Why it Works: Caramel: It’s Not Just for Dessert Anymore
Frying food in oil works well because oil can be heated hot enough (350°F +) to brown meat, soften vegetables and even cause new flavors to form. Water, while great for some cooking, never gets hotter than its boiling point (212°F) and cannot develop the flavors that oil can. The boiling point of water, though, can be raised with the addition of sugar: The more sugar you add to water, the higher its boiling point. Add enough sugar and you can even heat water as hot as oil. At this temperature, sugar breaks down into caramel and turns golden brown. Vegetables, fruits and meats cooked in caramel soften, brown and acquire a deep flavor and mild sweetness.
Recipe Rx: Just Add Water
Some recipes for caramelized sugar have you start with dry sugar in a pan while others, such as this one, have you add a little water. Why? Surprisingly, in order for sugar to caramelize it must be heated until all of the water is evaporated off. Therefore it seems like a step in the wrong direct to add water. Actually, the small amount of water added in this recipe is really more for security than anything else. If we just heated the sugar itself it may heat unevenly, parts of it caramelizing before the rest even heated up. The water evens out the heat by making the sugar into a syrup. That doesn’t mean that you can take your eye off of the pan. The process happens very fast, going from delicious caramel to bitter blackjack (the pastry name for burnt sugar), so watch carefully.