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Desserts, Sauces and Condiments, Vegetarian

Caramel Sauce (Nuoc Mau)

Caramel Sauce (Nuoc Mau)
Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times

For many people, Vietnamese cuisine means a big bowl of pho and a couple of spring rolls, those delicious and ubiquitous standards of noodle shops and takeout joints. But for folks like me--raised and fed by Vietnamese parents--the salty-sweet flavors ... Read more

Total time: 35 minutes. | Makes 1 cup
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 3/4 cup water, divided

Step 1Fill the sink with enough water to come halfway up the side of a 1-quart, heavy-bottomed saucepan. Place the sugar and 1/4 cup of the water into the saucepan and cook over medium-low heat. Stir until the sugar dissolves, about 2 to 3 minutes. As the sugar melts, the mixture will go from opaque to clear. Small bubbles will form at the edge and gradually grow larger, moving toward the center of the pan. Eventually, bubbles will cover the entire surface.

Step 2After about 15 minutes, the sugar will begin to caramelize and turn in color. You'll see a progression from champagne yellow to light tea to dark tea. When smoke starts rising, remove the saucepan from the heat and slowly swirl it around. Watch the sugar closely as it will turn darker by the second; a reddish cast will set in (think the color of a big and bold red wine) as the bubbles become a lovely burnt orange. Pay attention to the color of the caramel underneath the bubbles. When the caramel color is that of black coffee or molasses, place the pan in the sink to stop the cooking process. The hot pan bottom will sizzle upon contact and the bubble action will subside.

Step 3Add the remaining 1/2 cup of water (there may be a small dramatic reaction) and place the saucepan back on the stove over medium heat, stirring until the caramel has dissolved into the water. The result will be slightly viscous; flavor-wise, it will be bittersweet. Pour the caramel sauce into a small glass jar and let it cool; it will thicken further. Store indefinitely in your kitchen cupboard.

Note: The traditional method of making this sauce requires that you add boiling water to the caramelized sugar, which kicks off a dramatic reaction that's not for the faint of heart. The point of doing this is to arrest the cooking process so that the sugar doesn't burn to a bitter black stage. I find it easier to place the pan bottom in a sink filled with water. This cools the caramel down so that when you add the remaining water, there's little drama left. The result of both approaches is the same bittersweet inky sauce that's a staple in every Vietnamese kitchen.


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