A super way to celebrate the arrival cooler weather, making caramel apples is a fun project for a fall weekend, and the sweet treats are perfect for serving at a Halloween celebration. Of course you can use purchased caramels for coating the apples, but for the best caramel apples ever, coated with a deeply flavored amber caramel and garnished with colorful toppings, make the caramel from scratch. It’s not difficult to do—though it is important to watch the sugar syrup like a hawk to make sure it doesn’t burn. And, once you start making the caramel, everything happens in a flash, so everything must be close at hand and ready to go. So do your prep work and follow these easy expert tips to guarantee you end up with gorgeous caramel apples.
Prepare the Apples
- Choose your apples. We like to use crisp, tart apples, since they provide the greatest contrast to the sweet, sticky coating. The classic choice is a Granny Smith, which has lots of acidity and a refreshing, crunchy texture, but other good choices include Pink Lady, Braeburn and Jonagold. And remember that the smaller your apples are, the greater the ratio of caramel to apple.
- Remove the wax. It’s critical that the apples be free from wax, which will cause the caramel to slide right off. To remove the wax, bring a large pot of water to a boil. Then, using a spider or a large slotted spoon, dip the apples, one at a time, into the water, removing it after 5 seconds—and no longer. After removing the apple from the water, carefully use paper towels to vigorously rub it to remove the wax. Or, better yet, use unwaxed apples—you can find them at most farmers’ markets in season—and you can skip this step entirely.
- Insert your sticks into the stem end. Popsicle sticks, available at any craft store, are the classic choice, and wooden chopsticks also work well in a pinch. But for pretty Pinterest-worthy apples, look for decorative twigs or branches, which you can find at craft stores and many garden stores. You can even forage them from your own yard. Just make sure that they are free of pesticides and that you wash and dry them before using them.
- Refrigerate your apples. A cold apple will cool the caramel as it goes on, which will help it stick better. This step isn’t absolutely essential, but if possible, refrigerate your apples for at least 30 minutes before proceeding.
Get Everything in Order
- Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Butter the parchment generously or spray it with nonstick cooking spray. But don’t put the apples on baking sheet until you have dipped them, or the butter will keep the caramel from sticking.
- Prepare the toppings. Though adding toppings to your caramel apples is totally optional, they add an additional layer of texture and flavor and really take them to the next level. We like salty toppings because they contrast with the tart apple and sweet caramel. This means salted nuts, from chopped peanuts or pecans to flaked almonds, are some of our favorite toppings, but the list is limited only by your imagination. Rainbow sprinkles make the most colorful caramel apples ever, and candy eyes make a cutely creepy treat. Other options include mini crushed candy bars (we like chocolate-toffee bars), crushed cookies, shredded coconut or even colorful crushed cereal. Keep in mind, though, that the smaller the pieces, the easier it will be to get them to stick, and the easier the apple will be to eat. And, for a grownup sweet-salty treat, sprinkle your caramel apples lightly with your favorite flaky sea salt. Arrange each topping in shallow bowl so you’re ready to start dunking as soon as all the apples are dipped.
- Remove the apples from the refrigerator and wipe each one with paper towels to make sure they are thoroughly dry. Arrange them on your work surface next to where you will be dipping them.
Make the Caramel
- Be careful! Making caramel isn’t hard, but it does require keeping a close eye on the sugar as it cooks, and you must take care not to splatter yourself with the hot liquid, because hot sugar can cause very serious burns. This is not a time for multi-tasking. Once you sugar is on the stove, don’t walk away from it. And be sure you have your cup of cream measured out and sitting next to the stove so you’re ready to add it at the right moment.
- Find the right pan. Use a 3- or 4-quart stainless-steel saucepan. Any smaller and the mixture is sure to bubble over the sides when you add the cream, making a huge mess. And using stainless steel is important because its light color makes it easy to determine the color of the sugar inside—almost impossible if the inside of your pan is dark. Affix a candy thermometer to the side of the pan.
- Caramelize the sugar. This is where the magic happens. In your saucepan, combine 1/4 cup (2 fl. oz./60 ml) water, 1 1/2 cups (12 oz./375 g) granulated sugar and 3/4 tsp. kosher salt. Stirring occasionally, bring the mixture to a boil over medium heat. As soon it comes to a boil, stop stirring the mixture, otherwise it will encourage crystals to form on the edge of the pan. After about 7 to 10 minutes the liquid will start to darken.
- Watch very carefully for the precise moment that the sugar turns an amber color, the color of an old copper penny. The candy thermometer should register about 350°F (180°C) at this point, but watching the color of the sugar is more important than watching the thermometer. This is the sweet spot, if you’ll pardon the pun, when the sugar has taken on a rich, toasty flavor. Once you go past this point, though, the sugar will blacken and taste burnt. If that happens, toss the sugar and start over.
- Add the cream. Exactly when the sugar turns amber, wearing oven mitts, carefully add 1 cup (8 fl. oz./250 ml) heavy cream to the sugar and stir until everything is thoroughly combined. (This is where you really have to be careful, because the mixture will bubble vigorously and may spatter.) Now continue cooking, stirring, until the thermometer registers 240°F (115°C). If you take it off sooner than this, the caramel will still be delicious, but it won’t be thick enough to coat the apples without sliding off, so be patient.
- Remove the pan from the heat. Set the pan aside and let it cool slightly, about 3 to 5 minutes, until it registers about 212°F (100°C). The caramel will thicken slightly as it starts to cool.
- Using mitts, carefully transfer the caramel into a bowl. It’s much safer to dip the apples into a bowl, because it would be very easy to burn yourself on the hot saucepan.
Dipping the Apples
- Dip the apples in the caramel, swirling them to coat thoroughly and getting the caramel as close to the stick without touching it as you can. Let the excess caramel drip off before you put the apple, stick side up, on the parchment-lined baking sheet. Work carefully but quickly, because it won’t take long for your caramel to become too firm to coat the apples. Dip all of the apples before you start adding the toppings.
- Roll the apples in the toppings. All of the apples have been dipped, roll them in your toppings, if you’re using them. Press the toppings into the caramel with your hands to make sure they adhere. Return the coated apples to the baking sheet with the greased parchment. If possible, refrigerate the apples on the baking sheet until ready to serve. This will also help the caramel stick the apples and prevent it from pooling at the bottom.