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
1 cup granulated sugar
3/4 cup water, divided
Fill 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.
After 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.
Add 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.