My caramel sauce is a beautiful deep black color just from using black cocoa powder. This gives it a unique chocolate flavor that tastes like super chocolatey Oreos and is amazing paired with the sweet and slightly salty caramel. It’s got the texture of a thick honey, which is perfect for drizzling on cakes and other desserts.
In the photo above, I’ve added it along with some cream cheese frosting in between the cake layers, which is a black cocoa chiffon. I then frosted the cake with my black buttercream and drizzled the black chocolate caramel sauce on the top and sides.
In this post I will teach you how to make my caramel sauce using the dry method.
Generally, there are two ways to make caramel. The wet method combines both water and white granulated sugar in a small saucepan and heated until tan and caramelized. In the dry method, the sugar is poured into the saucepan without water and heated until caramelized.
When you want to make a sugar syrup, typically, you use a wet method. That’s because you will need some residual water in the final syrup. These are your syrups that are between the thread up to the hard crack stage.
When you want to make a caramel, you can use either method, but if you use the wet method, you are evaporating all the water. This is because have to heat the sugar to above 338°F/170°C to achieve proper caramelization.
I use the dry method most of the time when making a caramel sauce because I find it is more efficient and straightforward.
In the wet method, you stir to dissolve the sugar, but once your sugar syrup reaches a boil, you stop. This prevents crystallization.
In the dry method, constant stirring is required to prevent and dissolve the clumps of sugar that may appear.
Regardless of which method you choose, it's always good to have what's called a doctoring agent, or an ingredient added to sugar that prevents crystallization. So, let's talk about ingredients.
White granulated sugar is the backbone of caramel sauce. It’s the sweet taste and, depending on how long you cook it, provides the most amazing depth of sugary flavor when heated to high temperatures. Use brown sugar, and you’ll have butterscotch.
Lemon juice or apple cider vinegar is a source of acid (called citric acid in lemons or acetic acid in vinegar) and is used to prevent crystallization during the sugar-melting process. In caramel making, that’s when the sugar develops crystal sheets throughout, creating an unpleasantly grainy caramel sauce in the end.
It does this by performing a reaction called “inversion”, which is really just chopping bigger sugar (sucrose) molecules into two smaller parts (fructose and glucose). These smaller sugars mess up the precise arrangement of bigger sugars needed for crystallization to occur. When making caramel, you don’t need too much acid, just a tiny amount, which gets rubbed into the sugar before it starts melting.
Heavy cream provides moisture, flavor, and fats. Most of the water is evaporated due to the high temperature of the sugar, but a little is left behind along with milk proteins and milk fats for a bit of texture and flavor. This ingredient ensures you have a liquid caramel sauce rather than one that sets up crackly hard.
Be sure to use warmed heavy cream. Adding a cold liquid to a hot sugar syrup will instantly solidify the sugar. It’s reversible by gentle heating, though, so if you do happen to have a large sugary mass on your hands, just place the pan back on the heat source and stir until the sugar has liquefied.
Black cocoa powder gives this sauce a deep brown-black color and chocolate flavor. This variation of cocoa powder is super alkalized, which is a chemical process that changes the color, pH, flavor, and solubility of natural (light brown) cocoa. It’s got a very unique flavor and is what is used in Oreo cookies. You could even use a Dutch-processed cocoa here for a dark chocolate caramel sauce but you'll need black cocoa for the deepest color and Oreo flavor. It's hard to source in store so I buy mine on Amazon (you can see it here.)
Unsalted butter gives the caramel a buttery flavor but also functions as a structural ingredient. It’s added when the caramel sauce is still hot, which melts the butterfat. As the caramel sauce cools, the butterfat solidifies very slightly, giving the sauce a soft, gooey, and slightly fatty consistency. This helps with spreading onto cakes and other things as it won’t stick to your utensils because of all the fat.
Salt is a flavor enhancer and is great in caramel sauce. Unsalted caramel sauce will taste very one-note and overly sweet. If you add some salt, the sweetness will decrease a bit, and the caramel flavors will taste more well-rounded. If you prefer a salted caramel, try to use flaky sea salt at the very end of the heating process so it won’t dissolve. As you eat the sauce, you have these crystal bits of salt throughout. If you prefer a smooth sauce, use finely granulated salt and add it while the sauce is still hot so it dissolves more readily.
I have provided two yields in the recipe below. In the pictures below, I’m going to be showing the 2 cup method, where I incrementally add and melt the sugar, but the one cup method will be similar in that you just add the sugar in one go and stir until melted. I am using a 2-quart saucepan.
Step 1: Set up your ingredients.
Warm the cream up to room temperature, cut the butter into chunks, and sift the cocoa powder.
Step 2: Add the acid to the sugar.
Heat your pan up to medium-high. Meanwhile, add the lemon juice or vinegar to a bowl of sugar (2a). Rub the acid in with your fingers or spatula (2b).
Step 3: Melt sugar incrementally.
To your hot saucepan, add enough sugar to cover the saucepan by a few millimeters (no need to be precise here, just eyeball it.) (3a) Stir constantly with a wooden spatula until the sugar has melted and is starting to caramelize. Don’t worry about the clumps (3b).
Sprinkle more sugar atop the caramelized sugar (3c), and stir the sugar in (3d). Once all that sugar has melted, repeat the process and keep doing this until all the sugar has been added.
Keep stirring (3e) until the mixture is smooth and the color is amber (3f).
Step 4: Add heavy cream to melted sugar.
Turn off the heat and add the warmed cream (4a). You may see the sugar instantly solidify due to the temperature difference, but keep stirring until smooth (4b). Also, be careful as this step releases a burst of steam very quickly.
Step 5: Add black cocoa powder.
Pour in the sifted black cocoa powder and use a whisk or spatula to distribute.
Step 6: Add butter.
Add the unsalted butter (6a) and a pinch of salt (6b). Stir until all the butter has melted and give it a taste. Add more salt if needed.
Step 7: Pour into a glass container.
Carefully pour the hot syrup into a glass container (7a). It will initially be thin but as it cools will have the consistency of a thick honey (7b). Cool to room temperature before using and store leftovers in the fridge for at least a month or two.
For 1 cup:
For 2 cups:
For the 1 cup recipe (sugar melted all at once):
For the 2-cup recipe (sugar melted incrementally to reduce clumping):
*Black cocoa powder is an alkalized version of natural cocoa powder, which in addition to raising the pH, turns the cocoa black. It has a smoky, mellow, and sometimes alkaline flavor reminiscent of Oreo cookies. It’s hard to source in stores, so I buy mine online. (I get it on Amazon, here.)