Making caramel icing the old fashioned southern way takes time, and it’s totally worth the effort.
You might hear about shortcuts when making caramel icing, but there is a reason that southerners 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. 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!
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.
How Does Old Fashioned Caramel Icing Taste?
Caramel icing is not the same as smooth, sticky caramel that you would find in a candy bar or on a caramel apple. This icing 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.
Caramel icing is also quite different from caramel frosting. The lines are somewhat blurred between frosting and icing (sometimes the terms are used interchangeably), but typically an icing is considered a topping that is hard and flat while a frosting has height and is light and fluffy.
How to Make Caramel Icing
To make caramel icing, you’ll need two pans: a saucepan and a skillet.
Melting Sugar with Butter and Evaporated Milk
Start by melting sugar with butter and evaporated milk in a saucepan. Give a periodic stir to make sure everything is combining nicely.
Once the sugar is melted, reduce the heat to low.
Important: The mixture should not come to a boil.
Next, you’ll need to caramelize sugar in a skillet. Keep the skillet on medium-low and push the sugar around periodically to make sure it cooks evenly.
After a few minutes, you’ll notice that it will crystallize and clump up. Don’t stop.
This is supposed to happen. Keep on stirring.
Eventually, after ten minutes or so, the sugar will melt down to a beautiful brown liquid.
Do not rush this. If you raise the heat to make things go faster, you risk burning the sugar and having to start all over.
Adding Caramelized Sugar to the Saucepan
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!
Then, keep on stirring. Stir and stir and stir until the mixture reaches 235 Fahrenheit (the soft ball stage). This will take about thirty minutes.
It is very important to use a candy thermometer!
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 so I strongly recommend the thermometer.
How to Use the Caramel Icing
Once the caramel icing is done, remove from the heat immediately, stir in vanilla extract, and wait ten to fifteen minutes for the caramel to cool.
Then, dip or spread the icing on cupcakes or cookies or pour or spread over cake. If you wait too long, the icing will harden and you won’t be able to spread it.
Once the icing is on your baked goods, wait three to four hours for it to harden completely.
- I love using this caramel icing on my caramel cupcakes.
- It is also amazing on vanilla cupcakes or chocolate cupcakes!
- Try it on a pound cake, like this pound cake from Baker Bettie.
- It’s so tasty to spread on sugar cookies!
For a fantastic sweet and salty option, try spreading this icing on Ritz crackers!
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 caramel 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.
What is the Easiest Way to Make Caramel?
If you are looking for the easiest possible way to make caramel icing, 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 and become crunchy like this caramel icing will.
- 1/2 cup unsalted butter
- 3/4 cup evaporated milk
- 2 1/2 cups granulated sugar divided
- 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 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.