What causes separation in caramel sauce?


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I tried making Stella Parks' pecan pie recipe today, and the recipe calls for adding cold butter to caramel right as it reaches caramel stage (325°F). However for me, the fat separated as it was cooling down. I did some research on why caramel sauces separate, but have found possibly every reason you could possibly think of.

Some people say it's caused by drastic changes in temperature, so you should cool the caramel in an ice bath and have the butter be warmed. Some say it's caused by not stirring when the recipe calls for it (I did stir occasionally as it cooled down, as per the recipe), while others say separation is caused by stirring too much.

Intuitively to me, it seems that it makes most sense that separation is caused by an extreme change in temperature, which breaks the emulsion in the butter. But then it makes me wonder why recipes, including this one, would specifically call for adding cold butter immediately to the caramel.

And in terms of fixing a separated sauce, I've seen both people say to reheat the sauce while stirring, and others say to not reheat the caramel after adding butter.
 
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@Cahoot,

I love/hate caramel. It never fails when I am in the mood to make it, it storms. We were in a five year drought, yet every time I decided to make caramel, it stormed. Ambient humidity slows the evaporation of water in wet caramel. But I digress...

1. what type of sugar are you using? I swear by cane sugar. Sugar beet sugar will not caramelize properly.


2. TBH, I’ve not had caramel separate on me. But reading through Stella Parks instructions, I do everything pretty much the same, in addition I:

  • I add a pinch of cream of tartar to prevent crystallization
  • I let the sugar and water sit in the pot for about 10 mins before I begin. This allows the sugar to absorb the water and begin to dissolve
  • I start with medium- high heat. When the sugar syrup comes to a boil, I reduce to medium-low for a slower steadier caramelization process. IDK, maybe it‘s just psychological, but I feel like I get a more even caramelization.

3. cut the butter in the same size cubes and don’t make them too small. if the butter cubes are too small they will quickly melt; you want the butter to melt as slowly as possible

4. stir butter in gently in a figure 8, not in an up and over as it cools the caramel to fast

I have to say it is an unconventional pecan pie in that she makes a caramel filling. Usually the filling is eggs, sugar and pecans. Either way though, its so cloyingly sweet I cannot eat it.




An article on differences between cane and sugar beet sugar.
 
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@Cahoot,

I love/hate caramel. It never fails when I am in the mood to make it, it storms. We were in a five year drought, yet every time I decided to make caramel, it stormed. Ambient humidity slows the evaporation of water in wet caramel. But I digress...

1. what type of sugar are you using? I swear by cane sugar. Sugar beet sugar will not caramelize properly.


2. TBH, I’ve not had caramel separate on me. But reading through Stella Parks instructions, I do everything pretty much the same, in addition I:

  • I add a pinch of cream of tartar to prevent crystallization
  • I let the sugar and water sit in the pot for about 10 mins before I begin. This allows the sugar to absorb the water and begin to dissolve
  • I start with medium- high heat. When the sugar syrup comes to a boil, I reduce to medium-low for a slower steadier caramelization process. IDK, maybe it‘s just psychological, but I feel like I get a more even caramelization.

3. cut the butter in the same size cubes and don’t make them too small. if the butter cubes are too small they will quickly melt; you want the butter to melt as slowly as possible

4. stir butter in gently in a figure 8, not in an up and over as it cools the caramel to fast

I have to say it is an unconventional pecan pie in that she makes a caramel filling. Usually the filling is eggs, sugar and pecans. Either way though, its so cloyingly sweet I cannot eat it.




An article on differences between cane and sugar beet sugar.
I didn't have any problems with crystallization actually. I use cane sugar, added some cream of tartar, washed the sides, and also had it on medium-high heat as I heard that helps prevent too. Forgot to lower the heat in the later part of cooking, but as far as I understand, that would just help control the final temperature, not crystallization.

I didn't cube the butter but had cut them in two equal sized pieces. So you want the butter to melt slowly, as it's more likely to separate if it melts too fast, right? That brings up a couple questions: is that why she calls for cold butter (so won't melt as fast), and why not let the caramel cool a bit first before adding the butter?

It really surprised me how there wasn't any concrete information on this topic that I could find. Caramel sauce is such a basic and common preparation, and it's supposed to be a simple question - what causes the emulsification in butter to break? But reading what other experienced pastry chefs say, it may as well be black magic.

Though I didn't know that humidity causes the evaporation of water to be slower. I've seen people mention humidity as a factor in success making caramel, and I'm guessing the longer evaporation gives the syrup more of a chance to crystallize?

Yes it is an unusual pecan pie recipe, but I thought it'd be more interesting to make than a regular basic recipe. Of course it's still very sweet (600g of sugar in the filling will do that), but I thought it was tempered by the caramelization, along with the enormous quantity of pecans in the filling too. Plus the pecans on top got toasted very dark by the end of baking which I loved. However I haven't made a regular pecan pie recipe before so can't compare.
 
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@Cahoot, yes caramel sauce is a common preparation, but heavy cream is often added or substituted for butter. The cream makes it easier to emulsify.

Cold butter is key to emulsifying the caramel without breaking the butter. The caramel breaks because butter is an emulsion itself. It’s an emulsion of 16% - 18% water and 80% - 83% butterfat. Since the water is disperses in the fat, so it is a water in fat emulsion.

When the butter is cold, it melts slowly and the the butterfat with the tiny droplets of water are able to hold together and disperse more evenly into the melted sugar. But if the butter melts too fast, the butterfat and water separates. The butterfat and water then float in the the sugar syrup. The same principle applies when making a sauce; you want to slowly melt the butter into the sauce to allow the butterfat with the tiny water droplets to disperse into the sauce. So cold butter is always use and gently stirred in. I always stir in a figure 8.

I looked up this recipe and was surprised that is not printed. I found a video of Serious Eats’ Daniel Gritzer making the pie. I noted he used the butter cube whole. I also noted that he used a saucier. I have an extraordinary collection of cookware, but saucier is one pan I don’t own.


 

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