The French Confection

Brittany, France, 1981. Pastry chef Henri Le Roux flouts one tradition while paying homage to another: while it’s customary in the pastry world to use unsalted butter in baking and confectionery, Le Roux couldn’t resist experimenting with Bretagne’s famously rich salted butter. He swirled it into a batch of caramel and studded the mixture with chopped walnuts, almonds, and hazelnuts. His “Caramel-Beurre-Salé” transfixed customers as the idea spread across France.

In the 1990’s, the legendary pastry chef Pierre Hermé embraced inspiration with his salted caramel macaron. The combination of complex salty-sweet ganache and tender almond flour meringues was a hit, but the “salted caramel everything” trend remained a secret among pastry aficionados, food professionals, and high end shops. Meanwhile, a family-run confectionery tucked into Seattle’s Capitol Hill was quietly crafting velvety chocolate-covered caramels embellished (by hand) with sea salt. Fran Bigelow of Fran’s Chocolates had been experimenting with the depths of flavor that fine fleur de sel brought out in her caramels and chocolates, and people were beginning to take notice. In 2003, Fran’s clinched an Outstanding Confection award from the National Association for the Specialty Food Trade. They were featured in Oprah Magazine’s O List in 2006, gradually catching the attention of celebrities, chefs, and other trendsetters.

We’ll Melt For You

As a flavor, salted caramel was rapidly flowing through all the stages that take a food from a regional novelty to a superhit, as outlined by Kara Nielsen of the Center for Culinary Development. Once found exclusively in specialty shops, then gourmet magazines, by the mid 2000s variations on salted caramel were showing up in mainstream confectioners’ chocolate boxes, in Starbucks’ hot chocolate, and in Haagen-Dazs’ ice creams. Its success was only a matter of time, as salted caramel is a close cousin to Mexican dulce de leche, which had helped jumpstart caramel’s influence on American tastebuds in the ‘90s–around the same time Pierre Hermé was crafting his macarons in Paris.

A Resounding Endorsement

In early 2008, Senator Barack Obama visited Seattle on a campaign stop. Knowing his fondness for chocolate, a local fundraising supporter had slipped a box of Fran’s smoked salt milk chocolate caramels into his pre-speech welcome basket. After one taste, the senator, as poised as ever, politely but firmly refused to share. He wouldn’t have to; his wife Michelle fell for the gray salt dark chocolate caramels instead.

custom gift builderOnce the Obamas publicly professed their love for Fran’s Chocolates, salted caramel became the true darling of the dessert world. Sales of Fran’s milk and dark chocolate caramels skyrocketed after the First Couple’s endorsement, to the point where the company had to adjust production of some of their other products to keep up with demand. Special guests of the White House enjoyed boxes of the sweet and savory confections (stamped with the Presidential seal) and Obama’s aides kept the President and First Lady well supplied throughout their tenure.

The Bliss Point

Not long after the Obamas’ introduction to salted caramel in ‘08, The New York Times’ Dining reporter Kim Severson commented on the factors that established the flavor as a genuine trend with no sign of slowing, even then. Unlike certain fad foods (looking at you, cronuts), salted caramel has tremendous staying power–and not just because it’s sticky.

Even the smoothest, most complex-tasting batch of caramel is whirled together from simple ingredients: sugar, butter, often cream, with other flavors added later on. Its alchemical transformation depends on who’s stirring the spoon in the big copper kettle, as confectioners can make minute adjustments to the process whether they want caramel sauce, soft candies, slightly firmer taffy-like confections, or hard candies. Salted caramels, where the flavor might come from quality butter or pops of crunchy sea salt, hit what neuroscientists and culinary researchers (and food writer Nigella Lawson) call “the bliss point”–the dizzying ideal fusion of salt, sugar, and fat that can bewitch the brain’s pleasure centers and make a food irresistible. Researchers and marketers know this and delight in it. It’s unsurprising, then, that once you tire of salted caramel truffles, ice cream, and frappuccinos, you can now sample more adventurously with salty-sweet martinis or stout beer before teetering into “way too far” territory with salted caramel protein bars, salted caramel potato chips, and salted caramel-smothered avocados.

How Sweet It Is

If all this flavor-mongering sounds a bit rich, we think it best to enjoy salted caramel in its original, handcrafted form. It’s a gorgeous gift for Valentine’s Day, birthdays, or anniversaries, but with so many delicious options at your fingertips, why wait for a special occasion?

Purists who like their caramels unsullied by chocolate might find themselves spoon-deep in Hot Cakes Pacific Coast Sea Salt Caramel Sauce, which is cooked to glossy perfection in small batches with organic Washington milk. If you prefer treats you can unwrap and slowly savor, Jonboy Caramels are a favorite at farmers’ markets around Seattle; they’re handcrafted in Ballard and infused with tempting seasonal flavors created with ingredients from the Northwest. Finally, if you’re craving something a little bit different, explore the marvelous flavor pairings from Meg Maggie Margaret Chocolates. Local chocolatier Margaret Savas (one of Fran’s Chocolates original tastemakers, as it so happens) makes her decadent candies by hand. Her current creations reimagine the salted caramel, pairing it with exceptionally well-executed flavors: espresso with coffee salt, lemon-rosemary with lemon zest salt, maple with smoked sea salt, and pure caramel with Himalayan pink salt, all dipped in bittersweet chocolate.

Eager to make your own salted caramel? Cookbook author (and Henri Le Roux devotee) David Lebovitz has a treasure trove of recipes like this one.