It’s Day 5 of my 12 Days of Christmas Cookies Series! And even though these aren’t cookies, I felt like our Christmas cookie box wouldn’t be complete without some homemade caramel candy in the form of soft salted caramels. Making these soft and chewy salted vanilla caramels every Christmas has become a yearly tradition in my kitchen. They look so beautiful wrapped up in wax paper, and they make wonderful homemade Christmas gifts for friends, family, neighbors and coworkers.
Everyone who tastes these soft salted caramels begs me for the recipe! And the best part is how easy they are to make. Homemade salted caramels can be quite a labor of love. But with my recipe, you don’t need to stand over a hot stove, constantly stirring caramel for an hour (or longer), worrying about it scorching or seizing. These caramels are made quickly, easily and effortlessly in the microwave. Find out how to make these creamy, buttery soft caramels yourself, and you’ll be making them every year, too!
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The two main ingredients of soft caramels are butter and sugar, and we’ll be adding the sugar through a variety of sweeteners and sweet ingredients.
- Unsalted Butter. The butter adds richness and flavor, as well as keeps the caramel soft and creamy.
- Light Corn Syrup. The reason corn syrup is a common ingredient in many candy recipes because it is an invert sugar. Invert sugar inhibits the formation of sugar crystals and provides a smooth texture to candy, caramel, and other cooked sweets. In short, it helps maintain a smooth and creamy texture, rather than a grainy caramel.
- Granulated Sugar + Dark Brown Sugar. A variety of sugars in these soft caramels makes them sweet, of course, but adds a nuance of flavor.
- Sweetened Condensed Milk. A concentrated mixture of milk and sugar, sweetened condensed milk contributes to the rich, smooth and creamy texture of the caramels.
- Coarse Kosher Salt. All the sugar needs to be balanced with some salt.
- Vanilla. I often use vanilla bean paste in my soft caramels, but if I’m out, then I’ll use vanilla extract. The flavor of the paste and the extract is prominent, so use a great-quality extract like Rodelle for the best flavor.
- Bourbon. This is totally optional, but a splash of bourbon adds delicious flavor to these caramels.
- Flaky Finishing Salt. Lastly, we’ll finish these by sprinkling them with pretty flaky salt, such as Maldon Sea Salt.
Once you’ve made salted caramels in the microwave, you’ll never want to go back to the tedious stove top version. My microwave caramels recipe is easy and reliable, and makes the most delicious, creamy buttery caramels that you’ve ever tasted!
Prepare Your Pan.
Line an 8×8 square baking dish with parchment paper so that the paper hangs over the edges. Some people will butter the dish so the caramel doesn’t stick, but using parchment paper (which is non stick) is much easier and cleaner. You can also use wax paper instead of the parchment paper.
Whisk Together the Ingredients.
Start with a large, microwaveable bowl. I use a glass Pyrex bowl with a 2.5 quart capacity to make my caramels. Whisk together the melted butter, corn syrup, granulated sugar, dark brown sugar, sweetened condensed milk, and coarse Kosher salt until smooth.
Cook the Caramel in the Microwave.
Now microwave the mixture on high for 6 minutes, then stir and check the temperature with a digital instant read thermometer (I use a probe-style meat thermometer). You’re aiming for 240 degrees Fahrenheit, but anywhere between 238-242 degrees is just fine. If the caramel isn’t hot enough yet, continue to microwave in 15 second increments, checking the temperature each time.
Depending on the power of your microwave, and the temperature of your ingredients when you start cooking the caramel, it may take more or less time. Each time I make this, mine is done at around 6 1/2 – 7 minutes, and I have a 1000-watt microwave. If you have a much higher wattage microwave, start off with less time, so you don’t burn your caramel or make it too hard.
Stir in the Vanilla.
Stir in the vanilla extract or vanilla bean paste with a spatula (if adding bourbon, stir it in now, too). The caramel will bubble and hiss a little.
Pour the Caramel into the Pan.
Immediately pour the caramel into the parchment-lined baking dish. Let stand at room temperature for about 15 minutes, then sprinkle the top with flaky Maldon salt or another flaky finishing salt. If you don’t have any, just sprinkle with more coarse Kosher salt.
Chill Until Firm.
Refrigerate the pan of caramel until firm, about an hour. Once it’s firm, lift the slab of caramel out by the paper, and set it on a cutting board. The caramel is ready to cut!
How to Cut Caramels
Lift the chilled slab of caramel out of the pan by the paper, and set it on a cutting board.
Use a large, sharp chef’s knife for cutting the caramel. When you cut it, it should be firm enough to cut cleanly, but not so cold that it’s brittle. If it got too firm in the refrigerator, let the caramel sit at room temperature for a few minutes before cutting.
If you like, you can trim off the uneven edges (and eat the scraps while you wrap the caramels!), but this is just an aesthetic preference. For the long “tootsie roll” shape of the caramels pictured here, cut the slab of caramel into thirds, then cut each third into 15 pieces. Or you can cut them into squares, if you prefer.
Wrapping and Storing
Rip 15 strips of wax paper, measuring about 4 1/2 inches wide each. Then cut the strips into thirds so you have 45 squares of wax paper. Wrap each piece of caramel tightly in the wax paper and twist the ends to secure.
Wrapped soft caramels should be stored in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 2 weeks. After that time, they won’t be quite as soft and fresh tasting. But they probably won’t last longer than 2 weeks, since they’re so tempting!
Soft caramels can also be frozen, too, if you want to make them in advance. Just place the wrapped caramels in an airtight freezer bag and freeze for 3-6 months. Let thaw at room temperature until soft.
Caramels can absorb other odors from the refrigerator and freezer, so it’s important to keep them well sealed and protected from both odors and moisture during cold storage.
- Bourbon or other Liqueur. After cooking the caramel, and when you’re stirring in the vanilla, add a splash (1 tablespoon) of good quality bourbon, spiced rum, whiskey, or another favorite liqueur.
- Extracts. While vanilla extract is commonly added to caramels, vanilla bean paste makes them even more special. But you can experiment with other complementary extract flavors, too, such as maple, rum, or even pumpkin spice.
- Spices. If you like a little spice, you can certainly add some to these soft salted caramels! A bit of freshly grated nutmeg or cloves would be delicious.
- Nuts. For a little crunch, try adding a handful of chopped nuts, such as pecans, walnuts, hazelnuts, macadamia nuts, or pistachios. You can stir them right into the caramel (at the same time you stir in the vanilla), or spread them evenly over the bottom of the pan and pour the hot caramel over the nut layer. This will give you a pretty, crunchy layer of nuts at the bottom of each caramel.
- Chocolate. For a really decadent treat, try dipping the caramels in tempered dark chocolate.
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Did you love today’s recipe? Please rate the recipe and let me know in the comments what you thought! Also, be sure to follow Curly Girl Kitchen on Instagram, and tag me when you try one of my recipes so I can see all your delicious creations!
Soft Salted Vanilla Caramels
All recipes on Curly Girl Kitchen are developed for high altitude at 5,280 feet.
- Digital Instant Read Thermometer
- Microwaveable Glass Bowl
- 8×8" Baking Dish
- Parchment Paper
- Wax Paper
- ½ cup unsalted butter, melted
- ½ cup light corn syrup
- ½ cup granulated sugar
- ½ cup dark brown sugar, loosely packed
- ½ cup sweetened condensed milk
- ⅛ tsp coarse Kosher salt (if using table salt, use half the amount)
- 1 ½ tsp vanilla bean paste or vanilla extract
- ¼ tsp flaky finishing salt (such as Maldon)
- Line an 8×8 square baking dish with parchment paper so that the paper hangs over the edges.
- In a large, microwaveable bowl (I recommend a glass Pyrex bowl with a 2.5 quart capacity), melt the butter. Whisk in the corn syrup, sugars, sweetened condensed milk and coarse Kosher salt until smooth.
- Microwave on high for 6 minutes. Check the temperature by stirring the caramel a bit with the thermometer – it should read between 238-242 degrees to reach the soft caramel stage. If it needs more time, continue to microwave on high in 15-second increments, checking the temperature after each increment.Depending on the power of your microwave, and the temperature of your ingredients when you start cooking the caramel, it may take more or less time. Each time I make this, mine is done at around 6 1/2 – 7 minutes, and I have a 1000-watt microwave. If you have a much higher wattage microwave, start off with less time, so you don't burn your caramel or make it too hard.
- Remove the bowl from the microwave – use oven mitts as the bowl will be hot.Stir in the vanilla extract or vanilla bean paste with a spatula. The caramel will bubble and hiss a little.Immediately pour the caramel into the parchment-lined baking dish. Let stand at room temperature for about 15 minutes, then sprinkle the top with flaky Maldon salt or another flaky finishing salt. If you don't have any, just sprinkle with more coarse Kosher salt.
- Refrigerate the pan of caramel until firm, about an hour. Lift the slab of caramel out by the paper, and set it on a cutting board.Use a large, sharp chef's knife for cutting the caramel. When you cut it, it should be firm enough to cut cleanly, but not so cold that it's brittle. If it got too firm in the refrigerator, let sit at room temperature for a few minutes before cutting.Cut the slab of caramel into thirds, then cut each third into 15 pieces.
- Rip 15 strips of wax paper, measuring about 4 1/2 inches wide each. Then cut the strips into thirds so you have 45 squares of wax paper. Wrap each piece of caramel tightly in the wax paper and twist the ends to secure.
- Store the wrapped caramels in an airtight container for up to 2 weeks.
- The corn syrup is a necessary component as the combination of the different structure of the sugars in corn syrup and the other sugars prevent crystallization in caramel. Don’t leave it out.
- This recipe can be doubled, and I have done it, but be sure your bowl is large enough as this bubbles up quite a bit in the microwave. It will also take longer to reach the correct temperature.
- Homemade caramels should be stored, individually wrapped, in an airtight container. They will keep at room temperature for up to 2 weeks – if they last that long! You can also make and wrap them in advance, place in a freezer bag, and freeze for 3-6 months.