Caramels: Comparison of Old and Modern Recipes

caramels
The caramels with walnuts were made using the hundred-year-old recipe. The other caramels were made using the modern recipe.

The holidays are a time for family fun, so when my daughter was recently home for Thanksgiving we decided that it was time for another post that compares a hundred-year-old recipe with a modern one. This year we decided to make Caramels.

I made a Caramel recipe from a hundred-year-old magazine that listed nuts, preferably black walnuts, as an ingredient. My daughter made a Caramel recipe that did not call for nuts from Sally’s Baking Addiction called Sea Salt Vanilla Caramels.

My recipe called for brown sugar. The modern recipe used three sweets: brown sugar, white sugar, and light corn syrup. It included a note which said that corn syrup is “a controversial ingredient, for sure, but an imperative one for making candy as it prevents crystallization and keeps the caramels smooth as silk.”

The Verdict: The two candies were both good, but very different from each other.

The modern recipe was delectable. The Sea Salt Vanilla Caramels were smooth and creamy, and melted in my mouth. If you want a great Caramel recipe, I strongly recommend clicking on the link and going to Sally’s website for her recipe.

On the other hand, the  hundred-year-old Caramel recipe made a candy that barely seemed like a caramel. It tasted more like a praline. If, by chance,  you are looking for a delightful walnut praline recipe, the old recipe is the recipe for you.

The hundred-year-old recipe included a warning, “These directions must be followed to the letter.”  I tried my best to follow them to the letter, but apparently failed since I think that the caramel may have partially “crystalized” (or perhaps a caramel a hundred-years-ago was different from a modern caramel).

Here’s the hundred-year-old recipe:

Source: Good Housekeeping (April, 1916)
Source: Good Housekeeping (April, 1916)

Here’s my version of the hundred-year-old recipe updated for modern cooks. (I made half of the original recipe.)

Caramels

  • Servings: approximately 50 pieces
  • Difficulty: moderate
  • Print

1 pound light-brown sugar (2 cups, packed)

2 tablespoons butter

1 cup milk

1 cup chopped nuts, preferably black walnuts

Prepare a 8 inch by 8 inch square pan by lining it with foil, and then buttering the foil.  Set aside.

Put the brown sugar, butter, and milk in a large, heavy saucepan. Using medium heat, bring to a boil while stirring. Reduce heat so that there is a slow rolling boil. Continue to stir until the mixture reaches the firm ball stage (245 – 248° F.). This can also be tested by dropping a small amount of the hot mixture into ice-cold water. It is done when a caramel-textured ball is formed. Add nuts before removing from the heat. Remove spoon from mixture while still boiling to prevent crystallization.

Quickly pour into the prepared pan. Scrape what remains into another dish. When cool turn onto a cookie sheet or board.  Cut into bite-sized pieces. If desired, wrap caramels in waxed paper.

walnut-caramel

42 thoughts on “Caramels: Comparison of Old and Modern Recipes

  1. I am sure crystallization can be prevented of you wash the sides of the pot down with a pastry brush and water to incorporate all the sugar at very start of the boiling mixture. Sometimes I place a lid on top of the pot for two minutes to create water condensation and then use a pastry brush to push the sugar crystals into the pot. I have even used sopping wet paper towels to wipe down the sides of the pot right to the edge of the boiling mixture. This is a trick I use for taffy and hard candy. (A tip from the old salt water taffy recipe)

    1. Thanks for the tips. I definitely will try some of these the next time I make candy. I like how clearly you explained how to do it, and especially enjoyed the one about the paper towels. It sounds like the kind of practical suggestion that an experienced cook would include in a recipe.

  2. I wonder how many gazillions of recipes there are for caramels. My recipe is from the 1930s and it makes very creamy, smooth caramels but it is much heavier on butter. Yours does sound more like pralines with all the brown sugar.

    1. Neither of these candies were as hard on the teeth as some caramel I’ve eaten – though there is always a risk of losing a filling when eating a caramel. The modern recipe had a nice texture–and was not excessively sticky. And, the old recipe wasn’t sticky at all.

    1. They both were delicious. My husband preferred the old praline-like candies, and my daughter preferred the caramels made using the modern recipe. I liked them both.

  3. What a fun way to enjoy sharing and comparing the old and new. It is interesting the different textures and flavors they had a hundred years ago. The ingredients today are a bit different and more handy too. Both of these look tasty. 🙂

  4. The case against corn syrup seems pretty solid and in any case it’s not available in the UK as far as I know, so I’d sooner do the 100 year old recipe. But I can’t get black walnuts either. I googled them and came up with this: http://www.seriouseats.com/2011/04/what-are-english-walnuts-vs-black-walnuts-differences-nuts.html which leads me to think I could get away with ordinary walnuts, even if they’re not the same. Could be fun as a Christmas stocking filler.

    1. Interesting that corn syrup isn’t available in the UK. In the U.S., people have lots of concerns about it–and many believe that it contributes to the obesity epidemic – but it’s still widely used. Ordinary walnuts would work fine in this recipe. It would make a nice stocking stuffer. Black walnuts have a strong flavor that I really like-but they are an acquired taste.

  5. I love caramels, and I love pralines, as long as they’re creamy. With that in mind, I probably would choose the modern recipe. But honestly? I’m going to buy my caramels and devote my time and energy to –well, to pie or some such.

  6. Oh I loved this post and all of the responses. Not a candy maker, but have thrown my hat in the ring a few times. I love candy but have decided to put my efforts into finding the best made candy ever. Have tried many and found new ones often that delight. I must say my first taste of Belgian candy in Belgium made me cry out of joy. It is so delicious.

    1. We really liked them – though, in my opinion, it’s a real stretch to call them caramels. If you try making them, you’ll have to let us know how they turn out.

  7. I still remember the ‘modern’ looking ones from my childhood. Both look delicious, but my current diet will not allow me to get into the ‘caramel business’ 🙂

    1. Follow-up comment: I wonder if “new milk” means fresh from the cow or the dairy, and if so, then it may not have ever refrigerated, and definitely wouldn’t have been homogenized. Not “draining the kettle” must mean to only pour out what will come out – and do it quickly – don’t scrape out the rest. I imagine the spoon should be a standard wooden spoon. It looks like one of the keys here is to avoid a sudden change of temperature of the mixture that you will be using in the caramels. Oh, if only my mother were still here! She would have the answer to all of these questions. 🙂

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