Our yearly trip to a local apple farm always makes me feel that fall has finally arrived. The crisp air, beautiful colors and a car full of apples and pumpkins is the essence of what fall feels like to me. In my eagerness to try all the different varieties of apples (and my daughter’s eagerness to pick every apple in sight) we always end up coming home with way too many apples. It is something of an autumn tradition for me to spend the next week trying to think of ways to use up all those apples! Of course one of the most popular options is to make a big batch of sticky caramel apples and I know dipping the apple in caramel ensure they will be eaten quickly. In the past, I have always used a bag of Kraft caramels to dip the apples in. They are so easy and fast to prepare in the microwave and making homemade caramel seems like more effort than it’s worth. But this year I decided to finally try making the caramel coating from scratch and we compared apples dipped in homemade caramel to those dipped in melted Kraft caramels.
As I researched homemade caramel apple recipes, I was surprised at the difference in ingredients between recipes. As basic as a caramel recipe seems, everyone seemed to have different opinions about what ingredients should be included. The simplest recipes used just cream and sugar while others included corn syrup, butter, maple syrup or even molasses. In the end, I went with a fairly simple recipe but added some maple syrup for a bit richer flavor. I also liked the idea of using dark brown sugar instead of plain sugar to add some extra depth. Here’s my homemade caramel apple recipe and the results of our taste comparison:
- 6 medium apples, washed and dried thoroughly (Honeycrisp are my favorite variety)
- 6 popsicle sticks or sturdy lollipop sticks
- 1 cup Dark Brown Sugar
- 1 stick (1/2 cup) unsalted butter
- 3/4 cup sweetened condensed milk
- 1/3 cup honey
- 3 Tablespoons pure maple syrup
- 1 teaspoon molasses
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 1/4 teaspoon maple extract
- Line a large sheet pan or platter with parchment paper and lightly butter the parchment. Add the sugar, butter, condensed milk, honey, syrup, molasses and salt to a heavy, medium-sized saucepan. Cook over medium-low heat, stirring frequently, until sugar is completely dissolved, about 5 minutes. Test to see if the sugar is dissolved by cooling a little of the caramel and rubbing it between your fingers. If the caramel feels gritty, the sugar needs to dissolve further, so keep cooking it at a low heat.
- Turn the heat up to medium-high and continue to cook, stirring continuously, until the mixture reaches 230 to 235ºF on a candy thermometer, about 10 minutes. I'm giving a range of temperatures instead of a specific temp, because it is so hard to stop cooking at exactly the correct temperature; just try to get as close to 235ºF as possible. Remove caramel from heat and immediately pour into a deep, narrow bowl (preferably microwavable). Stir in the maple extract and let the caramel sit until it cools to 200ºF.
- Dip the apples into the cooled caramel one at a time, using a spoon to help coat the tops of the apples, if needed. Place the caramel covered apples on the parchment lined platter. If the caramel begins to harden before all the apples have been dipped, just reheat it in the microwave for about 30 seconds, or until it is soft enough to spread again. As soon as all the apples are dipped, put them into the refrigerator to stop the caramel from sliding off of the apples. Remove the apples from the refrigerator about 15 minutes before serving to allow the caramel to warm and soften a bit.
I was surprised by how much different the homemade caramel apples were! They had a darker brown color which hinted at the richer, deeper, almost burnt-sugar flavor of the caramel. The caramel was also a significantly different texture. The homemade caramel was firmer than the store bought caramels which made it harder to coat the apples, but it stayed on much better once they were covered. I have always had an issue with the caramel sliding right off the apples, leaving a huge puddle of caramel under the apples, but very little on the actual apples themselves. The homemade caramel puddled a little bit, but it stayed put much better than the melted Kraft caramels. The taste comparison was not completely straightforward. While the adults vastly preferred the richer flavor of the homemade caramel, our daughter still liked the super-sweet stickiness of Kraft caramels. I would imagine that she is not the only child who always thinks sweeter is better!
Also surprising was the cost comparison. For enough caramel to coat 6 medium apples, the homemade caramel cost $2.58 while the Kraft caramels cost $2.99. I really had expected the store bought caramels to cost a lot more than homemade, but the addition of maple syrup to my recipe brought the cost up significantly. If I made the same recipe using corn syrup in place of the maple syrup, the homemade would cost quite a bit less. However, the maple syrup added a wonderful richness to the flavor that I would not willingly forgo. Since I prepared the Kraft caramels in the microwave, they took much less time than homemade and also do not require the constant stirring and checking for temperature.
Bottom Line: The homemade caramel apples were deliciously different from those made using store bought caramels. I loved the rich color and flavor that the maple syrup added and the homemade caramel was slightly cheaper than using store bought caramels. However, I think most kids would prefer the sweeter flavor and stickier texture of Kraft caramels and they are certainly easier to prepare.