Substituting a sweetener that is mostly sucrose (table sugar, maple syrup) or fructose (agave nectar, 90% fructose) will not work. If you do not use the proper substitute, the fat will separate out of your caramel and the caramel will either end up brittle, or too greasy to stick to your apples. Sucrose is a disaccharide of fructose and glucose; in other words, sucrose is fructose linked to glucose. With caramel apples, the glucose essentially keeps everything in solution. Sucrose has a completely different structure. If there is not enough glucose, the sucrose recrystallizes and the fat gets pushed out of the caramel, and you do not have that chewy creamy goodness. So what is the magical mother nature substitute for corn syrup? HONEY! Honey has about the same glucose and fructose content as corn syrup. It took me 59 caramel apples worth of experimentation, but at the end of it all, I came up with a repeatable recipe for caramel apples that does not include any corn syrup or high-fructose corn syrup.
This video shows a condensed version of the process. The footage is from one of my experimental batches using corn syrup in order to observe the properties of that kind of caramel. Just pretend that I'm adding half a cup of honey instead of Karo syrup:
Step 1: Ingredients and equipment
8 apples (7 if you are a pessimist)
1 cup Heavy Cream
1 cup Brown Sugar (Brown sugar is nice because it already has a caramelly flavor)
1/2 cup Honey
4 tbsp Butter (half of one stick)
That's it. I know. crazy.
1 medium sized pot (one with thick sides works better than a plain old steel one)
1 stirring implement, most likely a spoon
1 greasy little square of aluminum foil big enough to set your caramel apples on
1 cup or small bowl, full of cold water
8 sticks or forks or somethings you will use to jab your apples and hang on to when you eat them
***You will NOT be needing a thermometer of any kind***
Most of the time, the thermometers you buy on a whim at the grocery store can't be trusted. I will teach you how to determine when your caramel is done using the cold water test. Then when you're on a deserted island without your candy thermometer, you can still delight the natives with tasty treats.
Step 2: What's going on in the pot?
As the concentration of sugar in your slurry goes up, the properties of the cooled caramel will change. Chewy, yet firm enough to hold it's shape and stick to the apple is the kind of caramel we want. If you don't cook enough of the water out, you will have soupy caramel that tastes awesome, but will migrate off of your apples as it cools. If you cook too much of the water out, you will have brittle caramel. The brittle caramel still tastes awesome, and can even look like the perfect caramel and stay on the apple, but when a small child tries to bite into their caramel apple, the caramel will shatter into a million pieces and get all over their costume and the floor. It will be easier to make good caramel than to explain recrystallization to a disappointed child.
There are interesting stages of candy all the way from caramel syrup to burnt sugar, but since we are making caramel apples, we'll focus on the "Firm Ball" window. If you would like a chart of the temperatures and the corresponding concentrations of sugar, you can look here on wikipedia: Sugar Chart. The firm ball stage is 244-248 degrees F / 118-120 degrees C and also happens to be a very delicious stage.
Step 3: The Cold Water Test
Cold Water Test:
1. While your cauldron of bubbling brown goodness is doing its thing, take a spoonful of it and drop it into a bowl or cup of cold water.
2. Give it a few seconds to cool.
3. Fish around in the bowl or cup of cold water and try to retrieve the caramel and make a little ball with it.
Several things can happen.
If you stick your fingers into the bowl, pull out a gooey mess and you can't do anything but smear the caramel, you need to boil the caramel some more. There is still too much water in your caramel and the concentration of sugar is too low. The caramel may even form little threads in the water, but if you cannot get the threads to form into a ball, you have some more boiling to do.
If you are able to form a ball with your cooled caramel, but it slowly flattens when it is sitting on your hand or the counter, you have reached the "Soft Ball" stage. This is exciting because you are close to the right caramel, and you will need to check the caramel every minute or so to make sure that you don't go past it.
Soft Ball Stage
Firm Ball Stage
When you form a ball with the cooled caramel and it stays like a ball in your hand, that is far enough. You have reached the right concentration of sugar and you can turn off the heat.
The videos I've posted show the "Thread" stage, the "Soft Ball" stage, and the "Firm Ball" stage.
Step 4: Let's Do It! - Step 1: dissolve sugars in the cream
Measure one cup of heavy cream and pour it into your medium sized pot. Measure one cup of your sugar and pour it into the pot. Measure 1/2 cup of honey and pour it into the pot. Turn the burner to medium heat and stir constantly. You will need to essentially stir constantly throughout the whole caramel making process in order to ensure that everything stays homogenious and your sucrose doesn't start concentrating somewhere and planning a recrystallization.
Step 5: Step 2 : Melt the butter in the pot
Step 6: Step 3 : Boiling and Cold testing
When you are able to make a ball with your caramel and the ball stays in a ball shape in your hand, you are done boiling. Turn off the stove and skewer your apples. You'll need to let the caramel cool only until it stops bubbling on its own.
Step 7: Step 4: Coat your apples
If it takes you a long time to coat an apple and you find yourself with a pot of caramel that is too stiff to stir, heat the caramel on low, stirring constantly until it is soft enough to spoon onto your apples. Just make sure that you don't heat the caramel back to its boiling point. If you keep it below the boiling point, when you reheat, you will retain the water content of perfect caramel and not undergo any further transformation of your mixture.
Step 8: Summary and Tips
Creating the Stabbed Head Look
Sometimes, I've seen trouble.....
If you find yourself with a pot of caramel and a layer of greasy fat on top, your caramel has become separated. There is still a chance that you can save it. First, remove the caramel from the heat and let it stop boiling, if it is still boiling. Add 3 tablespoons of water and 1/4 cup of honey. Then put the whole thing back on medium heat and stir it like crazy. Stir until it all looks like normal again and your caramel makes a firm ball when you do the cold water test. Then remove the pot from the burner and stir it until it stops boiling. Then immediately try and coat your apples. This is your last chance, so make it quick and do whatever you have to do to get the caramel on the apple. Even if you only end up with one or two caramel apples before the fat separates again, at least you can invite one friend over and eat your apples while you mope a little and then try again. If you really get depressed, you can add 1/2 cup of corn syrup to anything and it will fix it when you heat it up again.
Myths About Caramel Apple Making
-When you are making caramel for caramel apples with my recipe, you do not have to have to clean your pot between batches.
-Don't put the apples in the freezer to loosen the aluminum foil from the apples, it will turn your apples into mush and ruin them.
-You don't need corn syrup.
-Stirring does not cause your caramel to recrystallize.