Sweet Serendipity

Photos by Pam Hoenig

Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve made multiple (unsuccessful) attempts at smoking salt on the grill. On one of my test runs, I also put a pan of regular granulated sugar on the grill. During a check-in, I found that it had melted, caramelized, and hardened into beautiful golden brown translucence.

I moved the pan over direct heat, then ran inside and scooped vanilla ice cream into a bowl. I carefully poured the now bubbling caramel over the ice cream, where it hardened on contact into a lacy cage.

I let the remaining caramel cool and harden in the pan (I used a disposable foil pan), then I twisted the sides in opposite directions, which popped the caramel off in shards, perfect to use as a garnish for dessert.

I ended up experimenting several more times with sugar and now have a “recipe.” For the cooking vessel, two disposable foil pans set inside each other work well. You want the sugar in a single layer—so start with a half cup or less. Because of hot and cool spots, sugar cooks unevenly on the grill and the more sugar in the pan, the more that unevenness is amplified. Cook over direct medium or medium-high heat with the lid down, and start checking after 5 minutes. When the sugar melts and starts to caramelize, swirl the pan to try to even out the color. Cook it to the darkness and flavor intensity you prefer, but at least so it’s golden. Start to finish, it should take about 15 minutes. If you want to pour the caramel over ice cream, use metal bowls—the hot sugar hitting a cold glass or ceramic bowl could crack it.

My final experiment was brittle. I poured the molten caramel over walnuts I had spread on a wax paper-lined baking sheet. It hardened immediately and once cooled made a delicious brittle. I could see breaking it up to sprinkle over ice cream or to serve as part of a cheese board.

One very important caveat when making caramel on the grill: Pay Attention. Melted sugar is super-heated, way hotter than boiling water, to the tune of 300°F at the hard crack stage. It can stick to your skin and cause second degree burns in a heartbeat. If you’re distracted by guests or have had a couple of drinks, don’t attempt this or you could really hurt yourself or someone else.

Posted in Behind The Scenes


  1. DINO said...

    Can you smoke this sugar while caramelizing – not much time but some smoke

  2. Pam Hoenig said...

    I stumbled upon this caramelizing when I was trying to smoke both salt and sugar (the first time around, I used demerara sugar, which has large crystals). I had them indirect on the grill for two hours with smoke going the whole time, and you couldn’t detect any smoke flavor at the end. My serendipity was trying it a second time, this time using regular granulated sugar, which melted, as I’ve described in the post.

    I’m sure you can smoke sugar (I know you can smoke salt–I’ve got a jar I bought at a smokehouse–really heavy smoke flavor); maybe more of a cold smoking process for a lot longer is what is needed. If you can figure it out, please post back–I’d love to know!

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