Caramelizing Food for Extra Flavor

Sweet, sticky, and delicious – caramel has been an iconic flavor gracing dessert aisles and sauce recipes for centuries. While it’s often associated with sweet dishes, many cultures use caramel in savory recipes, such as caramel chicken, or basi digua, a traditional Chinese dish that features caramelized potatoes. Caramel is the foundation for many other flavors, and making it only takes some simple science.
What is Caramelization?
Caramelization happens when sugar comes into contact with heat. When you heat sugar, the molecules break down and reform, adding slightly different flavors to the food. The caramel flavors you enjoy in crispy fried onions or roasted sweet potatoes are the product of the caramelization process.
The flavor is not the only thing that changes when you caramelize food – it also changes color, browning slightly as the sugars on the surface are exposed to heat. You can caramelize sugar by itself or try it with fruit, vegetables, and other foods rich in natural sugars. The process works best with dry heat over a short period.
The Maillard Reaction vs Caramelization
Many home chefs confuse caramelization and the Maillard reaction, which produces brown colors, sweet aromas, and toasty flavors. While these two cooking techniques may result in similar tastes, they are different scientific reactions.
The Maillard reaction happens when we brown food, often creating a crispy outer crust. During the Maillard reaction, sugars react with proteins in the food, so meat, fish, and other high-protein ingredients turn golden brown when cooked at high temperatures.
On the contrary, caramelization involves sugars that change color and take on new flavors as they denature in heat. Many chefs combine the two reactions to create robust flavor profiles in sweet and savory dishes.
Using Caramel Flavoring to Sweeten Food Without Sugar
Today, most food and beverage manufacturers use caramel flavoring to enhance their product formulations without increasing the sugar content. While making caramel sauce from scratch is an age-old tradition, it can be time-consuming and often has inconsistent results. Plus, it’s made from pure sugar, and eating it daily can have adverse health effects.
Flavoring food or drink with caramel adds a slight nuttiness, toasted flavor, and sweet aroma that appeals to most people’s senses. Put simply; the flavor keeps tasting better and better the more you eat it. What’s more, scientists recently discovered that salted caramel causes a reaction in our brains called “hedonic escalation”.
This phenomenon has driven many food and drink brands to expand their offerings to include deliciously addictive caramel flavors. Some of the most common processed and packaged foods and drinks that contain caramel flavoring include:

  • Soda and flavored beer
  • Cola-flavored beverages and candy
  • Spirits such as vodka, brandy, and rum
  • Yogurt, custard, pudding, and porridge
  • Marinades and BBQ sauce
  • Popcorn and pretzels
  • Smoothies, flavored coffees, milkshakes

Pairing Caramel With Other Flavors
Caramel has a sweet, slightly nutty savor that you can use to offset other flavors in food. Sweet tastes that pair well with caramel include chocolate, walnut, vanilla, and apple. You can also amplify the sweetness of a savory dish using caramel flavoring. Some savory foods that pair well with caramel include corn, carrots, and pumpkin.
Find Premium Caramel Flavoring at Advanced Biotech
Whether you’re developing a ready-to-drink flavored coffee range or want to spice up your savory recipes with a dash of sweetness, reach for Advanced Biotech’s natural caramel flavorings. We are trusted flavor suppliers for many leading food and beverage brands worldwide. Please contact us for more information.