Old Fashioned Caramel Icing
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.
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 – 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.
Once the sugar is melted, reduce the heat to low.
Important: Do not let this mixture come to a boil.
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.
After a few minutes, you’ll notice that it will crystallize and clump up. Don’t stop stirring.
This is supposed to happen. Keep on stirring.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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’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!
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.
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.
Old Fashioned Caramel Icing
- Candy thermometer
- 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.
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