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Caramel Icing Made the Old Fashioned Southern Way

Caramel icing takes time, but it’s totally worth the effort.

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).

Cupcakes topped with caramel icing

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 Caramel Icing Taste?

Hard and smooth caramel icing on a cupcake

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.

Adding evaporated milk to a saucepan filled with butter and sugar

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

Important: The mixture should not come to a boil.

Butter, sugar, and evaporated milk melted in a saucepan

Caramelizing Sugar

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.

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.

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 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.

Caramelized sugar in a skillet

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!

Adding caramelized sugar to the saucepan

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.

Caramel Icing completed in the saucepan

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.

For a more a really good 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?

Dulce de Leche

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.

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Hard and smooth caramel icing on a cupcake
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4.46 from 44 votes

Caramel Icing

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

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

Nutrition Facts
Caramel Icing
Amount Per Serving
Calories 126 Calories from Fat 36
% Daily Value*
Fat 4g6%
Saturated Fat 3g15%
Cholesterol 12mg4%
Sodium 9mg0%
Potassium 24mg1%
Carbohydrates 22g7%
Sugar 22g24%
Protein 1g2%
Vitamin A 135IU3%
Vitamin C 0.2mg0%
Calcium 22mg2%
* Percent Daily Values are based on a 2000 calorie diet.
Have you tried this recipe?Click here to leave a comment and rating!
A true caramel icing, made in the old fashioned Southern way, takes time because it is simply the best! This homemade recipe is totally worth your every effort! Use this to frost your cakes, cupcakes, or any dessert!
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