This caramel sauce is so creamy and smooth! It comes together quickly and uses just a few ingredients. I love the tang that the lemon adds. This sauce is the perfect topping for ice cream, crisps or cobbler, a fall cake, or your spoon. Originally published September 22, 2016.

caramel sauce being poured into a mason jar.
Table of Contents
  1. Why you’ll love this Caramel Recipe
  2. Ingredients for the Best Caramel Sauce
  3. How to make Caramel Sauce
  4. Tools to use for the Best Caramel Sauce
  5. Best Caramel Sauce Recipe Tips
  6. How to use this Caramel Topping
  7. How to store the Best Homemade Caramel Sauce
  8. Caramel Recipe FAQs
  9. You will love these other topping ideas!
  10. My Favorite Caramel Sauce Recipe

Last night I was driving home from a church meeting, when I saw this poor guy walking his dead car across 4 lanes of traffic on a busy street, trying to get to the side of the road. Normally I pass by people with car issues because I have my kids with me (and because I know ZERO about cars), but I was kid-free and had cables in the trunk, so I stopped and asked if he needed a jump.

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caramel sauce being poured into a mason jar.

We hooked up the cables and got his car started. I noticed that he looked slightly bewildered throughout the whole process, eyeing my very round 7-month-pregnant-belly. I asked him what happened to his car. He said, “I pulled over to help a pregnant lady whose car had died.  Then my car wouldn’t start. Congratulations on your baby.”

I seriously don’t think I’ve ever laughed so hard with a complete stranger. What are the odds that you pull over to help a pregnant lady, then your car breaks down, then ANOTHER pregnant lady stops to help you? Ha!

thick caramel sauce pouring off a whisk.

Speaking of being pregnant, I had my 33 week check up yesterday. Doc said I’m measuring small (29 centimeters) so he sent me in for an ultrasound marked “urgent.” Anytime a doctor orders something that says “urgent,” it’s bound to make you freak out a little, but fortunately they got me scheduled for later that day. The doctor emailed me later and said the baby is developing fine, I just “hide my baby well.”

I don’t know about that. I’ll give you one guess where the baby is:

a little boy sitting in a chair at the doctor's office and his pregnant mother's reflection in the mirror.

But I am very relieved that the baby is safe. They said she’s about 4 pounds, 14 ounces, which is right on track. 7 weeks to go!

Why you’ll love this Caramel Recipe

I can’t wait to share this recipe with you guys! I have been making this caramel sauce for years. It’s a huge favorite of mine. It is not a cheater recipe; you won’t find any butter here (sorry butter, you know I love you.) It’s straight up water and sugar and cream (plus vanilla, salt, and lemon to add flavor.) That’s it!

If you’re scared of caramel I totally get it. Caramel is famous for being difficult to make, especially when it’s the Real Deal (read: water and sugar based, no butter in sight). But today we are making Real Deal caramel sauce, sweet and complex and, well, caramelly, and I promise you don’t need to be afraid. 

The great thing about making caramel SAUCE instead of straight up caramel is that it doesn’t have to set up. If you didn’t cook it to precisely the “right” temperature, that’s ok, because you’re pouring it on stuff anyway. (More about all the stuff you can pour it on below!)

a mason jar of homemade caramel sauce with a whisk in the background.

If you are a confident candy maker, you can probably make this without a thermometer (but if you’re a candy maker, you probably already have one…) The nice thing about this recipe is that it’s caramel SAUCE, so if you don’t get the temperature exactly right, no harm done, your sauce just won’t have as deep a flavor. It’s not like when you’re making caramel to eat as candy and need it to be hard (but not too hard) at room temperature. Basically the only way to mess this sauce up is to go too far and burn it. Don’t do that. :)

Ingredients for the Best Caramel Sauce

Here’s a quick shopping list for you! This is what you’ll need to make this caramel sauce. Scroll down to the recipe card at the bottom of the post for more details. 

  • Sugar
  • Heavy cream
  • Vanilla bean paste (or vanilla extract)
  • Kosher salt
  • Lemon juice
stirring thick caramel sauce with a whisk.

How to make Caramel Sauce

Here’s a quick overview of the steps you’ll take to make this caramel sauce. Make sure to scroll down to the recipe card at the bottom of the post to get the complete instructions and important details. Caramel sauce can be just a little fussy and I want it to turn out right for you!

  • Add water and sugar to a saucepan and bring to a boil.
  • Boil until the syrup is thick and straw-colored, about 300 degrees. Reduce the heat to medium and continue boiling until syrup is a deep amber color, and reaches about 350 degrees.
  • Heat cream in the microwave and keep warm until ready to add to caramel.
  • Remove the syrup from heat when it is deep amber. Carefully pour about a quarter of the cream into the pot and stir. Wait for the bubbles to calm down, then add the remaining cream, in increments if you want. Stir it together.
  • Add salt to taste, vanilla, and lemon juice, and whisk until sauce is nice and smooth.

Also don’t burn the handle off your candy thermometer. Am I scaring you away from making this?? I swear it’s not always this dramatic.

a candy thermometer in a saucepan, a broken candy thermometer.

I’ve made this caramel sauce a ton of times, it’s not hard. For some reason I was worried that the tip of the thermometer was not submerged in the syrup enough and wasn’t getting a proper reading, so I was tilting the pan to make sure it was submerged. But I didn’t realize that meant the handle on the other side was directly above the flame of my gas burner. Oooops!!!

Best Caramel Sauce Recipe Tips

Caramel is known for being persnickety. Don’t freak out, this caramel sauce is much less fussy than making traditional caramel! You can do it. Here are a few tips to ensure that your caramel turns out perfectly:

  • Make sure the sides of your pot are clean. Sugar on the inner sides of the pot will lead to crystallization and your caramel could seize up. When you pour the sugar in, go slowly and pour it right into the center. If you mess up and get sugar granules on the side of the pot, just dip a pastry brush in water and gently clean the sides of the pot. 
  • Don’t leave the stove. Starting caramel sauce and then walking away is a recipe for disaster. Literally. You need to be prepared to spend half an hour at the stove once you get this started (you probably won’t need that much time, but just plan on that). 
  • Use a large, heavy-bottomed pot. Like I said before, a quality, heavy-bottomed pot will distribute heat evenly so your caramel doesn’t scorch. It needs to be big enough that when you pour the cream in and the caramel bubbles up, it doesn’t overflow.

How to thicken Caramel Sauce

Time + heat = perfectly thickened caramel sauce. The secret is removing it from the heat when it’s a deep amber color, at about 350 degrees. 

Remember, you need to cool caramel sauce down before judging its consistency. If you’re looking at your boiling hot, just-made caramel sauce and thinking “this is too thin” just remember you’re serving it at a much cooler temperature.

How to thin Caramel Sauce

Caramel sauce will be thinner when it’s hotter. If you’ve just removed your jar of homemade caramel sauce from the fridge and it’s very firm, just scoop the amount you want to warm into a microwave safe bowl and heat it up. It’ll be pourable again as soon as it’s hot enough. 

Now, if you went so far as to make your caramel sauce into actual caramel…sort of congratulations, because now you have caramel? But if you really did want caramel sauce, you can add the caramel to a saucepan with a couple tablespoons of heavy cream. Stir it over low heat until the caramel and cream are combined. Add more heavy cream as desired until the caramel sauce is the consistency you like.

How to use this Caramel Topping

There are literally a hundred things you could put this caramel sauce on. I’m posting my friend Amelia’s recipe for Apple Crisp next, and that’s what I drizzled it over today. A very, very good choice. I have some links after the recipe for other desserts that this caramel sauce would pair well will, but here are some more general ideas:

  • ice cream
  • cake
  • trifle
  • dip apples/bananas/any fruit into it
  • top pancakes or waffles. DO IT. I actually like to mix this caramel sauce with maple syrup and then put it on pancakes, heaven.
  • stir into plain Greek yogurt and top with granola and/or fruit
  • fold into whipped cream and top a cake with it
caramel sauce shot from up close in a mason jar.

How to store the Best Homemade Caramel Sauce

You can keep your caramel sauce in the fridge for up to 2 weeks. Not that it will last that long. If you do want to make it ahead, it’s good in the freezer for up to 3 months.

Does homemade Caramel Sauce need to be refrigerated?

Caramel sauce has dairy in it, so it’s best to keep it refrigerated. 

Caramel Recipe FAQs

What’s the difference between caramel sauce and caramel syrup?

The way I see it, a sauce is spoonable, and a syrup is pourable. That said, it depends on whether you’re keeping the sauce or syrup in the fridge or in the pantry. Syrup tends to be thinner and sweeter; sauce tends to be thicker and richer. 

Recipes that use Caramel Sauce

There are about a million ways to use this sauce. Obviously ice cream is a great place to start, but once you start…it’s hard to stop. Here are a few of my favorite ways to enjoy this caramel sauce:

Best Banana Cream Pie << definitely gotta put caramel on your banana cream pie.

Best Dutch Apple Pie << caramel and apple are a match made in heaven.

Apple Crisp with Oatmeal << this already has insane amounts of streusel. Add caramel!

No Bake Salted Caramel Cheesecake with Caramelized Bananas << this calls for salted caramel sauce. Just use 1 teaspoon salt instead of ¼ teaspoon when you make the sauce.

Caramel Apple Cider Reduction Shakes << this is fall, personified. SO GOOD

Sweet Potato Pie with Salted Caramel Whipped Cream << talk about a show stopping Thanksgiving dessert…move over, pumpkin pie.

You will love these other topping ideas!

The Best Lemon Curd (Easy!) << this is a reader favorite! And a favorite of mine too.

Fresh Strawberry Topping << sooo much better than just adding sugar to your strawberries!

Homemade Chocolate Sauce << you’ll never need another hot fudge recipe, ever.

Peanut Butter Caramel Sauce from A Dash of Sanity

Homemade Raspberry Sauce from Queenslee Appetit

Cherry Sauce from Of Batter and Dough

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My Favorite Caramel Sauce

5 from 2 votes
Prep: 5 minutes
Cook: 14 minutes
Total: 19 minutes
Servings: 3 Servings
This caramel sauce is so creamy and smooth! It comes together quickly and uses just a few ingredients. I love the tang that the lemon adds. This sauce is the perfect topping for ice cream, crisps or cobbler, a fall cake, or your spoon. 


  • 1/2 cup water
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 cup heavy cream
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt, or to taste
  • 3/4 teaspoon vanilla bean paste, *
  • 1/2 teaspoon lemon juice


  • In a 2-quart heavy-bottomed sauce pan,** add the water.
  • Add the sugar to the center of the water. Don’t get sugar on the sides of the pot, or it will get all crusty and make your caramel not smooth. (If you do get some on the side, use a pastry brush to wipe the sides and remove the crystals before they harden.)
  • Stir and bring the mixture to a boil over high heat. Use a lid if you want it to go faster, but stay close by, you need to start timing once it reaches a boil.
  • Once boiling all across the surface, set a timer for 7 minutes. If you have one, attach a candy thermometer to the side of the pan.
  • Boil until the syrup is thick and straw-colored. It should reach about 300 degrees. This ended up taking more like 9 minutes for me.
  • Reduce the heat to medium and continue boiling until syrup is a deep amber color, and reaches about 350 degrees, 1-3 minutes.
  • Meanwhile, add cream to a glass measuring cup and microwave for about 1-2 minutes, until it is hot. Keep warm until ready to add to caramel.
  • Remove the syrup from heat when it is deep amber. Carefully pour about a quarter of the cream into the pot and stir. Be careful, it’s going to bubble up and pop!
  • Wait for the bubbles to calm down, then add the remaining cream, in increments if you want. Stir it together.
  • Add salt to taste, vanilla, and lemon juice, and whisk until sauce is nice and smooth. The sauce will thicken as it cools. Sometimes I throw it in the freezer for a few minutes to speed up the cooling.
  • Store covered in the fridge for at least two weeks. Maybe longer, I wouldn’t know.
  • Eat with ice cream, cake, or cobbler! Actually the options are pretty endless. Fingers work great with this sauce.


*Or just use regular vanilla extract! Both will taste great, the vanilla bean paste just adds like MEGA vanilla flavor :)
**Technically caramel sauce dips into the realm of candy-making, which means you have to take stuff like this seriously. A 1-quart pan is too small (the caramel bubbles up when you add the cream) and a 3-quart pan is too big (your caramel won’t be deep enough to dip the thermometer in). So use the middle-size pot.
Source: adapted from Cook’s Illustrated


Serving: 0.5cup | Calories: 537kcal | Carbohydrates: 70g | Protein: 2g | Fat: 29g | Saturated Fat: 18g | Polyunsaturated Fat: 1g | Monounsaturated Fat: 8g | Cholesterol: 109mg | Sodium: 227mg | Potassium: 62mg | Fiber: 1g | Sugar: 67g | Vitamin A: 1166IU | Vitamin C: 1mg | Calcium: 54mg | Iron: 1mg
Course: Dessert
Cuisine: American
Calories: 537
Keyword: Caramel Sauce
Did you make this? I’d love to see it!Mention @thefoodcharlatan or tag #thefoodcharlatan!

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  1. I know this is an older recipe & curious if it was drastically altered over time?   I’m reading comments about butter & evaporated milk…. ???? 

    1. Hi Jena! No, I have not updated or changed this recipe. One commenter was having issues and decided to use some different ingredients. But I stand by the recipe as written. I just made this caramel again last week in fact, and it turned out marvelous. Enjoy!

  2. I have made this recipe several times, and while it always tastes divine, it has never once reached the thickness implied by your descriptions and pictures. I swear I’m following directions to the letter, using a high quality thermometer etc.. Would using vanilla extract instead of paste cause this? I also tried leaving out the lemon juice – no difference (in flavor either that we could detect :)). The only time it was thicker was when I once added 1/4 c melted butter to the 3/4 c evaporated milk I had. Suggestions?

    1. Hi Eileen! I’m wondering if you need to cook your caramel a little bit longer? I’m not really sure what’s going on. If the 1/4 cup butter and 3/4 cup evap milk is working for you, I say stick with it!

  3. Thank-you for that lovely story Ihaven’t laughter so hard in a while, and congratulations on the up and coming arrival of your baby, the caramel sauce recipe is great thanks again.

    1. Haha! I hadn’t laughed that hard in a while either! I couldn’t believe it when the guy told me that. What are the odds?? And my baby is 18 months old now, time flies!!! Thanks for the review and comment Marie, I love hearing from you!

  4. I tried making the caramel sauce but before 7 minutes it tured a black coffee color. I think I burned it!😆

    1. oh nooo burned caramel is the saddest thing ever!! next time try it at a lower temperature and keep an eye on it–once it hits that deep amber color, take it off the heat!

  5. Great to read that your baby is doing great! The caramel sauce looks so yummy I don’t know if I’ll be able to keep myself from using a lot of it so quickly. I do have a question with the sauce. Can you heat portions of it for use like when making hot caramel toppings (without burning or changing the flavor or texture)?

    1. Hey Marjie! Thank you! Whenever I want to use it after refrigeration, I just stick it in the microwave for a few seconds (maybe 10-20). Don’t leave it in too long or it will scorch. Hope this helps!

  6. I dunno – I look at that picture and all I see is a swim suit ready super model;) BABY?! WHAT BABY?! Eat more caramel sauce so people start believing that you’re pregnant.

  7. Lol, love your story and the odds of that has to be next to none! Your caramel sauce looks so luscious!! Can I just have the jar and a spoon, please!?!? And so thankful your ultrasound turned out ok! I wish I could measure small when I’m pregnant then maybe I wouldn’t feel quite like a whale, lol!

  8. You’re an adorable pregnant lady! :) I had a similar experience with Calvin where I measured 37 centimeters for about 4 weeks straight and all of a sudden they got concerned about it. You would think we’d measure big with our third babies, right?

    Mmmmmmmmm, caramel sauce! I was going to make zucchini bread for our church retreat. But then I hopped on here and saw this. And saw cream cheese poundcake. I’m thinking this will be WAY more popular haha. That zucchini is probably destined to grow mold in the veggie drawer.

    1. I know, it is kind of weird! I would expect a third pregnancy to be bigger, but I’m not complaining :) And I think that zucchini needs to go in a stir fry or something. DEFINITELY make that pound cake and this caramel sauce :) :)

  9. Ha! I had to laugh at your story about the dude with the broke down car… I think the odds of that happening are slim to none! Kudos for being such an outstanding citizen and pulling over to help a stranger!! And SO glad the baby is developing just fine! Now let’s talk caramel sauce. OH MY GAAAAWD. I am beyond obsessed and this one looks AMAZING! I love that touch of lemon! Forget pouring this over something. I just need the jar and a serving sized spoon. Gimme!! Pinned! Cheers!

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