Caramel apples are surprisingly easy to make at home, with different approaches available for both beginner and more accomplished cooks. And because they are popular with both kids and adults, there are a lot of recipes out there.
To help make sense of it all, I’ve gone through 20 recipes to figure out what’s popular, and what to look out for, to help you pick an approach and choose the best recipe for you.
So let’s jump into it with the core ingredient – apples. Yep, pun intended!
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Which apples are best?
Your apples aren’t just a carrier for the caramel, or there to make this treat seem a bit healthier. The taste and texture of the apples you use are key to a great caramel apple.
And based on the comments of many of these authors, you want apples that are firm and tart. The preference is for tart apples because they provide a wonderful contrast to the sweetness of the caramel.
Overwhelmingly, the most popular apple variety is Granny Smith. Fifteen of the twenty authors recommend this widely available green apple.
The good news is that any apples will work. The most popular is a tart apple, but a few authors use Jazz, Gala or Honey Crisp. If you prefer a sweeter apple under that delicious caramel, then pick your favourite variety and it’ll still work really well.
What about the wax on your apples?
Store-bought apples typically come with a thin layer of edible wax on them. As well as making them more visually appealing, waxing helps to prolong the shelf life in the store, and in your fruit bowl at home.
Most people wouldn’t even realise it’s there, and it’s harmless – unless you’re making caramel apples. The hot caramel melts the wax, and the whole lot tends to slide right off your apple. Not the outcome we want!
So for best results you should remove the wax layer, and many of the authors offer tips on how to do this.
Removing wax from apples
The most popular method by far is briefly dipping each apple in boiling or very hot water, then wiping any excess wax off with something like paper towel. Karli from Cooking with Karli has a great description of the process and what to expect.
Jill from the Carefree Kitchen uses a mix of vinegar and water to help rub the wax off with her fingers. And a couple of authors simply suggest vigorously rubbing your apples with a rough cloth.
Wax on organic apples
Several authors recommend buying organic apples to avoid the wax issue, but be aware that this may not help, and for a couple of reasons.
Firstly, apples (and some other fruits) actually produce their own natural wax coating. It’s thin, and can be patchy, and most of it is removed by post-harvest cleaning, but it could still cause problems with your caramel.
The other potential issue is that some waxes are organically-certified, so buying organic may not mean no wax has been applied to the apples.
For best results, you should use one of the techniques above to make sure there’s no wax (natural, organic or otherwise) left on your apples before you dip them.
Two different approaches to making caramel for apples
There are two completely different approaches to making caramel amongst these recipes:
- Six of the recipes intentionally take a quick and easy approach, using store-bought soft caramels.
- The other fourteen take a more homemade approach, making the caramel for their apples from scratch.
Because they’re so different, I’ll deal with each one separately.
Making caramel for apples from scratch
If you’re looking to recreate that classic caramel apple flavour, your best bet is to make your caramel from scratch.
Though it may sound daunting to the uninitiated, making caramel from scratch is a surprisingly straightforward process.
Be aware though, it is a lot more involved than using packaged caramels. Feel free to jump to the quick and easy approach if you’d rather not tackle scratch-made caramel.
What’s caramel made from?
The foundational ingredients of almost all of the scratch-made caramel recipes here are the same – butter, sugar, condensed milk and light corn syrup.
Keep crystals at bay with corn syrup
Almost all of the fourteen recipes for homemade caramel use some quantity of corn syrup. And if you live outside of North America you may be left wondering exactly what corn syrup is! Certainly a few readers of these recipes were.
Corn syrup is a glucose syrup made from corn. And it plays an important role in making caramel because it stays in a liquid form, helping to prevent crystallisation. So it can’t simply be replaced with a mix of sugar and water without making other modifications to the recipe.
There are other ways to prevent crystallisation, like the addition of a small amount on lemon juice. Be aware though, if you’re new to making caramel, corn syrup makes the process a lot more beginner-friendly.
Isn’t corn syrup really bad?
If you’re worried about corn syrup because of the negative press regarding high-fructose corn syrup, you don’t need to worry.
Corn syrup you buy from the grocery store (such as Karo), is a completely different product.
Corn syrup is a glucose syrup, and contains no fructose. In fact, high-fructose corn syrup is made from corn syrup, using a chemical process to convert much of the glucose into fructose.
Making caramel for apples without corn syrup
If you’d still rather not use corn syrup, you can definitely still make your caramel from scratch. There are two recipes here, from Williams Sonoma and Stella at Serious Eats, that don’t use any corn syrup at all. Another, from Chris at The Café Sucre Farine, only uses a small amount and gives you the option to exclude it. But because a key role of corn syrup is to prevent crystallisation, you’ll need to treat your mixture a little more carefully.
One of the biggest causes of crystallisation is when crystals form on the side of the pan just above the liquid. A big trigger of this is stirring, so these authors, and some others like Sally at Sally’s Baking Addiction, don’t stir once the mixture reaches the boil.
The advantage of stirring is that it reduces the risk of your caramel sticking to the bottom of the pan and over-browning or burning. Not stirring requires you to more carefully manage the stove top temperature, and can be a bit more challenging if you’re new to making caramel.
It’s no surprise that all fourteen recipes use white sugar, brown sugar or both.
And there’s no strong preference here. Seven authors use brown sugar, five use white sugar and the last two use both.
Dairy products are key ingredients in a rich, creamy caramel. All fourteen of these recipes use one or more dairy ingredients. There are three main ones used here:
- Twelve of the fourteen scratch-made versions include butter, varying from as little as two tablespoons to as much as a cup.
- Nine of the recipes use sweetened condensed milk.
- Six of the recipes use heavy cream.
If you want to make your caramel without sweetened condensed milk, the five recipes without it use heavy cream instead. Also, the two recipes that use no butter use heavy cream.
The most popular combination of dairy ingredients though is sweetened condensed milk and butter.
Ten of the fifteen scratch-made recipes include vanilla extract.
All of the recipes with added vanilla instruct you to do so once the mixture comes off the heat. This is because the addition of the vanilla to the hot caramel causes bubbling and sputtering until it’s mixed in. Something to watch if you’re making it with the kids.
Several authors include a small amount of salt in their mixture.
Salted caramel is a well-known and delicious treat, so why not use it on apples? Some recipes only use a little, while others are squarely in the salted camp, with a teaspoon or more included in their mixture.
A unique addition
There’s nothing else that goes into making caramel. But one recipe, by Karli from Cooking with Karli, adds a unique and unexpected ingredient.
Once her caramel reaches soft ball stage, instead of adding vanilla as a number of other authors do, Karli folds in thirteen large marshmallows! Given that they are essentially puffy balls of sugar and vanilla, it certainly makes sense.
The marshmallows do give Karli’s caramel a paler colour and slightly milkier look than the others, but I have to say – I’m intrigued to try it!
Temperature – the key to making caramel from scratch
If you’re not familiar with the process of caramelising sugar, Exploratorium have a great overview of the different stages of candy making.
And as they point out, the temperature of your caramel mix is critical to your success. Not hot enough and it won’t change to that beautiful colour, plus it will likely just run off your apples. Too hot and it will over-brown and even burn.
If you’ve got a lot of experience scratch-making caramel you can no doubt pick the correct temperature by sight, or by using a simple test, and a couple of the recipes guide you on how to do this.
But if you’re like me, and have little or no experience, a candy thermometer is an inexpensive and invaluable tool to help you get exactly the right temperature. And most of these authors recommend you use one to make your caramel.
Soft & chewy? Or a bit harder?
If you’re making caramels as a candy then the consistency is very much a matter of personal preference. But when you make caramel for apples, it needs to be a certain consistency to make sure it sticks, and sets.
Almost all of these recipes recommend cooking your caramel to soft ball stage, which happens at about 235-240°F (112-115°C). Check out the Exploratorium article if you’re new to terms like soft ball and hard ball.
But there is still some variety amongst the recipes. Linda at Blessed Beyond Crazy prefers hers a bit harder, therefore heating it to 248°F (120°C). She does acknowledge though that some people prefer it chewier and softer and should use whichever approach they prefer. The other harder caramels are from Stella at Serious Eats, Chris from The Café Sucre Farine and Michele at Confessions of Parenting.
Even amongst the authors preferring softer caramel, there’s a bit of variation in their suggested temperatures. While most just recommend hitting the soft ball range of 235-240°F (112-115°C), a few make very specific temperature recommendations. And Rachel from Adventures of a DIY Mom takes hers to just 225°F (107°C), which is actually below the soft ball stage, and so will create even softer caramel.
There could be something else fascinating at play in these variances too, and that’s air pressure. According to the Exploratorium, these temperatures are for sea level. You need to subtract 1°F for each 500 feet (150m) you are above sea level! A similar issue came up in my review of how to roast a turkey, with high altitudes changing cooking times. So maybe Rachel just lives high in the mountains!
Remember: temperature is everything
The most important thing to remember from all of this is that making caramel is all about the temperature you heat it to. A good quality candy thermometer will be a huge help, and you need to pay close attention to it.
Several authors also point out that once you start cooking everything happens very quickly, and you have a fairly narrow window in which your caramel will be the perfect temperature. So make sure you have everything set up and ready to go before you begin.
And whichever recipe you choose, be sure to read the directions carefully, as there are different approaches here regarding when you should stir and when you shouldn’t. As I mentioned earlier, this is to do with crystal formation, and is really important (especially if you’re not using corn syrup).
Help! My caramel won’t reach 235°F!
A number of readers of these recipes commented they were having trouble getting their mixture to reach the required temperature.
Several authors note that it can take about half-an-hour to reach the right temperature. This is because you need to heat it slowly to prevent it from burning. So be prepared for it to take more time than you think.
If you’re still not reaching the right temperature you can gently increase the stove top temperature. Do so carefully though, in small increments, because there’s a fine line between just right and too hot.
Watch out – hot!
I’m sure it’s obvious by now, but one final point that several authors make: making caramel from scratch can be dangerous.
The mixture is heated to a very high temperature, and some stages can cause it to sputter or spit.
Something to consider if you are thinking about making caramel apples as a DIY project with the kids.
Quick and Easy Caramel
If you find the process of making caramel from scratch a bit daunting, or you just don’t have the time (or the inclination!), you can still make great caramel apples at home.
The quick and easy approach shortcuts the scratch-making process by using store-bought caramels, usually as individually-wrapped soft ones like Werther’s or Kraft. Glory at Glorious Treats uses a large caramel block (5lb/2.3kg!), although she doesn’t use it all at once.
And from the six recipes using the quick and easy approach, there are two main differences:
- How the caramel is melted. Four of the authors use the microwave, and the other two the stovetop.
- Additions. Four of the recipes include two or three tablespoons of either milk or heavy cream with their caramels (14-18oz/400-510g bags). The other two don’t add anything.
And once you’ve melted your caramel, the process of dipping your apples is the same as if you’d scratch-made it.
There is one other thing you may need to consider before taking this approach though.
Gluten in pre-made caramel candies
If gluten is an issue for you you’re no doubt fully aware of this, but it’s worth checking the labels of your caramels before you use them.
I suspect this is more precautionary than necessary, because the processing of wheat to glucose syrup will remove the gluten.
Either way, if you’re like me you probably assumed caramels never had wheat anywhere near them. And if you need to completely avoid gluten, you’re better off knowing about it so you can decide for yourself.
If you make your caramel from scratch, you can be confident your caramel apples are gluten-free. There’s no gluten in butter, sugar, corn syrup or condensed milk (which is just reduced milk and sugar).
Dipping your apples
Most of the authors provide good directions on how to dip your apples.
In spite of this, there was one major frustration which came up again and again in the comments on these recipes. Many readers struggled to get their caramel to stick to their apples, instead finding it slid right off.
How to stop your caramel from sliding off your apples
You’ve done all the hard work, get stuck into dipping and your caramel just slides off your apple. Aaaarrrgh!
You’re not alone, and many of the authors offer a number of consistent suggestions as to how to prevent this:
- Make sure there’s no wax on your apples. And remember, even if you picked them off the tree yourself, they will still have natural wax, which needs to be removed.
- Make sure your apples are completely dry (meaning not even slightly damp). This is especially important if you’ve given them a hot water bath to get the wax off. Likewise, if you bring your apples out of the fridge into a humid room, you could have problems if they start to sweat.
- Let your caramel cool a little, and therefore thicken, before dipping. Some even recommend a specific temperature.
Some authors also advise refrigerating your apples before dipping to help the caramel stick. Others however report better experiences with room temperature apples. So the jury’s out on this one.
Make sure your apples don’t stick while they cool
Hot caramel is obviously super sticky, so how do you make sure your apples don’t stick to whatever they cool on?
The authors have a number of different suggestions to help here, but there is some contention amongst the recommendations.
Wax paper comes up frequently, and several authors who use it report no issues with sticking. But others report problems with it, even describing it as a nightmare.
The reason wax paper can be a problem is because the hot caramel melts the wax. To combat this, some authors spray it with cooking oil.
Because of these potential problems, a number of authors recommend parchment (baking) paper, or a silicon baking mat.
Cooling your caramel apples
Once you’ve dipped your apples the caramel needs time to cool and firm up (or harden, depending on the temperature you heated your mixture to). The authors suggest a range of time for this to happen, from 30 minutes to a couple of hours.
Five authors accelerate the cooling process by placing their apples in the refrigerator to cool. Given that the other fifteen don’t find this necessary, it’s clearly not, but if you’re pressed for time, this would obviously speed up the process. It’s worth noting that one reader lamented how her apples sweated when taken out of the fridge, so beware of that before deciding to cool (or store) your caramel apples in the refrigerator.
Choosing a caramel apple recipe
The first decision you need to make is how you want to make your caramel:
- Quickly and easily using store-bought caramels. This is a great option if you’ve got limited time, are nervous about making caramel from scratch or want a fun project with the kids.
- Make the caramel for your apples from scratch. This is a fairly precise process, but it’s not difficult. And it will definitely give you a more authentic flavour.
Once you’ve chosen an approach, there are a few things to consider that should help when choosing a recipe:
- If you like really creamy caramel, look for a recipe that uses heavy cream instead of condensed milk, or a quick and easy recipe that adds heavy cream to the melted caramels.
- For really sweet caramel, look for a recipe that uses sweetened condensed milk. The quick and easy approach makes very sweet caramel apples too.
- If you’d prefer not to use corn syrup, I found a couple of recipes that don’t use any.
- And if you like your caramel harder than most, look for a recipe that heats it above 240°F (115°C), like these.
You’ll find links to all the recipes I reviewed at the bottom of the page. They’re separated into the two different approaches.
Things to watch out for
The biggest challenge most people face is the caramel sliding off their apples. You can reduce this risk by making sure you:
- Remove the wax from your apples.
- Dry your apples completely.
- Let your caramel cool slightly before you start dipping.
And once you’ve dipped them, you’re probably best to cool them on something other than wax paper.
Time to make caramel apples!
Hopefully this has helped you choose an approach and a recipe to make this sweet treat at home.
Whichever way you go, I’d love to hear how it goes, so please feel free to add a comment at the bottom of the page.
Homemade Caramel Apples FAQ
Which apples are the best for caramel apples?
Granny Smith are the most popular because their tartness provides good contrast to the sweet caramel.
Why do I need to remove the wax from my apples for caramel apples?
The hot caramel melts the wax, which can lead to the caramel sliding off the apple.
Is there wax on organic apples?
Yes. All apples produce a thin coating of natural wax. Also, some applied waxes are organically-certified.
What’s the best way to remove the wax from apples?
A brief dip in very hot or boiling water, followed by a scrub with paper towel to remove the softened wax.
I can’t find corn syrup where I live. What can I use instead?
Glucose syrup is the ideal replacement. It’s usually found in the health food aisle of grocery stores or in health food stores.
How can I stop the caramel from sliding off my apples?
Make sure you remove the wax from the apples, dry them thoroughly and cool your caramel a little before dipping your apples.
Are homemade caramel apples gluten-free?
Scratch-made caramel is gluten-free. Some store-bought soft caramels may contain wheat products, so always check the label.
Which caramel candies are gluten-free?
Kraft soft caramels are gluten-free. Werther’s soft caramels list wheat on the label, but are likely to be gluten-free as well because of processing of the wheat.
Recipes included in this review
Quick & Easy Caramel Apple recipes
- Easy Caramel Apples – Eazy Peazy Mealz
- Caramel Apples Recipe – Peter’s Food Adventures
- How to Make Caramel Apples – Cooking Classy
- How to Make Gourmet Caramel Apples – Glorious Treats
- Easy Caramel Apples – Just a Taste
- How to make Caramel Apples the Easy Way – Tips from a Typical Mom
Recipes for making caramel for apples from scratch
- Grandma Betty’s Caramel Apples – Tasty Kitchen
- Old Fashioned Double Dipped Caramel Apples – Blessed Beyond Crazy
- Caramel Apples – Cooking With Karli
- Homemade Caramel Apples – The Carefree Kitchen
- The Best Caramel Recipe – Eighteen25
- Homemade Caramel Apples Recipe – Tips from a Typical Mom
- How to Make Homemade Caramel Apples – Confessions of Parenting
- Homemade Caramel Apples – Sally’s Baking Addiction
- Tips for Perfect Caramel Apples – Adventures of a DIY Mom
- Easy Homemade Caramel Apples – The Café Sucre Farine
- The Best Homemade Caramel Apples – My Recipe Confessions
- How to Make Caramel Apples – Savory Experiments
- How to Make Caramel Apples from Scratch – Williams Sonoma
- Made-From-Scratch Caramel Apples Recipe – Serious Eats