Vanilla Sea Salt Caramels

December 20, 2010

This year, I don’t have much money to spend on gifts.  The solution? Homemade goodies for all!  I’ve noticed that Sea Salt Caramels are very popular – one of our local chocolatiers sells boxes of four caramels for almost $10.  I resolved to make my own caramels- you’ll be amazed by how inexpensive, easy, and delicious they are.

I modified a recipe I found for sea salt caramels.  Firstly, I added two kinds of vanilla – vanilla bean and my favorite Nielsen-Massey Mexican Vanilla – because in my world caramels without vanilla are unthinkable.  I think the vanilla bean is a lovely addition; it lends beautiful flecks and gives the caramels a very gourmet look.  If you don’t keep vanilla beans handy, try using an equivalent amount of vanilla paste for a similar effect.

Next, I cut down on the amount of salt in the caramels themselves.  This ended up being a good choice: it allowed me much more control over the saltiness of the caramels when I sprinkled them with salt later on.  You can always put more salt on top of them, but if you’ve put too much in while they’re cooking, you can’t take it out!

I also used two different kinds of salt: Australian flake salt and French grey salt (or “sel gris”). I ultimately preferred the taste and texture of the flake salt.  You can also use espresso salt, jalapeño salt, vanilla salt, lavender salt, or other creative and unique combinations.  Don’t be dismayed by the high price of it online- if you only need a little, many gourmet grocery stores and spice shops will sell different kinds of salt by the ounce, so you can buy a couple dollars’ worth and experiment.  I’ve seen fancy salts in bulk at grocery stores like PCC and Whole Foods.

Finally, I opted to cook all of the ingredients together in one pan.  This was a happy accident: I added my corn syrup, butter, vanilla caviar, and heavy cream all together before I realized that the cream and the corn syrup were supposed to be cooked separately until the very end.  At this point,  I was already invested by one vanilla bean, so I decided to bite the bullet and try to cook it all together.  The caramels turned out perfectly, so I’m going to pretend I knew what I was doing.  To be perfectly honest, I’d even recommend using one pan because it’s much easier.

Vanilla Bean Sea Salt Caramels


  • 2 cups heavy cream
  • 10 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into pieces
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons sea salt, plus extra for sprinkling on top
  • 3 cups sugar (I prefer unrefined sugar, I believe it gives a richer flavor than white sugar)
  • 1/2 cup light corn syrup
  • 1/2 cup water
  • 1 vanilla bean’s caviar, or equivalent amount of vanilla paste
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract (reduce to 1 tsp or omit entirely if you don’t like a strongly pronounced vanilla flavor)


  • One large, nonstick baking sheet (my favorite is here)
  • Nonstick oil spray or greased parchment paper (if not using a nonstick baking sheet, or if you prefer it)
  • Candy thermometer (or a deep-fat thermometer)
  • Wax paper for wrapping

Makes: 80-100 caramels.  This is a double recipe, so halve it if you don’t need as many.


  1. Lightly spray your nonstick pan with oil.  If you prefer, you can line the baking sheet with parchment and then spray that with oil.
  2. Add all ingredients except for vanilla extract to a large, heavy pan (the one you always use to cook spaghetti will likely work quite well) and carefully clip on your candy thermometer.  Starting at medium-low heat, stir constantly until the sugar crystals dissolve.
  3. Increase heat to medium and allow the mixture to boil – do not stir, but swirl the pan every so often to settle it.

    The caramel will go from a very pale color with an extremely vigorous boil to a thick, golden-brown, magma-like texture.  Do not worry if the temperature seems to increase very slowly – it can take some patience.  Increase the heat gradually if necessary, but never cook caramel at high heat or you will risk burning it.
  4. Cook to the firm-ball stage.  Your thermometer may say this is around 245-248°F.  Do not let the mixture go over 250°F!
  5. Remove the pan from the heat and immediately add vanilla extract, swirling the pan to incorporate it, then carefully pour the mixture into your greased (or parchment-lined) pan.  Smooth it out to the edges of the pan with a heat-resistant spatula if necessary.
  6. Allow to cool until the caramel is just barely warm to touch – it will be set, but malleable – about 1 to 2 hours, depending on the heat retention of your pan.  To speed your cooling time, put the hot pan on top of a cooling rack – this will allow air to circulate underneath and cool the pan faster.
  7. Lift the caramels out using the parchment, or carefully work a knife or spatula underneath the caramel, then invert it onto your work surface (a clean counter or cutting board works nicely here).
  8. Cut the caramel sheet into individual caramels.  You may find that it’s easier to work with one half of the caramel at a time.  Now is your chance to be creative – roll the caramels into cute spirals or tubes, and press some salt into the top of them.  Be sure to do a taste test to figure out how much salt is necessary, and have  fun with it.

This recipe is modified from the original found here.


  • Reply Robyn December 21, 2010 at 2:08 pm

    Very nice, I’m looking forward to taste-testing these!

    How versatile is this recipe? For instance, I’ve seen chocolate caramels, or as you mentioned, lavender caramels. How are you going to adjust it?

    Also, love the bottle of Grand Marnier in the background.

  • Reply Kimberly December 21, 2010 at 2:19 pm

    For the lavender ones that I’m making today, I’m going to press a combination of French culinary lavender buds and sea salt into the tops. I might use a food processor to blend the lavender and salt together to get lavender salt, or I might just mix them together loosely; I haven’t decided yet.

    As for adding flavorings, I haven’t yet experimented. My suspicion is that the most flexible adjustments would be in the form of adding flavorings such as chocolate, either instead of or in addition to the vanilla extract. I don’t know that you can get away with adding actual chocolate to them and getting the same results. Similarly, if you wanted them to be lavender-infused (or rosemary, or thyme, or any other savory herb that pairs well with sweet things), I’m positive you could toss in some very finely chopped fresh or dried herbs before pouring it into the pan to cool.

    You could, of course, dip them in tempered chocolate and sprinkle salt on top. I think that would be MY preference, because chocolate-flavored caramels always fail to impress me. I’m also wanting to experiment with liqueur flavorings such as Irish cream, Kahlua, and, yes, Grand Marnier. :)

  • Reply Hannah December 23, 2010 at 11:24 am

    Hmm…what would happen if one were to reduce the sugar and use sweetened condensed milk…? Or coconut milk..? Brown sugar? Honey?

    Also I have *got* to try these with Irish Cream. *ponders delicious caramel experiments*

    • Reply Kimberly December 23, 2010 at 1:12 pm

      Hey Hannah!

      I’m by no means a candymaking expert, but here’s what I think:

      1. Sweetened Condensed milk – Sweetened Condensed milk might substitute some of the heavy cream AND sugar, since it has both milk fat and sweetness. I’m not sure what difference in flavor it might have – it seems slightly less rich than a combination of heavy cream and sugar, so perhaps a slightly less rich caramel would the result? It also might be a little closer in flavor and texture to dulce de leche candy, since dulce de leche is basically sweetened condensed milk that’s reduced into a caramel. I spotted a caramel recipe that uses dulce de leche:

      2. Coconut milk – Coconut milk has fat, so I think you could substitute unsweetened coconut milk for some of the heavy cream. If it’s sweetened, you’d have to substitute it for some of the cream and the sugar, but not much since it will likely be less sweet than the sugar itself. Here’s an example recipe:

      If you’re not shooting for it to be vegan, you can substitute butter for the margarine, because it will give it a richer flavor. I think it would be awesome to sprinkle some toasted coconut (either sweetened or unsweetened, my preference would be the latter) on top of these.

      3. Brown sugar – Brown sugar would lend a delicious richness. I would substitute packed brown sugar in equal amounts for sugar, but not for all of it since it does have slightly higher moisture than refined sugar, and using all brown sugar might be a little overwhelming. You could also experiment with using a combination of dark and light corn syrup for a richer caramel, or adding a tablespoon or two of molasses. Here’s a brown sugar caramel recipe:

      4. Honey – Honey can be substituted in equal amounts for unrefined or refined sugar up until a point, since honey actually tastes sweeter than sugar. An eHow article says that “Up to one cup, honey can be substituted for sugar in equal amounts. For example, you can substitute 1/2 cup of honey for 1/2 cup of sugar called for in a recipe. Over one cup, use about 2/3-3/4 cup of honey for every cup of sugar.”

      I don’t know what impact this might have on the overall structure and consistency of the caramel, since you’d be substituting a crystalline sugar for a liquid one (unless you’re using honey that hasn’t been heated or filtered, in which case it will likely be more crystalline than liquid!) Here’s a honey caramel recipe:

      So, all in all, it seems that the usual rule for alternative sweeteners is to use half crystalline sugar, and half of the other sweetener, whether it’s brown sugar, honey, or something else. It also seems that honey is a better substitute for liquid sweeteners like corn syrup, since they’re going to be slightly more similar in consistency and sweetness than, say, substituting honey for your crystalline sugar and keeping the corn syrup.

      Have fun experimenting, and let me know what you come up with! :)

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