Sooner or later almost every confectioner starts thinking about making caramels. For many, caramels - especially salted caramels - are a cornerstone of their business.
I've seen them made lots of different ways, including on a regular stove top, but one thing I always come back to is that it's important to be able to regulate heat and apply it consistently. My home stove is not very good for this, and I've been contemplating getting an induction cooktop for this purpose. They are efficient and put out a steady, reliable heat. The only downside, I thought, was that induction cookers require special pots.
I learned that this was not the case recently talking to a friend who uses an induction cooker who told me that he has troubles with the cookers maintaining the heat he wants for long periods of time. Apparently, there is a cutoff circuit in some of the devices to keep them from overheating. To be fair, he's got a 120V 1000W machine, and he might not have a problem if he had one with more power, but that's not in his budget at the moment.
I was in my local gourmet shop over the weekend and I started talking to one of the owners, Ben, about the commercial crepe makers they were using. They have cast iron cooking surfaces (they retain heat real well) and, depending on the model, can go up to 450F-570F and keep it there all day long (in fact, the real knock against these machines is how long they take to cool down before they can be handled safely).
It seems to me that these would be a great alternative to induction cookers for people looking to make caramel as they accept any king of pot, get hot, and maintain a specific heat real well. There are versions that are much less expensive that are also made for commercial applications but I don't know if the price difference is a case of being penny wise and pound foolish.
One thing I learned from talking with Ben is that he uses his crepe makers for a lot of different cooking applications, including frying eggs to put in crepes. As long as what you're cooking isn't too runny or render out much fat, you can cook it directly on the surface of the crepe maker. This makes them, I think, a pretty versatile addition to a lot of confectionery kitchens, and in my current project I am recommending that one of the two induction cooktops be replaced with one of these crepe makers - and save a couple of hundred bucks at the same time.
Of course, if I was serious about making caramels and needed to make them all day every day, I'd plonk down whatever cash was necessary for a dedicated machine. The one that people keep talking to me about wanting to own is the Savage FireMixer. It may not be as retro-chic as making caramel in a copper kettle over an open gas fire, but when it comes to all-around convenience (including not having to install venting and fire suppression) this is the one that keeps calling to me.
Hi Clay! Thanks for the article. I just moved into a new baking facility, and had planned on switching to induction. I make large quantities of caramel sauces and brittle. But the burner I have (1800W Itawani) doesn't seem to have a large enough heating element for the 20 qt stock pot I use. Plus it's not a constant heat, so the sugar on top cools down while the sugar on the bottom gets too hot. It's like stirring cold tar, and takes me twice as long as it did on my gas stovetop.
So the shop that you went to, they use the crepe makers as burners, for making caramel? I pretty much just turn the heat on high and leave it, at least with the brittle. The caramel sauces I tend to regulate the heat a little more, as melting dry sugar can be a bit finicky.
Have you had any more experience with the crepe makers? Do you think those would be my best bet? Or a higher powered induction burner would work? I'd love to get something from Savage Bros., but don't have the budget. I'm just at a loss for what to do, and it's quickly going to get in the way of production...
Our demand for caramel at the store was so high that we could no longer manage on the stove top. We maxed out at a 16 lb batch and it was killing us to lift and pour. I finally broke down and bought a Savage Firemixer 14. I can say without hesitation it was the single best investment I have made so far! Like a few other people have mentioned along the site, it did not initially work well with my recipe. We had to make a few adjustments to ingredient ratios -- we would absolutely not change our recipe because it is very very popular, but adjusting amounts of things here and there to help facilitate use of the machine worked to get rid of the graining problem we were having. And the people at Savage are eager to help; it's a small business and they are good to work with.
I'm in the market for an extruder next but I will likely be looking hardest at Savage for this one too (we'll see what the forum folks think!). I know it's a lot of money, and I know there are some cheaper ones out there but Savage has a ton of videos and documentation (plus a good reputation) and we are close to IL so we were able to go there and pick it up, saving a lot on freight. I'm glad I went with it.
If you have the need to dedicate and expand and the money to invest, the Firemixer was wonderful for us. I wouldn't hesitate to recommend it to someone.