They all start with sugar and heat.

By Tim Nelson
August 05, 2019
Daniel Agee, Food Stylist: Rishon Hanners, Prop Stylist: Audrey Davis. Photo: Helen Norman; Styling: Heather Chadduck Hillegas

Anyone who tells you they don’t like caramel-flavored things is probably lying to you. But then again, maybe they do like it and they don’t even realize it. That’s because there are a deceptive amount of caramel-adjacent confections out there in the world of sweets. Here, I’ll explain the specific differences between caramel, toffee, and butterscotch.

First, let’s start with caramel. As smart chefs might already have intuited, this sweet, amber-hued substance gets its name from the process of caramelization. In essence, sugar (or sugars) gets heated over time to somewhere above 300ºF. When that happens, sucrose (a fancy word for common sugar) breaks down into glucose and fructose. The heat dissolves down sugar’s molecules, allowing for the formation of new compounds that deepen both the aromas and flavors it has to offer.

Watch: How to Make Sheet Pan Oatmeal Toffee-Orange Cream Bars

If you want to make caramel, the process couldn’t be any simpler. All you really have to do is put sugar in a pan, where it will eventually liquefy and brown as heat is applied. Some people like to prepare caramel using a “wet” method, which just requires adding water that eventually boils off (as proper caramel won’t form until well above 212ºF). Why add water? Some say it promotes an even browning process while slowing down the caramelization and prolonging the amount of time heat is applied, which supposedly yields richer flavors.

Related: Our Best Salted Caramel Recipes

Understanding how to make caramel is at least half the battle when it comes to toffee, a confection that more or less exists as caramel’s brittle cousin. To make toffee, you’re essentially caramelizing sugar (molasses is an acceptable alternative), but with added butter. That mixture is heated until it reaches what’s called the “hard crack” stage, which happens at temperatures somewhere between 300ºF and 310ºF. From there, it’s allowed to cool and harden, typically in a shallow tray.

While caramel can often be added to jazz up other sweet treats, toffee can act as a canvas for other flavors and tastes. Combining it with nuts, various fruits, and other add-ins like chocolate can yield a variety of tasty options. In terms of common toffee types, so-called “English Toffee”, which is heavy on the butter and mixes in almonds, is quite common. You’re probably familiar with it if you’ve ever had a Heath bar.

That brings us to everyone’s grandmother’s favorite confection: butterscotch. Like other two items here, butterscotch is the product of caramelization. In this case, one starts with a mixture of butter and brown sugar, though certain preparations call for corn syrup as well. Contrary to what you might be hoping, the name doesn’t mean this confection includes one of Great Britain’s favorite spirits. Instead, “scotch” is said to be a term that describes how butterscotch is cut when it’s presented in the candy form in the 19th century, though its exact etymology is hard to pin down.

As opposed to toffee, these ingredients are heated only to the soft crack stage, which happens at cooler temperatures (said to be somewhere between 240ºF and 290ºF, depending on who you ask). Like caramel, butterscotch is frequently presented as a sauce to flavor ice cream and other treats, though it also exists as a sort of hard(ish) candy disc popular among octogenarians and time travelers from Victorian England.

Though they’re different, it’s important to remember how similar toffee, butterscotch, and caramel are once you zoom out. They’re all built on a foundation of sugar plus heat, with a few variations in technique and ingredients. At the end of the day, they’re all decadent and delicious. And someone who dislikes any (or god forbid, all) of them is not to be trusted.

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