Some believe that caramel originated in the Middle East over a thousand years ago. However, the salted caramel that people know and love today was invented by the French chocolatier, Henri La Roux in the 1990s.
If you’re a vegan with a sweet tooth, then you’re no doubt wondering, is caramel vegan?
Caramel, when made traditionally, is not vegan. Unfortunately, it contains a high concentration of milk, cream, and dairy, all of which are non-vegan.
However, there are some vegan-friendly caramel syrups that you can substitute for real caramel.
Today, you’re about to get a crash course in caramel. Before I went vegan, it was one of my favorite sweet treats. So, I know a good bit about it.
Below, I’ll break down all of the ingredients in caramel and explain why it’s not vegan.
Then, I’ll answer some questions about popular caramel-flavored syrups and show you how vegan caramel is made! Let’s jump in, shall we?
What Is Caramel Made Of?
Believe it or not, the first form of ancient caramel was actually vegan. The first references date back over 1,000 years ago, during the height of the Arabic Empire.
It was made by cooking down sugar in a small amount of water. This “caramelized” the sugar, giving it a slightly bitter taste and allowing it to be shaped into small bittersweet balls.
In the mid-1800s, chefs began adding animal-derived fats like butter and cream to caramel to give it a softer consistency and make it more palatable.
Finally, in the 1990s, Henri La Roux created the iconic recipe for the salted caramel that took the world by storm.
Here is the simple, iconic recipe that’s used to make the real salted caramel.
Caramel is essentially a “sauce” that’s made out of sugar. As such, brown sugar is the key ingredient.
This is also where caramel’s brown color comes from. Brown sugar, by itself, is unprocessed and is vegan-friendly. It’s simply an extract of sugarcane juice, making it a viable plant-based sweetener.
Evaporated milk, on the other hand, is not vegan. Evaporated milk is produced by creating a concentrated, sugary blend of cream.
This is done by taking cream and evaporating all of the water content out of it to create a super-concentrated, syrup-like product that’s used in baking and candy making.
Butter is the second non-vegan ingredient used to make caramel. Dairy-derived butter is the main source of fat that thickens the caramel and helps it remain soft and pliable.
Vanilla extract is a concentrated extract that’s made by soaking roasted vanilla beans in grain alcohol and distilling the product.
Unlike evaporated milk and butter, vanilla extract is 100% vegan and is used in a number of vegan recipes, such as vegan brownie mix.
Lastly, salt (usually sea salt) is added to provide a rich, complex contrast to sugar, dairy, and vanilla. Salt, of course, is also vegan.
Fun Fact: Caramel Is Addictive
Candy comes and goes at a remarkably fast pace. However, caramel has managed to remain one of the top-selling candies of all time. This is because caramel has addictive properties.
A recent scientific study revealed a phenomenon known as hedonic escalation. The complex, contradictory flavors and textures found in salted caramel trigger our brains to consume more of it.
Hedonic escalation is based on the evolutionary theory that our bodies crave diversity in food.
Historically speaking, individuals who had access to greater variety in their diet lived longer and were able to continue procreating. Today, this ancient evolutionary response leads us to desire complex-tasting food and candy such as caramel.
Is Caramel Syrup Vegan?
Unfortunately, this is a bit of a gray area… while some caramel syrup is vegan, other caramel syrups are not vegan. Traditionally-made caramel syrup almost always contains high concentrations of dairy and butter, making them non-vegan.
However, some of the cheaper, more processed brands use artificial ingredients or dairy alternatives instead.
If you’re buying caramel syrup from a bakery or pastry shop, there’s a good chance that it’s not vegan. However, if you’re shopping for caramel-flavored syrup at the supermarket, there’s a good chance that you’ll find a vegan-friendly option.
The only way to tell for sure if a certain syrup is vegan or not is to read the label. You can also Google the specific brand and research the ingredients there as well.
However, companies may change their ingredients at the drop of a hat, so you’re better off relying on the labels.
Does Starbucks Caramel Have Dairy?
According to Starbucks Coffee’s official allergen sheet, their caramel drizzle sauce is dairy-free. However, if you look at Starbucks Coffee’s ingredient breakdown of caramel sauce, you’ll see that it does, in fact, contain dairy.
According to the ingredients list on Starbucks Coffee’s main website, their caramel sauce is made using:
- Corn syrup
Butter, of course, is made using cream and milk, so it’s non-vegan.
I’m not sure why the two pages offer contradictory information, but I’d recommend avoiding Starbucks caramel beverages altogether. Thankfully, Starbucks offers plenty of vegan-friendly options like coffee, tea, and espresso.
What Is Vegan Caramel Made Of?
The main reason dairy is added to caramel is to thicken it. Dairy isn’t the only thing that’s capable of creating a smooth, creamy sauce, though.
You can make your own homemade vegan caramel sauce that tastes almost the same. You just need a few simple ingredients!
Vegan Caramel Ingredients:
- 1 cup coconut milk
- 3/4 cup unprocessed brown sugar
- 1 tablespoon of cornstarch
- 1 teaspoon of vanilla extract
- 1 teaspoon of sea salt
How To Make Vegan Caramel Sauce
Making the sauce is incredibly simple! Just combine all of the ingredients in a small pot and let the mixture simmer on low heat for around ten minutes.
Make sure that you continuously whisk the mixture to prevent it from sticking to the bottom of the pan and burning!
Although real caramel may be off-limits for vegans, it’s incredibly simple and easy to make your own homemade vegan caramel sauce. You can use this sauce to bake with or even harden it in the refrigerator to make your own caramel candies.
If you’re feeling really creative, you can even dip your vegan soft serve in your vegan caramel sauce for an extra-sweet, delicious treat!