Sometimes new recipes come easily and I get them right the first time. Sometimes not. Making caramel sauce in a slow cooker turned out to take a lot of experimenting. I had two crock pots going for several days trying to perfect a new recipe. After 10 batches (not kidding!), I've got a recipe that is going to have caramel lovers doing a happy dance. It's easy, velvety smooth, and awesomely gooey and delicious.
I've shared my slow cooker recipe for Dulce de Leche in a previous post. I love the stuff and it has lots of uses. Although dulce de leche is yummy and similar to caramel, it's not caramel.
Today's recipe is the real thing: gooey, smooth, buttery caramel sauce. Yum.
Stove top caramel sauce can be tricky. It's not hard once you get the hang of it, but it cooks at high heat very fast and can go from perfect to burnt in a matter of seconds. That can cause some serious anxiety in the kitchen, and it was my main motivation for trying to figure out a slow cooker method.
It would take hours of cooking to ruin a batch of caramel sauce in the slow cooker. I had delicious caramel sauce after 5 hours of cooking and up to 11 hours. That gives you lots of flexibility with when and how long you cook this recipe. No need to stress. Yay.
I encountered three main challenges in making caramel sauce in the slow cooker:
Healthier substitutions? None that I can recommend. I often get questions about substituting healthier or alternative ingredients in my recipes. While I'm all in favor of making recipes as healthy as possible, I don't know of a healthy way to make authentic buttery tasting caramel sauce. This is one of those treats that I consider a splurge to enjoy occasionally. I don't eat it for it's health benefits; I eat it because it tastes amazing. If you are opposed to eating sugar, corn syrup, or butter, I'm afraid this just isn't the recipe for you. If you want to try healthier substitutions, sorry but I can't advise you on that. After 10 tries to get this recipe right, dealing with some tricky chemistry, and making numerous adjustments in the ingredients, I'm not confident about offering advice regarding substitutions without having tested them. (If you try variations on my recipe. Please let me know in the comments section if you figure out something else that works well. I'd love to know!)
Great for gifts. I've made some labels you can add to jars of caramel sauce to add a finishing touch and make them ready to have on hand for gifts. Who wouldn't love a jar of homemade caramel sauce? Look for my printable labels further down in the post. This sauce recipe is shelf stable at room temperature for a week and in the fridge for at least a month. So, you can make it ahead for gift giving.
Step 1. Assemble the ingredients:
You need a slow cooker and a heat-tolerant bowl that will fit inside. This is so you can create a double boiler effect for gently cooking the caramel sauce. The bowls needs to hold at least 1-1/2 quarts, but a 2 to 2-12 quart bowl is better because it has extra room for more easily mixing the ingredients. Make sure you'll be able to fit the slow cooker lid on after the bowl is inserted. Slow cookers come in so many shapes and sizes, that you'll need to experiment with different bowls to find the right fit. Below is a photo of my favorite slow cooker with two different bowls I have that will fit inside.
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Step 2. Melt the butter. I nuke mine in the microwave for 30-40 seconds. You can melt it on the stove-top, if you prefer. NOTE: I found in my experimenting that it is essential to melt the butter so that you can thoroughly mix it into the other ingredients before starting to cook them in the slow cooker.
Step 3. Stir the wet ingredients together in the bowl you'll be placing inside your slow cooker. Next stir in the dry ingredients. A whisk works most efficiently, but you can also use a big spoon or rubber spatula.
Step 4. Place the bowl inside the crock pot & add hot tap water, pouring it around the outside of the bowl until the water level is approximately even with the contents of the bowl.
Step 5. Put the lid on the slow cooker and cook on the high setting for a minimum of 5 hours and as long as 11 hours. The photos below show my mixture when I checked it after 4 hours--it was still too runny and light in color. It needs to be at least as thick as honey. (NOTE: in my other slow cooker, it was much thicker than this after 4 hours...so remember that you may need to adjust the time for your particular slow cooker.)
The batch below has cooked for 6 hours. When the lid is first removed, the sauce looks a little bit lumpy; give it a few stirs to smooth it out and check the consistency. This batch is nice and thick, a rich golden color, and is the way I like it. However, it's fine to cook it for a few more hours if you prefer a more intensely colored and flavored caramel sauce. The longer it cooks the thicker the consistency; so that may be part of what guides you in how long to let yours cook.
I love this about the slow cooker. You can keep cooking the caramel sauce for hours without burning it. Deep breath. No need to stress about it.
Step 6. When the caramel is the color and consistency you want, remove the bowl from the slow cooker. The water level will be lower than when you started, because some of it cooks off. So there should be room to grab the bowl from the top on 2 opposite sides and pull it out. Use 2 hot pads or folded paper towels to protect your hands as you lift the bowl vertically up and out of the hot water.
Whisk the hot caramel sauce (or stir rapidly) for 1 minute--this gives it a shiny, silky consistency. You may see little air bubbles in the mixture. No worries--that's normal.
It's done! Easy, right? Just let the mixture cool a bit and pour it into jars or whatever containers you like. It will thicken as it cools.
The jars below illustrate the wide range of color that the caramel can be and still taste fantastic. You can taste your first batch as you go along to decide when it's caramelized the amount that you like. I personally like the darker, more intense flavor. But, honestly, they all taste amazing. The sauce consistency thickens as it cooks longer. So, if you want a thinner sauce, choose a shorter cooking time.
Slow cooker cleaning tip. Depending on the hardness of your water, you may end up with a white water deposit ring mark on the inside of your slow cooker (and on the outside of the bowl you used). It's easy to clean without any scrubbing required. Add 1/4 cup distilled vinegar and a squirt of liquid dish detergent to your slow cooker. Fill it with hot water. Insert the bowl inside. Let it soak for 15 minutes. Wipe it with a sponge or dish cloth. Rinse, dry, and both the slow cooker and bowl should be clean as a whistle.
Use the caramel sauce as a dip. Apple slices and pretzels are particularly tasty dipped in this caramel sauce. If your sauce thickens too much once it's cooled, you can heat it briefly in the microwave (I put a jar in the microwave for 40-60 seconds & stir) or gently on the stove top (you can set the jar in hot water and let it warm gradually). If you want to thin it even more, you can reheat the sauce and stir in some milk or water a tablespoon at a time until it's the consistency you want.
Drizzle it on ice cream, brownies, cheesecake....cardboard....I'll eat anything that's been drizzled with this caramel sauce. It's also great to stir into coffee, tea, or hot chocolate.
Mason jars are perfect for storing, heating, serving, and giving caramel sauce.
Plastic squeeze bottles are a convenient, tidy way to dispense the sauce.
How to store it and for how long. Jars of caramel sauce are fine left at room temperature for up to a week. Beyond that, it should be refrigerated where it will keep for at least a month, maybe longer. Although, I can't imagine it being around that long!
Give it as a gift, and you are sure to be loved.
Download printable jar labels/tags. Print a sheet of these for adding the finishing touch to your jars for personal use or to give as gifts.
If you don't have a printer or specialty papers, you can have a store with printing services download and print them for you (Kinkos, Office Depot, Staples, etc.)
Click on the image below to download & print a full sheet of labels/tags.
Who wouldn't love receiving a jar of this gooey delight? Whether you make it for yourself or to give away, this recipe makes it easy.
Now that is a spoon that is screaming to be licked!
Make it a Yummy day!
You might also enjoy these recipes:
Easy Caramel Apples with A Gourmet Flair