Caramel apples are one of those things that I have historically relegated to the fine folks at the county fair. But now that I’ve made my own, I feel like I’ve been missing out. I’ve eaten my share of caramel apples, but I’ve never counted them as a “must eat” dessert. Maybe it’s the apples the carnival cooks use (perhaps the ubiquitous, disgusting Red Delicious?), but after a few bites I would always hand of my apple to my dad to finish. Or find the closest garbage can.
I was also a little wary of making my own caramel apples after seeing my mother and sister fail spectacularly, the caramel sliding off of the fruit into sad puddles on the baking sheet. But I took a deep breath and played around with caramel consistencies until I found one that worked for me. That meant a higher sugar to cream ratio than my initial trials.
Other tricks I learned for keeping the caramel put on the apples? Making sure the sugar reached 350 degrees before I added the cream and butter. And using farm-fresh apples, or boiling off the waxy coating of store-bought varieties. I used an apple called Pixie Crunch for the final test, because I love how small they are (smaller apple = higher likelihood of caramel in every bite). If you like a more tart apple, go for it. I tested these with Granny Smiths, too, and they were just as good. But whatever apple you choose, make sure it has a nice crunch and isn’t mealy.
In my research, I discovered that a lot of caramel coatings for caramel apples don’t use butter, and I think that’s a damn shame. A buttery caramel coating is what’s missing from the fair food version, if you ask me. And if you smoke the butter beforehand, something magical happens. That ever-present campfire smell that lingers in the fall air? That gets infused into your caramel apple. Hooooly moly.
I’ve said it before, but if you can’t afford a smoker/cold smoker (I haven’t pulled the trigger on it, either), you can still cold smoke butter on the cheap with a grill and the A-Maze-N Pellet Smoker. There may be other similar products, but that’s what I’ve been using for almost a year. I will never stop being in awe of the fact that I spent less than 40 bucks and can cold smoke all the foods I want (hint: everything in my pantry). And no, they aren’t paying me to plug them. I wish.
I also sprinkled my candy apples with some smoked Maldon sea salt, which I bought on a whim after I spotted a box in my local spice aisle and excitedly sent a photo text to Phillip, who is obsessed with salt. Regular flaky sea salt would do fine, too. Or leave it off if you think salted caramel is so five years ago. (You’re wrong.)
If you’re a caramel apple fiend, also check out these German Chocolate Caramel Apples I made for The Cookful!
- ½ pound unsalted butter (You'll only need 4 tablespoons for the caramel apple recipe, but you may as well smoke more butter while you're at it.)
- Equipment: a cold smoker or a grill and A-MAZE-N Pellet Smoker
- 1½ cups (300 grams) granulated sugar
- ¼ cup (90 grams) light corn syrup
- ½ cup (120 mL) heavy cream
- 4 tablespoons (60 grams) smoked butter
- 6 crisp apples*, cleaned and thoroughly dried
- 2 tablespoons Maldon smoked sea salt, for sprinkling
- Equipment: an accurate candy thermometer and popsicle sticks or clean, dry twigs
- Place the butter in a small metal baking pan and rest it inside a large baking pan filled with a shallow layer of ice water. (If the weather is cold, you can forego the ice bath.) Place into your cold smoker or grill/pellet-smoker combo and smoke according to the manufacturer instructions. I smoked my butter for about 2 hours in my Weber charcoal grill with the A-Maze-N Pellet Smoker.
- Line a baking sheet with parchment paper or a silicone mat. Spray the parchment or mat with cooking spray. Insert popsicle sticks or tree twigs about 1-inch into each apple.
- In a medium saucepan, combine sugar and corn syrup and melt over medium-high heat. Swirl occasionally (don't stir) and brush any sugar crystals off the side of the pan with a wet pastry brush. Once the sugar has melted and is deep amber in color (or registers 350°F on a candy thermometer), reduce the heat to low. Add the cream and whisk until smooth (be careful—the caramel will bubble up when you add the cream!). Remove the pan from the heat and whisk in the butter until it has melted and combined with the sauce. Transfer the caramel to a microwave-safe bowl and cool for 1-2 minutes before dipping your apples.
- Dip each apple into the warm caramel sauce and let the excess drip off, then transfer the dipped apples to the parchment-lined baking sheet. (If the caramel coating is too thin, let the caramel cool a bit more so it is thicker. If it becomes too thick to work with, microwave the caramel sauce in 10 second increments until it is the right consistency for dipping.) Immediately sprinkle the tops of each apple with smoked sea salt. Place the tray of apples in the refrigerator to set up for at least 30 minutes before serving.
- *If you have store-bought apples, stick them in boiling water for 15-30 seconds to get the waxy coating off, then thoroughly dry the apples. This will help the caramel stick to the apples better.