Old Fashioned Caramel Icing

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While you might have heard about shortcuts to making caramel icing, there is a reason that it’s been made for generations using two spoons (one for the saucepan and one for the cast iron skillet): this icing may be the best you’ve ever tried.

Making it the old fashioned southern way takes time, and it’s totally worth the effort.

Cupcakes topped with caramel icing

Be thankful that it takes about an hour to make – if it didn’t, you’d be making it and eating it way too often!

If you’re like me, gazing into a pot and repetitively stirring 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 icing with wide-eyed wonder.

Equipment and Ingredients

You will need a candy thermometer to properly make this icing! While you can try to gauge its temperature without one, you may end up burning the caramel and you’ll then have to throw it all away.

To make this recipe, you’ll also need two pans – a saucepan and a skillet.

Aside from the thermometer, the recipe requires only four ingredients that you may already have in your pantry – butter, evaporated milk, sugar, and vanilla extract.

How It’s Made

Start by melting two cups of sugar with butter and evaporated milk in a saucepan over medium heat. Periodically stir it to make sure everything is combining nicely.

Adding evaporated milk to a saucepan filled with butter and sugar

Once the sugar is melted, reduce the heat to low.

Important: Do not let this mixture come to a boil.

Butter, sugar, and evaporated milk melted in a saucepan

Next, you’ll need to caramelize sugar in a cast iron or other heavy-bottomed skillet. Put the skillet on medium-low heat, add the remaining 1/2 cup of sugar, and push the sugar around periodically to make sure it heats evenly.

Sugar pushed with a spatula in a skillet

After a few minutes, you’ll notice that it will crystallize and clump up. Don’t stop stirring.

Crystallized sugar in a saucepan

This is supposed to happen. Keep on stirring.

A mixture of crystallized sugar and melted sugar

Eventually, after ten minutes or so, the sugar will melt down to a beautiful golden brown liquid.

Do not rush this icing. If you raise the heat to make things go faster, you risk burning the sugar and having to start all over.

Caramelized sugar in a skillet

Once the sugar is melted, bring the heat in the saucepan back up to medium-low.

Very carefully pour the caramelized sugar into the saucepan. It will bubble and steam like crazy. Stir immediately!

Adding caramelized sugar to the saucepan

Then, keep on stirring. Stir and stir and stir until the mixture reaches 235 F (the soft ball stage) on your candy thermometer. This will take about thirty minutes.

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). However, it’s easy to miss the correct moment to do the test and your icing can be ruined.

Caramel Icing completed in the saucepan

Remove the saucepan from the heat immediately, stir in vanilla extract, and allow to cool for fifteen minutes before using it.

Expert Tips and FAQs

Caramel icing is not the same as smooth, sticky caramel that you would find in a candy bar or on a caramel apple. This is meant for frosting cakes and cupcakes. it’s a little crunchy (gritty) on the outside yet soft and smooth when you bite into it.

Hard and smooth caramel icing on a cupcake

This recipe is also quite different from caramel frosting. While the lines are somewhat blurred between frosting and icing (sometimes the terms are used interchangeably), typically an icing is considered a topping that is hard and flat while a frosting has height and is light and fluffy.

Slow Cooker Dulce de Leche
Don’t confuse this dulce de leche with the icing in this post. While delicious, dulce de leche will never form a hard crust!

If you are looking for the easiest possible way to make caramel sauce, I suggest you try using dulce de leche. Dulce de leche is a magical caramel-like spread that can be made simply by putting a can of sweetened condensed milk in a slow cooker! It doesn’t get much easier than that recipe and it’s still really, really tasty.

Note that dulce de leche will have a smooth texture and will not harden up like this recipe.

How do you recommend I use this icing?

After you’ve waited for the icing to cool slightly, dip cupcakes or cookies into it (or spread the icing on top) or pour or spread over cake. If you wait too long, the icing will harden and you won’t be able to spread it.

How long should I wait for the icing to harden?

Once the icing is on your baked goods, wait three to four hours for it to harden completely.

Which desserts do you recommend I use this on?

I love using this caramel icing on my caramel cupcakes. It’s also amazing on vanilla cupcakes or chocolate cupcakes! Try it on a pound cake or spread it on sugar cookies. Finally, for a fantastic sweet and salty option, try spreading it on Ritz crackers!

My icing cooled too much and it’s not pouring/spreading properly. Can I save it?

Yes! If the icing becomes too hard, you can reheat it by putting it back on the stove and heating it at medium-low heat, stirring until it is melted again.

Can This Icing Be Made Ahead?

In order to spread this icing on cake or cupcakes, it needs to be warm. If you are making it ahead of time, you can leave it at room temperature until ready to use (I would leave it out for several days, but I’m not a food safety specialist). Then, warm on medium-low heat in a saucepan, stirring until smooth before using.

Did you make this recipe? Leave a review!
Hard and smooth caramel icing on a cupcake
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4.42 from 50 votes

Old Fashioned Caramel Icing

An authentic caramel icing with no shortcut to great flavor.
Course Dessert
Cuisine American
Prep Time 5 minutes
Cook Time 50 minutes
Total Time 55 minutes
Servings 24 servings
Calories 126kcal
Author Stefani

Equipment

  • Candy thermometer

Ingredients

  • 1/2 cup unsalted butter
  • 3/4 cup evaporated milk
  • 2 1/2 cups granulated sugar divided
  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

Instructions

  • In a medium-sized saucepan over medium heat, mix butter, evaporated milk and two cups of sugar.
  • Heat and stir until sugar dissolves. Do not allow to come to a boil.
  • Once sugar dissolves, reduce heat to low.
  • In a small cast iron skillet on medium-low heat, melt the remaining half cup of sugar – stirring constantly until liquid and brown. (The sugar will crystallize about halfway through the process. Just keep stirring until it completely melts.)
  • Pour the browned sugar into the saucepan and quickly stir to incorporate. (It will bubble and steam. This is totally normal.)
  • Stir regularly until the liquid reaches the soft ball stage, 235 F (113 C). 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.
  • Remove from the heat and stir in the vanilla.
  • Wait ten to fifteen minutes and then dip, spread, or pour on your favorite baked goods.
  • Once the icing is on your baked goods, wait three to four hours for it to harden completely. 

Notes

Do not expect this recipe to produce a flowy/chewy caramel such as one you would find in a candy bar or a caramel apple. This is meant for frosting cakes and cupcakes and the icing is a little crunchy (gritty) on the outside but soft and smooth when you bite into it.
If the icing becomes too hard, you can reheat it by putting it back on the stove and heating it at medium-low heat, stirring until it is melted again. 
If you are making it ahead of time, you can leave it at room temperature until ready to use (I would leave it out for several days, but I’m not a food saftey specialist). Then, warm on medium-low heat in a saucepan, stirring until smooth before using.
This recipe produces enough caramel to frost 24 cupcakes or a two layer 8″ round cake.

Nutrition

Calories: 126kcal | Carbohydrates: 22g | Protein: 1g | Fat: 4g | Saturated Fat: 3g | Cholesterol: 12mg | Sodium: 9mg | Potassium: 24mg | Sugar: 22g | Vitamin A: 135IU | Vitamin C: 0.2mg | Calcium: 22mg
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Old Fashioned Caramel Icing