For those looking to get their sweet sticky on, caramels are reliable sources of goodness. But not all caramels are made the same. In fact, high quality caramels are less likely to stick to your teeth. Expert Justin Chao of Le Bon Garcon explains the difference between finely made French caramels and bulk bin caramels.
I didn’t know there was a difference in French caramel to what Americans find in the bulk candy bin. Can you explain the difference?
There is a big difference between artisan French caramel and what Americans find in the bulk candy bin. Artisan French caramels are made to optimize flavor whereas caramels in the bulk bin are made to optimize shelf life. Most bulk bin caramels are extremely chewy because they use mostly corn syrup in order to make it more cost effective as well as more shelf stable. In addition, many of the bulk bin caramels are not made with butter but with hydrogenated vegetable oil. Hydrogenated vegetable oil is less expensive and also less likely to go rancid. Without butter, industrial caramels lose the rich creamy aftertaste of high-quality caramels
Besides the ingredients, is there a difference in the making process?
Most of the bulk bin caramels also have a grainy texture. Caramel producers do this because caramels with a grainy texture are more easily processed by their equipment. Unfortunately, this means that these caramels lose the smooth texture that is characteristic of fresh artisan caramels. Also, mass produced caramels tend to lack the full flavor of an artisan product. The continuous flow process that they use does not allow the caramel enough cooking time to develop to its full flavor potential.
For a caramel connoisseur, what are aspects that they should be looking for?
Caramel develops its flavor through a complex chemical reaction of the milk protein and the sugar called the Maillard reaction. In fact, it is such a complex chemical reaction that many of these Maillard flavor compounds have not yet been identified. A quality caramel will have a rich, developed color meaning that the chef has taken the time to fully develop these flavors.
What makes your products unique and how do you think you’ll be competitive in the growing marketplace?
When I was in France doing my culinary training, I was struck by the degree to which the French celebrate artisans such as pastry chefs, servers, and carpenters. They recognize the hard work and the years of dedication that go into developing a craft. With Le Bon Garcon [Oprah’s favorite things in 2011], I have approached making caramel as a craft. After making hundreds of batches of caramels, I have developed an intuition for my product. Although much of what I do is very technical, it is the small touches that make my caramel unique, such as knowing by the color of the caramelizing sugar when it has reached its optimal flavor or knowing by feel when the caramel has reached the perfect texture. Like any handmade artisan product, Le Bon Garcon caramels carry a unique flavor signature that has been developed through years of commitment to creating the best caramel possible.
Even in a competitive market, there is always space for small batch producers who have gained mastery of their craft. These artisans can take the extra time and care to ensure the highest quality for their products. In the culinary marketplace, people are actively seeking out these artisan products because they are seeking novel gastronomic experiences. Luckily for me, once people taste my product they become excited and want to share their experience with others. My customers seem to really share my passion for caramel. What I create might be a niche product, but it’s one with a devoted and loyal customer base – people who understand what I’m doing and are willing to pay a little more for quality.