Caramel vs butterscotch


I need a specific definition of each, caramel and butterscotch, to convince my doubting sister that there IS a difference. I thought I had it, but she'd like something official. Thanks.

badge posted by: PaddyL on September 29, 2010 at 12:46 am in General discussions
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reply by: HopeH on September 29, 2010 at 1:37 am

I should look this up, but will depend on someone smarter than I (which will be a lot of people) to do real research. Whenever I've made caramel, the recipe has called for, and I have used, cream. With butterscotch, of course, it's butter. That's the difference I know of.

reply by: Mike Nolan on September 29, 2010 at 9:46 am
Mike Nolan

Paddy, the problem is that the words caramel and caramelization have several meanings.

When dealing with sugar candies, there are a number of stages the sugar goes through. The ones you hear about the most often are thread, soft ball, firm ball, hard ball, soft crack and hard crack. Not many candy recipes go above hard crack, but I'll discuss that later on.

However, when thinking of the candies or flavors that we usually refer to as caramel and butterscotch, the primary differences between them are that caramels are made with granulated sugar, cream and (usually) butter and butterscotch is made with brown sugar and cream and (sometimes) butter.

So the major flavor differential is the molasses in the brown sugar.

Both candies are cooked to roughly the same temperature ranges, ie, 234 for really soft to about 250 degrees for firm. 235 is soft ball, 245 is firm ball, and 250 is hard ball, so that explains the differences between soft and hard caramel or butterscotch. (I've seen recipes that take butterscotch candies all the way to 280 or even 300. 300 is hard crack, so essentially you're making a toffee at that point.)

To complicate things, I think those pale yellow butterscotch candies that are so addictive are artificially flavored, because every time I've made butterscotch it comes out much darker in color.

At 320 degrees, sugar starts to becomes a true caramel. There are actually two stages of caramel in sugar, at 320 degrees it is called 'clear liquid caramel', though it is actually a light amber color. At 338 degrees it becomes 'brown liquid caramel' and is a brown color.

The challenge with making true caramel (for example, when making a flan) is that at 350 degrees you wind up with burnt sugar, which is quite bitter tasting, and you can go from 320 to 350 in seemingly nothing flat. (There are even stages above burnt sugar, but I know of no practical use for them.)

There are two reasons for this rapid change. 320 degrees is also the point at which all of the water has been evaporated out, and once the water is gone there's not much left to keep the temperature from climbing rapidly, since you've already gone through the various crystal state changes that make for soft ball, hard ball, etc.

Sidebar: In chemistry, when you transform matter from one state into another, like ice to water or water to steam, there is a certain amount of energy that is used to change the state of the matter.

Well, each of those states for sugar has its own crystal structure, which means that to go from one to another involves some transformational energy, which explains why when cooking candies it will seemingly stall out every few degrees starting at around 230. All that excess heat is going into changing the sugar from one crystal state to another. When enough of the sugar has been transformed, the heat goes back towards raising the temperature rather than changing the structure.

(End Sidebar)

Also, the sugar on the bottom of the pot near the burner is always going to be warmer than the rest, and if the bottom sugar starts to turn into burnt sugar, that bitter flavor will quickly permeate the entire pan.

BTW, a nifty trick if you get too much of that bitter flavor in a batch of true caramel is to add a little salt, which tricks the taste buds into ignoring some of the bitterness.

To make matters more confusing, many recipes refer to the caramelization of the sugar in bread, caramelization of onions, etc. But that's a subject for another day.

BTW, most of the technical stuff in the above is based on a monograph I read back in about 1968, so even if I got some of the terminology wrong, I think the practical implications are on target. (Among other things, I'm not sure if 'crystal state' is technically accurate, because molten sugar is more of a plastic state or possibly even a plasma.)

reply by: PaddyL on September 29, 2010 at 12:03 pm

I think, if they'd taught chemistry through cooking and candy-making, I might have passed that subject. As it was I failed it each time I wrote the exam. Basically, from what you've written, caramel is made from white sugar which would be cooked longer than the butterscotch-y brown sugar, and the butterscotch-y brown sugar would impart a flavour of molasses. Or not. I just read back through some of your 'thesis', Mike, and find that the butterscotch is brought to a higher temp. The thing is that Tom and I are constantly trying to explain to Sheila that there is a difference and she just doesn't get it. I have made caramel and it did have a slightly burnt or bitter flavour to it, but I have not, as far as I can remember, ever gone out of my way to make butterscotch, except in the form of brownies and those are made with brown sugar.

reply by: Mike Nolan on September 29, 2010 at 1:26 pm
Mike Nolan

Butterscotch candies are often cooked to a higher temperature than caramel candies, because it is more common to create a hard butterscotch candy than a hard caramel candy.

But if you cook caramel and butterscotch candy to the same temperature, you're going to get about the same consistency of candy.

Milk or buttercream caramel is usually thought of as fairly soft, a true caramel will always be hard, because it is sugar that has been cooked well beyond the hard crack stage.

I suspect that the amount of molasses in the butterscotch affects the flavor profile (ie, how butterscotchy it tastes), but I've not done any serious testing along those lines. I think I've seen a few recipes for something with a butterscotch flavor that had molasses in them, but I don't recall what they were.

The sticky rolls I made over the weekend used a dark brown sugar, butter and maple syrup mixture for the topping, so technically it would be more accurate to call that a maple-butterscotch topping than a maple-caramel topping. Either way, it was very tasty!

reply by: PaddyL on September 29, 2010 at 10:45 pm

Those rolls do sound good! What we were comparing were puddings, one butterscotch, the other caramel, and our biggest problem was that the French for 'butterscotch' is 'caramel', at least in Quebec. It should be 'caramel d'ecossais' or something along those lines, but the word 'caramel' is used in French to describe both flavours. Finding real caramel pudding is difficult, so unless I make it myself, Tom is stuck with butterscotch.

reply by: ancameni on October 02, 2010 at 10:19 am

Thanks for clarifying that subject. That difference has been going through my head lately as well. Now i know

reply by: SteveInSeattle on October 04, 2012 at 2:41 am

I know this is an old thread, but I thought I'd clarify a few things I found out when doing my own research on this very topic. :)

1) The term scotch means to cut... as in butterscotch means to cut butter. This refers to the texture of thick butterscotch that will "cut" when poured out of a bowl and is cut mid stream with a spoon. It literally means its thick enough to get beyond the gooey-liquid stage most people consider caramel sauce has.

So in practicality, most think of caramel as a more gooey "sauce" than butterscotch. Personally that's a matter of preference and intended use though (i.e. thick butterscotch isn't great on ice cream like a thinner butterscotch or caramel wouldn't be).

2) Caramel uses white sugar (which is raw sugar that has been cleaned of any molasses), while butterscotch uses raw sugar, or brown sugar (white sugar that's had the molasses added back in), or white sugar with some molasses as well.
- caramel = white sugar
- butterscotch = caramel + molasses (however you choose to add it in)

3) Lastly, it seems everyone has a slightly different opinion on what order you add ingredients but the one super trick to a good butterscotch is adding the salt and vanilla extract LAST. Making the caramelized creme-sugar-molasses mix the right consistency (which will ALWAYS thicken up more than you think it will) is important... but the vanilla-salt mix you add to flavor it just right is what makes butterscotch perfect. Its more than trying to bury a burnt sugar taste... its giving it a tang-salty-sweetness that makes butterscotch what it is. The vanilla-salt mix should be added to taste... it depends on your ingredients freshness don't do that part just by given recipe amounts.

The first time you make butterscotch you will probably crystallize it too much. Never hear of a perfect first-attempt with this... but rarely hear of a horrible one that's inedible.

Caramelizing sugar is an art. Also... rum flavoring (which is made from molasses) can help bring out the molasses taste of a good butterscotch if you cool it off and it doesn't seem "butterscotchy" enough before you add the vanilla-salt mix. Personal preference there.

reply by: SteveInSeattle on October 04, 2012 at 2:44 am

One point... adding rum instead of vanilla-salt at the end is how you make Hot Butter Rum sauce instead.

If you're making icecream toppings... you just found a way to split the batch in two and give you 2 very different flavors. ;)

reply by: Mike Nolan on October 04, 2012 at 9:22 am
Mike Nolan

You always want to add vanilla at the very end when making cooked candies, because otherwise the heat will boil out most of the vanilla flavor.

I was taught years ago that adding salt can lead to crystal formation in cooked sugar candies, and of course what you're trying to do when making things like fudge is PREVENT crystals from being formed until the very end, so that's a good reason for waiting towards the end to add salt, too.