Would you eat that?
You already have. Boiled sugar is everywhere – in foods, sauces, beers, flavors, colors, and sweets. Its origin is a mystery – perhaps one thousand years ago? Or maybe it was around since humans first started cooking over a fire?
People from the midwest and western U.S. call it karmel. Easterners say kar-a-mel. Spanish say caramelo and Israelis say kar-a-MEL.
How do you say it?
The magic lies in the chemical process called caramelization.
Caramelization is simple and complicated at the same time. Basically, it’s heating sugar to a high temperature (340 degrees F) until the molecules break down into new compounds. The sugar turns brown with a sweet, nutty flavor. You’ve probably caramelized onions, carrots, and potatoes or consumed it in everything from candies, cola, and Cracker Jacks to caramel apples, flan, and French onion soup. It’s great in coffee, tea, and ice cream.
A lot can go wrong. The caramel can get grainy. A dark-colored pot can mask the color. If you use brown sugar and butter you’ll probably end up with butterscotch, and if you overcook it, you’ll get toffee.
Many food historians believe the process was discovered around the year 250 in India. From there it traveled to Persia, Greece, Rome, and the rest of Europe. Others credit Egypt. Caramel -The Definitive Guide for Connoisseurs, suggests that the Egyptian version was “a crunchy kind of caramel called “kurat al milh” which roughly translates into sweet ball of salt.”
Now you’re cooking.
Caramel arrived in America around 1650. Today’s caramel came much later, along with a colorful history.
According to Meredith Francis in Playlist, Charles Gunther didn’t invent it but “is often credited with the mass popularity of caramels” in the late 1800s. Born in 1837, Gunther immigrated from Germany to America with his parents. When the Civil War broke out, Gunther worked for the Confederate Army, transporting soldiers. He was captured, held in a Union Prison, and eventually released. He became a traveling salesman during the last years of the war, working for a Chicago candy manufacturing company. Caught up in the business, Gunther went to Europe to learn how to make caramels.
In 1868, Gunther opened his own candy company in Chicago. Three years later the business was destroyed in the Great Chicago Fire. Gunther opened a new factory producing caramels for the wealthy. It was a huge success. History best remembers Gunther for his macabre “collection” of items that included everything from Abraham Lincoln’s deathbed, a Confederate Civil War Infirmary, and an alleged serpent skin from the Garden of Eden.
Another determined man went into the business. He started The Lancaster Caramel Company. Beth Py-Lieberman reported in Smithsonian, that this candy maker “was the first one to add cream to the boiled sugar mix and make some caramels.” You might know his name.
Hershey expanded. By 1892 the company was booming with multiple locations. The Hershey Chocolate Company was added as a subsidiary.
Hershey believed that caramels were a fad and decided to sell everything – the factories, machinery, inventory and formulas, for one million dollars (about $34 million in today’s dollars) to The American Caramel Company.
Hershey bet everything on chocolate.
Milton Hershey, Wikimedia Commons
Today, The Hershey Company is worth almost $40 billion. The American Caramel Company, also known for the first baseball cards, went bankrupt in 1928.
The story wouldn’t be complete without addictive salted caramel. It came from France, invented by chocolatier Henri Le Roux. He opened a store in Brittany, France – an area known for salted butter. Le Roux created a salted butter caramel with crushed nuts. It was a hit, winning the 1980 “Best Sweet in France” award.
Henri Le Roux, Wikimedia Commons
Salted caramel was unstoppable. Sarah Young in Lifestyle reported that scientists tested salted caramel and discovered “when we scoff something sweet, salty, or fatty, the brain releases heroin-like chemicals called endogenous opioids.”
Salted caramel has it all.
In other words, salted caramel triggers “hedonic adaptation” – human happiness.
Try eating just one.
Dribble salted caramel syrup over your ice cream, in a caramel coffee creamer, or munch on caramel popcorn. It’s taste heaven.