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Caramel Icing – Made the Old Fashioned Southern Way

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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).


I love using this caramel icing on my caramel cake cupcakes.

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.

Caramel Icing
4 from 4 votes

Caramel Icing- Made the Old Fashioned Southern Way

An authentic caramel icing with no short cut to great flavor.

Course Dessert
Cuisine American
Prep Time 45 minutes
Cook Time 40 minutes
Total Time 1 hour
Servings 24
Calories 125 kcal


  • 2 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1/2 cup unsalted butter the original recipe called for margarine, but I only use butter
  • 3/4 cup evaporated milk
  • 1/2 teaspoon 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
    Caramel Icing Step 1
  5. Stir constantly.

    Caramel Icing Step 2
  6. Keep stirring until liquid dissolves.

    Caramel Icing Step 3
  7. Pour the browned sugar into the saucepan and quickly stir to incorporate.
  8. 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.
    Caramel Icing Step 4
  9. Let cool slightly. If you wait too long, the caramel will become difficult to spread.
  10. Mix in vanilla.
  11. Spread on caramel cake cupcakes (or anything).

If you are looking for a a super easy caramel recipe, you might want to try my dulce de leche in a crockpot. It doesn’t get much easier than that recipe and it’s still really really tasty!

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59 comments on “Caramel Icing – Made the Old Fashioned Southern Way”

  1. Raquita says:

    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

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

  3. Holly says:

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

  4. Kelly says:

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

  5. Joanne says:

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

  6. MsRuckus says:

    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!

  7. Virginia says:

    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.

  8. Tara says:

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

  9. CupCake Kick says:

    I must try this TODAY!

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

  11. Stef says:

    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.

  12. Karen says:

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

  13. Anonymous says:

    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

  14. Anonymous says:

    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

  15. Anonymous says:

    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!

  16. Feroza says:

    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!

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

  18. Stef says:

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

  19. Joy says:

    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.

  20. Anonymous says:

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

  21. Anonymous says:

    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.

  22. Anonymous says:

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

    Sounds delicious!!

  23. Anonymous says:

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

  24. Anonymous says:

    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.

  25. Janae Zhang says:

    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)?

  26. Rachel says:

    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?

  27. Rachel says:

    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 says:

      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 .

    • 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!

  28. Amanda M. says:

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

    • Anonymous says:

      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.

  29. 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

  30. Anonymous says:

    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!

  31. Anonymous says:

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

  32. Anonymous says:

    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

  33. Ms. Marci says:

    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.

  34. Betsy says:

    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!

  35. Dayli says:

    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?

  36. Laura says:

    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?

  37. Dana says:

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

  38. Lira says:

    Thanks for the recipe.

  39. Liz says:

    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!!

  40. Ann says:

    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.

  41. Leslie says:

    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?

  42. Barbara Williams says:

    Sounds good will be making Sunday

  43. Robin says:

    This is one of the best carmel icings I’ve made in a long time. Yes… there’s a lot of stirring but so worth it. Give it a try you won’t be disappointed I promise. :)

  44. JoAngela says:

    Just tried this icing and it is yummy! I struggled with making a caramel icing that is NOT runny. This was definitely the answer to my problem and taste excellent Thanks so much for sharing.

  45. Jessica says:

    How would you recommend reheating this for icing if it’s made ahead of time and refrigerated?

  46. Rene says:

    My mammal taught me this very technique only she used 1 cup heavy whipping cream instead of evaporated milk and it is delicious! I just take my time and make for special occasions!

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