Craving dairy free caramel for your desserts and dairy free ice cream? We found 2 methods for making dairy free caramel and we give details on each method, along with a butterscotch variation!
Hey all, I’m super excited to bring you this post today! Creating a dairy free caramel (more like a caramel sauce) has been on my bucket list for several years and we finally made it happen 🙂
Our super easy faux caramel sauce is great and all, but it’s just not the same as an honest to goodness caramel sauce that you can make on the stove that has that browned sugar and butter taste.
So we tried several methods to come up with some dairy free caramel!
Over the course of several days (I spent almost 2 entire days cooking up caramel), I made at least 15 batches of caramel between both methods listed here, in addition to a several other methods I tried that failed. I added a few notes at the very end with the failed methods I tried.
This is a pretty long post, so I’ve added a table of contents to hop to different areas of the post. If you want to try the wet caramel or dry caramel method, I highly recommend reading through the “how to” and tips on it and look at the photos to make sure you’re on the right track before you begin.
Update: we just added a third method: the traditional wet caramel method! It’s a more traditional method of making caramel but it’s easier to make than dry caramel and deeper in color and flavor than the easy caramel.
I never really intended this post to get so long, but in my quest to make a great batch of smooth dairy free caramel, I wanted to try all the methods and several kinds of ingredients. So this post got longer and I have added more info to it after I had initially posted it as well.
Consider this your ultimate guide to dairy free caramel! 😉
Our table of contents for this post:
- Easy method for dairy free caramel (Easy)
- Easy method butterscotch variation
- Traditional wet caramel (Intermediate)
- Traditional dry caramel method (Advanced)
- How to freeze caramel
- Failed caramel methods
- Recipe cards for all 3 methods
I’m not a confectioner or a pro at making caramel, so if you have any technical questions about caramel I probably can’t answer them for you. But I recommend reading articles like this one from Cooks Illustrated with tips on how to make the best caramel.
Easy method dairy free caramel
This is the easiest way I’ve found to make dairy free caramel sauce. I adapted this recipe and method from the Just A Taste recipe for butterscotch sauce. Instead of using brown sugar to make butterscotch, I decided to try this with white sugar for caramel.
With this method, you melt the dairy free butter first, then stir in the sugar and dairy free half and half, then boil it for several minutes.
- Pros: easiest method, nearly foolproof
- Cons: not as much of an authentic caramelized sugar taste, has more re-crystallization of sugar than the traditional dry caramel method if made without corn syrup.
This caramel sauce isn’t as “burnt” tasting as the traditional dry caramel method I share below where the sugar is melted first and then the dairy free butter and half and half is added afterward.
The traditional method is more like what real caramel is supposed to be, but this method is so much easier and nearly fail-proof.
The caramel sauce that this recipe makes is lighter in color than the traditional dry caramel. If you want this to be a bit darker, you can replace 1 or 2 Tablespoons of the white sugar with brown sugar for a butterscotch/caramel sauce hybrid.
I wanted to use the Silk heavy whipping cream for this recipe, but for some reason it was out of stock in my local grocery stores for several weeks, so I didn’t get to try it in this recipe.
I tested both of these methods of making dairy free caramel sauce with the Country Crock Plant Butter sticks made with avocado oil.
So far I haven’t tested this recipe out with any other brands of dairy free butter, so I’m not sure if this will work with other brands until I do more testing (right now we have containers of caramel all over our house so we’ll end up waiting a little while to start testing this with other types of butter.
Update: I tried this recipe out with the Earth Balance Soy Free margarine and it worked ok, but it seemed more oily than the caramel sauce made with the Country Crock Plant Butter and separates a bit so there was a layer of oil on the caramel. So I’d use country crock plant butter sticks if you can!
#1: How to make dairy free caramel (easy method)
Here are the steps for making this recipe. The full printable recipe card with ingredients and all the steps is at the end of the blog post!
First you’ll melt the dairy free butter in a small heavy-bottom saucepan. I used Country Crock Plant Butter avocado oil sticks for this recipe.
Once the butter is melted, whisk in the white sugar, brown sugar (if you’re using any to make it darker), a pinch of salt, and your choice of dairy free cream (either canned coconut cream, canned coconut milk, or Silk dairy free half and half).
Whisk together until mixed and bring to a boil, boil/simmer for 5 minutes, then remove from the heat and stir in the vanilla.
Pour into a jar or other heat resistant storage container and let it cool completely. You can serve this warm, but you still want to make sure that it cools quite a bit more before serving since this is extremely hot and can burn you.
This caramel will look a little runny at first, but will thicken as it cools. This caramel sauce is pretty awesome stirred into a hot cup of coffee!
Easy method dairy free caramel tips:
- Don’t stir your caramel very often, only stirring about every 1-2 minutes is sufficient.
- The corn syrup works to keep the caramel from getting gritty if the sugar tries to crystalize again. You can skip the corn syrup and just use a full 1/2 cup sugar, but your caramel sauce may get gritty without it.
- Add more Silk dairy free half and half to make it thinner or reduce it to make the caramel thicker.
- With this method, you can use different types of sugar (like unbleached sugar or brown sugar). Unlike with the traditional dry caramel method, the sugar in this doesn’t have to be bleached white sugar.
Can I use canned coconut cream in this recipe?
This recipe will work with canned coconut milk, but I wouldn’t use canned coconut cream in this recipe.
I tried this easy method dairy free caramel using canned coconut cream instead of the Silk half and half and it seemed to work out pretty well at first, but once the caramel started to cool, it began to separate.
The coconut oil started to separate from the caramel and it just looked like thick caramel with a lot of oil on it, which wasn’t great 🙁
So I’d recommend just using the Silk half and half or canned coconut milk if you can find that. Using coconut oil makes this caramel even lighter in color as well.
Why is there corn syrup in this recipe?
Update: this recipe will work with maple syrup in place of corn syrup, although it still ends up gritty the day after making the caramel. I did some testing and this recipe turned out great initially with maple syrup, but did get somewhat gritty the next day so it doesn’t work as well as corn syrup to prevent recrystallization.
The corn syrup in this recipe is optional, but recommended if you want a smooth caramel sauce. If you don’t want to use corn syrup at all, I recommend making the traditional wet caramel recipe which doesn’t need corn syrup to stay smooth.
Sugar will often try to recrystalize after it is cooked into a sauce or syrup (our homemade syrup ends up with a bunch of crystals at the bottom), especially if crystalized sugar is re-introduced into the mix by a spoon with some sugar on it or scraping the sides of the caramel pan.
Adding corn syrup (a different type of sugar molecule) into the caramel sauce can help prevent most recrystallization of the sugars. If you don’t want to use it, it will still turn out fine, but your caramel might end up a little gritty after a few hours or a day or 2.
Please note this is regular light corn syrup, not high fructose corn syrup. Regular corn syrup is used in a lot of cooking (like traditional pecan pies and candies), and while it is still processed, it is not as processed as high fructose corn syrup and does not contain fructose.
Easy method dairy free butterscotch variation
To make butterscotch, replace half or all the white sugar with brown sugar. Replacing the white sugar with brown sugar will end up being pretty dark, but will still have that great butterscotch taste.
If you use all brown sugar, it will be dark in color and will be slightly less thick since the brown sugar has more moisture in it than white sugar. So you can add less Silk half and half if you want for a thicker butterscotch sauce.
#2: Traditional Wet Caramel Method (new!)
With traditional caramel making, there are 2 main types: a wet method and a dry method. The dry caramel is where the sugar is melted in the pan without any liquid added, and wet caramel is where the sugar is melted in the pan along with a little bit of water to help it melt more evenly.
Initially I just had posted the easy method and the dry method in this post, but I wanted to also add a dairy free version of the wet caramel method since it’s easier than the dry caramel.
- Pros: easier to make than dry caramel, deeper tasting than the easy caramel, doesn’t seem to need corn syrup to prevent recrystallization of sugar.
- Cons: Slightly more complicated than the easy method, easier to burn the caramel.
This seems to work pretty well without corn syrup and just using cream of tartar instead. Cream of tartar adds a little bit of acid to the caramel to help prevent recrystallization of the sugar.
Recrystallization of the sugars in caramel will make it gritty and not smooth, so you don’t want that to happen if you want satiny and shiny caramel sauce.
How to make dairy free wet caramel
This is about an intermediate level caramel making method. I adapted this recipe from the Bon Appetit recipe for wet caramel.
This wet caramel recipe isn’t as thick as the easy recipe or the dry method recipe, so if you’d like to make caramel apples with this recipe, reduce the amount of Silk half and half.
Here are the steps to make dairy free wet caramel. Don’t forget the recipe card with ingredient amounts for this is at the end of the post!
- Place sugar, water, and cream of tartar in a small heavy-bottom sauce pan.
- Heat over medium low heat until the sugar melts and starts to darken in color.
- Once the color starts to change in your sugar, really keep an eye on it! It will change colors and scorch quickly if you’re not watchful.
- Once the sugar is a dark straw or amber color, remove it immediately from the heat and whisk in the dairy free butter.
- Whisk in the Silk half and half and salt.
- Pour into a glass or heat-proof container and allow to cool. Don’t scrape the sides of the pan into the container with the caramel sauce.
- Serve while it’s warm or store in the fridge of the freezer for later.
This method is fairly straightforward. The sugar will act like it’s not going to melt at first and even look like it’s going to harden before it actually begins to fully melt.
Once it melts and the color starts to change, this is when you’ll need to be very attentive to your sugar to keep it from burning. Some people like it dark and burnt tasting, but I don’t, so I recommend getting it off the heat and immediately adding the butter when it’s amber colored.
The sugar will still try to cook more even when it’s off the heat since the pan is still really hot, so you’ll want to add your butter right away to help bring the temperature down a bit and stop the sugar from continuing to cook.
When you add the butter it will bubble up quite a bit (just like the dry caramel but not as much), so watch your hands for splatters of hot melted sugar.
I noticed that when I whisked in my Silk dairy free half and half into this recipe, it foamed up. After you pour this into your storage dish, just scoop off the foam as much as you can and stir in the rest into the caramel.
I’m not sure if it foams up with canned coconut milk, but I stirred my caramel foam into a cup of hot coffee. So good!
Wet caramel tips
- Use white sugar vs. unbleached natural sugar. Natural sugars will burn faster than white sugar in the wet and dry caramel recipes.
- Resist the urge to scrape down the sides of the pan as you cook and melt the sugar, this can facilitate recrystallization of the sugars once it cools.
- Stir with a spoon initially, then switch to a whisk once the sugar begins to melt.
- When you pour the caramel out into your storage dish, don’t scrape down the sides (you can swipe the bottom of the pan gently, but if there is any stuck caramel, leave it in the pan).
#3: Traditional dairy free dry caramel
“Dry” caramel is so named because you begin the recipe by melting the sugar in the pan by itself without adding any liquid with the sugar, so it starts out dry. This method is much more touchy and easier to scorch than the easy method I shared above, but the flavors are deeper and the color is darker.
- Pros: closest tasting to real caramel, has much darker caramel color, has less re-crystallization of sugar even without corn syrup.
- Cons: more difficult to make than the easy method and the wet caramel method, harder to get this recipe right since it can burn so quickly.
For dry caramel, regular white/bleached sugar is preferred. You can use unbleached sugar or raw sugar, but it is more likely to scorch easier.
There is a method of making “wet” caramel where you add a little water to the sugar to help it melt more consistently, but I haven’t tried that method with success yet. If I can get good caramel made with that method, I’ll add that to this post as well!
How to make dairy free dry caramel
I adapted this method for dry caramel from several websites that detailed very similar recipes and steps, including Broma Bakery.
You’ll start by putting your white sugar in a small heavy-bottom sauce pan and begin to heat it over medium-low heat.
At first it will look like nothing is happening because there is no liquid in the pan with the sugar, but trust us, it will melt eventually.
You don’t want to disturb or stir it very often initially, stir it only occasionally. You’ll notice it will start to clump up at first until it starts to melt. Use a spoon when you do stir the sugar, don’t use a whisk yet until you add the dairy free butter.
Once it begins to melt, you can stir it a bit more frequently. As it melts it will start to darken as well. Make sure that you’re only at medium-low heat or a little below medium-low heat to prevent scorching.
As soon as the sugar is completely melted, take it off the heat immediately so it doesn’t scorch and have a burnt taste (unless you like that slightly burnt taste, then have at it!).
You’ll immediately remove it from the heat and stir in the room temperature dairy free butter. It will bubble violently and darken some more once you add the butter and whisk it in, this is normal.
Whisk the butter in as best you can. It will look like the butter will not want to mix with the melted sugar at first, but once you add the dairy free half and half it will all come together.
Once the dairy free butter is mixed in, add a little bit of the dairy free half and half to the pan and whisk some more. Continue adding the half and half a little bit at a time (in 2-3 parts) whisking until it is all mixed together.
The mixture will bubble again and darken some more when you add the dairy free half and half, which is still normal. Whisk in the dash of salt and the vanilla extract.
Pour the caramel into a jar or other heat-proof container to cool. The caramel will look pretty runny at first since it’s still hot. Once it’s completely cooled, it will thicken up quite a bit at room temperature, and will thicken up even more in the fridge.
Our dairy free dry caramel tends to look much darker and more red colored than the real dairy counterpart, probably because the heavy cream they use makes the caramel a lighter color than the dairy free half and half we are using.
To clean up your pan, spoons, and whisk, fill the pan with really hot or boiling water and let the utensils soak in the pan. Any hardened sugar from stirring the melting sugar will eventually dissolve.
Dry caramel tips:
- Use a spoon to stir the melting sugar, then once the butter is added use a whisk.
- We noticed that this is thicker than easy caramel, so using 3 Tablespoons of half and half makes a good consistency for dipping apples.
- 4-5 Tablespoons of dairy free half and half makes a good thickness for drizzling.
- You can try making this into a butterscotch by using brown sugar, but I haven’t tried this and I think using brown sugar might scorch easier than using white sugar.
Can I freeze caramel sauce?
Yes! Both of these recipes (the easy method and the dry caramel method) can be frozen and thawed with great results.
If you make a big batch and won’t use it all, add it to a freezer-proof container and freeze for up to several months.
We tested the freezing and thawing of both types of caramel sauce within a day or 2, so we’re not sure how this caramel sauce will taste after 3-4 months of being in a freezer. But if you have an airtight container, it shouldn’t matter too much.
Before freezing, make sure that your caramel sauce is cooled completely to prevent condensation in the jar or container. And if you are using a glass jar, make sure there is some headspace to allow for expanding caramel as it freezes.
Why not use natural ingredients in these recipes?
One of the reasons I didn’t use more natural ingredients in these recipes (like coconut milk instead of Silk half and half, or coconut oil instead of Country Crock plant butter) is that some of the natural ingredients are not as stable as the other ingredients I chose.
As much as we try to use natural ingredients, sometimes those ingredients aren’t as stable as their real dairy counterparts and don’t perform well in place of them.
For instance, coconut oil melts much faster and separates easier than real dairy butter, so we used the Country Crock plant butter sticks that act more like real butter than coconut oil does in recipes like this.
If you’d like to use more whole-food and natural ingredients in your caramel recipe, I’d recommend looking for caramel recipes that have been developed using these ingredients since some substitutions won’t work well in this recipe.
The Country Crock plant butter sticks (we use the avocado oil ones) do not contain soybean oil but the Country Crock plant butter tub margarine does contain soybean oil in it. The sticks have a warning that says “may contain soy” so use at your discretion if you have soy allergies. We have soy allergies and don’t have problems with the Country Crock plant butter sticks.
Honorable mentions: Failed dairy free caramel methods
Since I also tried out a few other methods of making caramel that really didn’t turn out well at all, I wanted to share these with you as well in case you want to try these out, too.
Melt butter and sugar together
In this method, I melted 6 Tablespoons of Country Crock plant butter and 1 cup of white sugar together in the pan. I based this off of my grandma’s English toffee recipe, I figured if I made a toffee base then added Silk half and half it’d make caramel.
With the first method, I noticed that without the half and half or coconut milk, it ended up being a softish toffee texture (soft crack), so I decided to try making the toffee and adding half and half to make a caramel.
Unfortunately this method didn’t work. The sugar wouldn’t fully dissolve and the butter separated from the sugar as it cooked ending in a separated sugar and butter mess.
Coconut condensed milk
I tried making a condensed milk caramel/dulce de leche with coconut condensed milk in the oven using this method from Spend with Pennies.
Unfortunately this didn’t turn out either. It got slightly darker in color but did not thicken or make a caramel type sauce. The coconut sweetened condensed milk is not suitable for that type of recipe I guess and won’t replace real sweet and condensed milk to make dulce de leche. Which is a huge bummer because I was really hoping it would work!
So this condensed coconut milk probably also won’t work with the pressure cooker or the stovetop method either since it definitely didn’t work in the oven.
Dairy Free caramel recipe cards
Here are the recipe cards for the 3 different caramel methods. Each method and recipe has its own card to make it easier to keep track of which one you’re making.
Print off one to try or all of them!
Dairy Free Caramel (Easy Method)
- Melt the dairy free butter in the in a small heavy-bottom saucepan over medium/low heat. I used Country Crock Plant Butter avocado oil sticks for this recipe.
- Once the butter is melted (which only takes a minute or 2), whisk in the white sugar, brown sugar (if making butterscotch), a pinch of salt, and Silk dairy free half and half (or canned coconut milk or canned coconut cream).
- Whisk together until mixed and bring to a boil over medium/low heat, then boil for 6-7 minutes.
- Remove the caramel sauce from the heat and stir in the vanilla.
- Pour into a jar or other heat resistant storage container and let the sauce cool completely. You can serve this warm, but it still needs to cool for a while before serving since this is still extremely hot and can burn you.
- This caramel sauce will thicken as it cools, store in an airtight container in the fridge.
Here’s the second recipe: dairy free traditional wet caramel:
Traditional Wet Caramel Method for Dairy Free Caramel
- Place sugar, water, and cream of tartar in a small heavy-bottom sauce pan.
- Heat over medium low heat until the sugar melts and starts to darken in color. This will take several minutes over medium low heat. Don't stir very often until you're several minutes in and the sugar begins to melt. Don't scrape down the sides of the pan.
- Once the color starts to change in your sugar, really keep an eye on it! It will change colors and scorch quickly if you're not watchful.
- Once the sugar is a dark straw or amber color, remove it immediately from the heat and whisk in the dairy free butter.
- Once the dairy free butter is mostly incorporated, whisk in the Silk half and half slowly, then add the vanilla and salt. If you want this thick for caramel apples, reduce the amount of half and half.
- Pour into a glass or heat-proof container and allow to cool. Don't scrape the sides of the pan into the container with the caramel sauce.
- Serve while it's warm or store in the fridge of the freezer for later. If you serve warm, make sure to allow ample time for it to cool or it can burn you.
Next up is the traditional dry caramel method recipe for the dairy free caramel. This is much more picky and a bit harder to get right with dairy free ingredients.
Traditional Dry Caramel Method for Dairy Free Caramel
- Heat the white sugar alone in a small heavy-bottom sauce pan over medium-low heat. At first it will look like nothing is happening, but the sugar will begin to melt after a few minutes.
- Stir the sugar only occasionally. You’ll notice it will start to clump up at first until it starts to melt. Use a spoon when you stir the sugar, don’t use a whisk yet. The sugar will start to melt into a liquid after about 5-10 minutes and it will darken as it melts.
- As soon as the sugar is completely melted, take it off the heat immediately so it doesn’t scorch and have a burnt taste (unless you like that slightly burnt taste).
- Immediately whisk in the room temperature dairy free butter. It will bubble violently and darken some more once you add the butter and whisk it in, this is normal.
- Whisk the butter in as best you can. It will look like the butter will not want to mix with the melted sugar at first, but keep whisking until it's mostly mixed in. Once you add the dairy free half and half it will all come together.
- Whisk in half of the dairy free half and half to the pan and whisk to mix. Add the rest of the half and half and mix again. The mixture will bubble again and darken some more each time you add the dairy free half and half, which is normal.
- Whisk in the dash of salt and the vanilla extract.
- Pour the caramel into a jar or other heat-proof container to cool. The caramel will look runny at first, but will thicken as it cools.
- To clean up your pan, spoons, and whisk, fill the pan with really hot or boiling water and let the utensils soak in the pan. Any hardened sugar from stirring the melting sugar will eventually dissolve.
- One it's cooled, store in the fridge for up to a 1-2 weeks or freeze for 3-4 months.
Sarah Jane Parker is the founder, recipe creator, and photographer behind The Fit Cookie. She’s a food allergy mom and healthy living blogger based in Wyoming. Sarah is also an ACSM Certified Personal Trainer, ACE Certified Health Coach, Revolution Running certified running coach, and an ACE Certified Fitness Nutrition Specialist