A bitter-sweet symphony
According to the Larousse Gastronomique, caramel is simply melted sugar browned by heating. Technically, it is that simple.
However, to explain the wondrous complexities of caramel, food scientist Harold McGee is more forthcoming: "Start with pure table sugar, a single kind of molecule, colourless, odourless and simply sweet. Add heat and you create caramel: many hundreds of new molecules, brown colour, rich aroma, sweet, tart and bitter."
There are two basic ways to make caramel: the dry method, when sugar is heated until it reaches melting point and starts to brown; and the wet method, when sugar is dissolved in water, then brought to the boil until it starts to brown.
Dissolving the sugar first is easier for less-experienced cooks, but either way, caramel must be constantly watched as once it starts to brown, it can easily burn. Have a bowl of cold water ready to cool the pan down, as this will stop it cooking further.
I prefer the dry method, as it is quick and the caramel can be stirred all the time. With the wet method, once the sugar has dissolved and started to boil, it should not be stirred, as this can encourage crystals to form.
A clean pastry brush dipped in water is also needed to brush down the sides of the pot, to prevent crystals forming.
Whichever method you choose, there are plenty of wonderful recipes to make use of caramel.
Here are three of my favourites: