010 at 7:30 pm #

    The first time I made caramel it came out GREAT, probably because I took my time and read the recipe very carefully. The next time I definitely tried to rush it — NOT a good idea. I had not heard about the two separate mixtures, looking forward to trying that. Thanks.

  9. Tara September 4, 2010 at 8:37 am #

    I am not opposed to eating this straight out of the pot. YUM!!!

  10. CupCake Kick September 5, 2010 at 6:55 am #

    I must try this TODAY!

  11. shannon abdollmohammadi September 5, 2010 at 7:09 am #

    Dang…this is awesome!! Thanks for sharing…love the step-by-step pics.

  12. Stef September 5, 2010 at 5:19 pm #

    Holly – I think you could you another kind of skillet, but since I haven’t tried it, I can’t promise that you will have the same results.

  13. Karen September 6, 2010 at 1:13 pm #

    I loved loved loved The Help! Thanks for making the book come alive with these cupcakes. I can’t wait to try them.

  14. Anonymous September 7, 2010 at 6:52 pm #

    My grandmother’s cousin gave her almost the identical recipe, the only difference being that it calls for heavy cream, rather than evaporated milk and butter. A bit less fuss and works perfectly. Otherwise, it’s exactly the same. I use a small pyrex skillet to caramelize the sugar

  15. Anonymous August 16, 2011 at 7:53 am #

    I found I need an extra set of hands to pour the carmael into the milk mixture. It hardened in the mixture before I could incorporate it. However, it still turned out great!!! The caramel melted as the temp rose the the softball stage

  16. Anonymous September 12, 2011 at 10:47 am #

    This is a great recipe. You have to take your time and not “multitask” but it has perfect flavor and texture. I did add a pinch of salt. To frost a 7 layer I had to make 2 consecutive batches because I take too long to apply frosting but it was amazing!

  17. Feroza September 19, 2011 at 7:20 pm #

    I’ve been dying to make a caramel cake, ever since I read The Help, and your cupcakes and icing were fabulous! Great instructions too, really well laid out for a first time caramel icing maker! Thank YOU!

  18. Sara Sunshine October 9, 2011 at 7:36 am #

    Do this caramelicing dry out and become hard our is it more like frosting, which stayes wet and creamy?

  19. Stef October 9, 2011 at 7:39 am #

    Sara – It gets a crunchy top as it cools, but it’s still creamy on the inside.

  20. Joy October 15, 2011 at 6:36 am #

    Do you have any suggestions why my
    caramel icing was grainy, like the sugar did not melt?!?!? It tasted ok but I think it could be better.

  21. Anonymous October 16, 2011 at 12:16 am #

    I just made this icing to go on my cake and it’s soooooo gooood. Very happy with the results =)

  22. Anonymous December 22, 2011 at 7:45 pm #

    This is the way I remember my great Aunt Viola making the icing. I remember seeing her use a skillet to melt her sugar on her wood stove. She is the only family member I remember as a child who made caramel cake…the task was too daunting for everyone else I guess. Thanks for the opportunity to recreate a memory.

  23. Anonymous February 20, 2012 at 2:46 pm #

    Would it be possible to add this to a buttercream to create a fluffier frosting? Or would that be way too sweet?

    Sounds delicious!!

    • Stef March 19, 2012 at 11:16 am #

      It would be really sweet, but you could try.

    • link April 21, 2014 at 4:04 am #

      Now I’m like, well duh! Truly thankful for your help.

  24. Anonymous March 13, 2012 at 10:09 am #

    can this be made ahead, stored in the fridge and then reheated when needed?

    • Stef March 19, 2012 at 11:16 am #


      • Kathryn July 23, 2013 at 6:31 pm #

        What is the best way to reheat the frosting?

  25. Grandmother2nine June 5, 2012 at 2:18 pm #

    Sounds great

  26. Anonymous June 11, 2012 at 10:27 am #

    I made this icing over the weekend and it came out great. The candy thermometer did help a lot. I remember in the comments to make sure that your cast iron skillet is hot before browning the sugar, because the sugar will have chucks. You have to have patients when making this icing. The cake is gone.

  27. Janae Zhang July 3, 2012 at 4:55 pm #

    If I don’t have evaporated milk or heavy cream, is it possible to evaporate milk on my own?
    Also, is it as sweet as store bought caramel ( because my family is only opposed to caramel because they think it’s too sweet)?

  28. Rachel September 8, 2012 at 4:10 pm #

    I’ve tried to make this twice. Both times (going very slowly, with a candy thermometer, etc.) the flavor is fantastic, but the texture is granny and ‘solid’ rather than a flowey / chewy caramel. Anyone have thought on what went wrong?

  29. Rachel September 16, 2012 at 4:59 pm #

    Okay… I’m now up to five tries (I am nothing if not persistent). I did a bit of research on caramels. The reason mine (and others) crystallized is because we were stirring it. Stirring causes a cooling / heating cycle that makes the sugar crystallize in a caramel. However, with this recipe it does have to be stirred when you first pour the melted sugar in to the liquid or it won’t combine (but sits on the bottom and overcooks – that would be my batch four).

    Even with everything I’ve learned, I’m still not thrilled with my results (the caramel is not smooth, but lumpy), but I am done trying!

    • Stef September 16, 2012 at 5:41 pm #

      Maybe you are looking for a different type of caramel. This isn’t supposed to be flowey/chewey. It is supposed to be somewhat solid and “crunchy”. It sounds like you would like the caramel that I used in my milky way cupcakes .

    • Califia's Lap December 12, 2012 at 11:19 am #

      Rachel thank you so much for this! I made a caramel cake this past weekend and the caramel was delicious but a little grainly. I wondered if there was something i could do to eliminate this but had no idea where to start! Thanks for your wonderful suggestions! I plan to make this again this weekend to see wha happens with the new info you provided. Sounds like you and I have the same nose for gathering all the information that we can about something and then working to apply it. I appreciate that so much!

  30. Amanda M. November 19, 2012 at 7:19 am #

    Is this the caramel recipe that you used in the pumpkin spice macarons?

    • Stef November 19, 2012 at 7:32 am #


    • Anonymous January 28, 2013 at 9:15 pm #

      I have been trying to make this icing for over 20 years. I have finally acheived the taste I wanted. I made a carmel cake yesterday, I only have a couple of slices left today. Once you start eating it, you can’t stop. My family and I just want to thank you for putting this recipe online.

  31. lily mcdonald December 22, 2012 at 6:26 am #

    My Mother taught me how to make Carmel from scratch years ago . I had forgotten some of it but this is almost the same,as my memory is refreshed, making it today for my Grandaughter thank you so much

  32. Anonymous February 11, 2013 at 6:50 am #

    This recipe us great! It takes patience but is worth every second. I waited a little too long to frost my caramel cake so part of it looks ok and most of it doesn’t look too pretty….but wow! It is so delicious. It is for my husband’s birthday and he could barely contain himself. This one is going right into my recipe book, I can’t wait to try it again. Thanks so much!

  33. Anonymous February 15, 2013 at 4:14 am #

    if it grainy that means u rushed it and the sugar did not dissolve enough.

  34. Anonymous February 24, 2013 at 2:30 am #

    this recipe is soooo good..made a caramel cake last night and it is gone this morning! My husband asked if I could make another one..I found that the caramel taste even better after it sits..I didnt have a candy thermomètre I just use the water ball method..a keeper, a keeper, a keeper

  35. Ms. Marci May 4, 2013 at 5:37 pm #

    Tried this for the first time. So far it’s too thin for icing. My great-aunt gave me this recipe over 10 years ago, and I have misplaced it. This sounds similar to hers. I under stand why at 80+ “Aunt Geneva’s Caramel Cake” is only made on very special occasions. Thanks for the recipe.

  36. Betsy October 21, 2013 at 7:52 am #

    This recipe makes a delicious icing that tastes a lot like pralines. It hardened nicely on my cupcakes. I did have to add a few drops of whipping cream as the icing cooled to make it spreadable again, but I might be a slow froster. Thanks for the great recipe!

  37. Dayli October 22, 2013 at 5:56 pm #

    hello! I did this recipe and I think that is similar to buttercream, my question is: what is the difference between buttercream and this recipe that you show here?

  38. Laura October 28, 2013 at 7:55 pm #

    Thank you for this recipe! I’m going to try it to prove to my mother that I can do a real caramel icing and the tradition won’t die! Is this enough frosting for a 2 layer cake?

  39. Dana May 1, 2014 at 3:23 pm #

    I don’t have enough granulated sugar, could I substitute the white for brown sugar?

  40. Lira June 8, 2014 at 7:31 am #

    Thanks for the recipe.

  41. Liz August 12, 2014 at 11:26 pm #

    Awesome flavor!! Tastes like Werthers caramels!! 2 things, the 1st time I attempted to put the browned sugar in the butter mixture, it turned solid as a rock but luckily it started in one huge chunk so I was able to get it out and try again. The 2nd time worked pretty good. But then I waited too long to pour it on the cake so it was a little difficult to spread. So good though, I just hope the caramel isn’t solid as a rock tomorrow! Thanks for the awesome recipe!!

  42. Ann November 25, 2014 at 3:01 pm #

    This is a great recipe. Instead of 2 1/2 cups of granulated white sugar I use 1 1/2 sugar and 1 cup of light brown sugar. I did not melt the 1/2 cup sugar in the iron skipper. The brown sugar took Carr of that process. A wonderful recipe.

  43. Leslie April 1, 2015 at 7:07 pm #

    My grandmother made her caramel icing very much like this. The problem I have every time I make it and frost the cake the icing falls off the cake when I cut it! So you end up with cake on a plate with the icing on the side! Any suggestions how to keep this from happening?

    • Stef April 7, 2015 at 9:11 pm #

      Maybe you could put a thin layer of buttercream under the caramel layer to act as glue?


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