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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.

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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4.03 from 41 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

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

  1. Raquitasays:

    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. Kellysays:

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

  4. Hollysays:

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

  5. Joannesays:

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

  6. Virginiasays:

    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.

  7. Tarasays:

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

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

  9. Stefsays:

    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.

  10. Karensays:

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

  11. Anonymoussays:

    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

  12. Anonymoussays:

    5 stars
    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

  13. Anonymoussays:

    5 stars
    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!

  14. Ferozasays:

    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!

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

  16. Stefsays:

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

  17. Anonymoussays:

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

  18. Anonymoussays:

    5 stars
    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.

  19. Anonymoussays:

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

    Sounds delicious!!

  20. Anonymoussays:

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

  21. Amanda M.says:

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

    • Anonymoussays:

      5 stars
      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.
      Angela

  22. 5 stars
    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

  23. Anonymoussays:

    5 stars
    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!

  24. Anonymoussays:

    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

  25. Ms. Marcisays:

    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.

  26. Betsysays:

    5 stars
    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!

  27. Daylisays:

    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?

  28. Laurasays:

    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?

  29. Danasays:

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

  30. Lirasays:

    Thanks for the recipe.

  31. Lizsays:

    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!!

  32. Annsays:

    5 stars
    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.

  33. Lesliesays:

    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?

  34. Barbara Williamssays:

    Sounds good will be making Sunday

  35. Robinsays:

    5 stars
    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. :)

  36. 5 stars
    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.

  37. Renesays:

    5 stars
    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!

  38. Sherry Williamssays:

    5 stars
    This recipe is awesome! It definitely takes patience to stir, but the icing turns out beautiful. Anyone who has a problem, simply cannot follow rules. Just stir stir stir, and it will be perfect. Thanks, I really enjoy this recipe. I’ve made four caramel cakes with this recipe, and everyone loved it.

  39. Sheilasays:

    4 stars
    It did take a loooong time, but it was definitely worth waiting for! Closest I’ve found to my Grandma’s Caramel Iceing from Mobile,Alabama! Delish!

  40. Lavona Brockingtonsays:

    5 stars
    I have tried this recipe and I absolutely love it. It will be the recipe I use from now on!!!!

  41. 3chord mastersays:

    I am a Southerner. Icing is the Southern word for frosting. The terms are used interchangeably by every cook I know, and that number is legion.

  42. 5 stars
    Agree !Absolutely; this is one of those things that is worth of every single minute ! :-)

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