Butterscotch gets a bad rap, I think. Everyone is all “Oooh, caramel!” and “Oh, I just had some lovely salted caramel.” and “Yes, each caramel has exactly three flakes of salt from Tatooine balanced atop it. Magical!”
But try talking butterscotch to these folks, and Noses turn Up. “It’s too sweet.” and “It tastes like chemicals” and “It’s a weird color. What is up with that?” I submit to you that these butterscotch naysayers just haven’t had good butterscotch.
Before we get into all the Whys and Wherefores, let’s just define caramel and butterscotch, shall we?
Caramel contains white sugar that has been taken to the caramel stage along with dairy. It may or may not contain butter, vanilla or salt. (But it should contain salt). The distinctive caramel flavor comes not only through caramelization of the sugar but also some complex Maillard reactions between the sugars and the milk proteins over a broad range of temperatures (as the caramel heats and cooks).
Butterscotch in its purest form–candy–is similar to caramel but differs in three main ways. It does not contain dairy (except for the small amount of milk solids in butter), it contains more butter than caramel, which strictly speaking doesn’t need any butter, and it also contains some syrups that are the by-products of sugar manufacturing. Back in The Day, it was treacle or molasses, and today it usually means brown sugar (since today’s brown sugar is nothing more than refined white sugar with some molasses mixed back in).
Yesterday I found reference to a recipe written in 1848 for Doncaster* butterscotch calling for a pound each of sugar and butter and a quarter pound of treacle. And I added salt. Quite a bit, actually. True butterscotch–and now this is just me making Pronouncements without anything buy my palate to back me up–should have a bit of a salty edge to help round out the mellow butter and sweet sugar as well as to cut any bitterness from the molasses (which is pretty much just a dark treacle).
Note that it is not necessary to caramelize the sugar in butterscotch. The ingredients are cooked together to between 248F-265F, depending on how firm-but-chewy you want the texture, and sugar doesn’t caramelize until well over 300F. Caramel, on the other hand, is made by first caramelizing the sugar and then adding the rest of the ingredients to cook together.
Okay Jen, that’s great and all, but what about butterscotch pudding? I mean, it has dairy in it, right?
Good call, folks. Yes, butterscotch and caramel pudding both contain dairy. In the case of pudding, the main difference between the two is that butterscotch is made with brown sugar and caramel pudding is made with caramelized white sugar. Both really should contain salt, although butterscotch should probably have a bit more in it than caramel since salt is more of a big player in butterscotch’s flavor profile.
What about butterscotch sauce and caramel sauce?
There is a lot of confusion about what constitutes a butterscotch sauce and what differentiates it from a caramel sauce. Again, I believe the main difference is that brown sugar (or a mixture of white sugar and treacle) and a high proportion of butter are used to make butterscotch sauce while caramel sauce is based on caramelized white sugar and cream with a touch, if any, of butter.
I’ve also come across butterscotch sauce recipes that call for lemon juice. This could potentially be where the “saltiness” came from as lemon juice and salt are both flavor enhancers. But I don’t know–that’s me making more Pronouncements. Regardless, this butterscotch sauce recipe seems to be Pretty Authentic (although I’d leave out the nuts). Please Observe that the recipe contains no dairy and a 1:1 ratio of sugar to butter. Compare it to this recipe for caramel sauce, noticing the 2:1 ratio of sugar to cream as well as the relatively small amount of butter.
So why does store-bought butterscotch pudding and butterscotch ice cream topping taste so crappy?
Remember, we’re looking for these ingredients: butter, brown sugar and salt. Vanilla works too. Just Take a Gander at these ingredient lists and then I’m pretty sure you’ll understand why the store-bought stuff tastes nasty:
- Smucker’s Butterscotch Flavored Topping
- Thank You Brand Butterscotch Pudding
- Jell-o Cook and Serve Butterscotch Pudding
And now take a look at the ingredients for Wegman’s Creamy Caramel Dessert Sauce, and you’ll see that poor butterscotch just doesn’t have a chance. Unless you make it yourself.
Speaking of making it yourself, I hear you made some hot curried butterscotch pudding. What was that all about?
Why yes; I’m so glad you brought it up! Here’s what happened.
A few weeks ago, a new hot sauce company followed me on twitter. When I followed them back, they asked if they could send me some of their sauce so I could play with it and hopefully write Nice Things about them. I declined, because accepting Swag from folks makes me feel like there is some obligation for me to say nice things. Like I’m being bought. For a $4 bottle of hot sauce. But I want you guys to always know that you’re getting the Straight Skinny from me, with no hint of Impropriety. Plus I’m worth way more than a $4 bottle of hot sauce. Ahem.
Anyway, as I am a Fan of both hot sauce and curry, I bought my own bottle and it came to me in the mail. My brain immediately went to butterscotch pudding. Because here’s why: Back in the 70s when my mom wanted to throw a Swanky party, she often made a thing called “Shrimp Curry.” I have no idea where she got the recipe, but I doubt that any person from a traditional Curry Eating Nation would have recognized it as curry. She served it in a Very Large Vat with a bunch of small condiment bowls arrayed around it. These bowls contained Items such as sweetened flake coconut and raisins. To me, the whole spread smelled like butterscotch. So of course, it made perfect sense to me to slam some curry hot sauce into my butterscotch pudding.
The original recipe for the pudding is from Gooey Desserts by Elaine Corn.** It’s a great book. I mean, it’s an entire book filled with nothing but pudding-y, custardy, chocolately caramelly butterscotchy goo. The only changes I made to the original were to substitute corn starch for the flour and to add salt (the original called for Exactly Zero Teaspoons of salt) and the Start! Curry Hot Sauce**
- 3 egg yolks
- ¼ cup granulated sugar
- 3 Tablespoons corn starch
- 2 cups whole milk
- salt, to taste (probably about ¾ teaspoon)
- 1.5 oz butter (3 Tablespoons)
- ½ cup packed brown sugar
- 1 Tablespoon best quality vanilla
- .5 oz butter (1 Tablespoon)
- Start! Hot Curry Sauce, to taste (I used 1 Tablespoon)
- Whisk the yolks and place in a bowl near the stove.
- In a medium sauce pan, whisk sugar, corn starch, milk and salt. Heat over medium heat, stirring occasionally.
- In a small skillet or pan, cook the 1.5 oz of butter and the brown sugar until it comes to a boil. Let bubble nicely for about 2 minutes.
- Whisk the butterscotch mixture into the hot milk mixture.
- Temper this into the beaten yolks, whisking madly.
- Whisk the tempered eggs back into the pan, still whisking madly.
- Bring to a boil, stirring or whisking constantly, and let boil for about 30 seconds.
- Strain through a fine mesh strainer into a bowl.
- Stir in the last tablespoon of butter and the vanilla.
- Stir in the hot sauce, a bit at a time, until you are Well Pleased.
- Taste and adjust salt, if necessary. You should get butter-sweet-salt-heat all at about the same level.
- Pour into individual serving Vessels or into one big vessel. Let cool and then chill.
- These are better the next day, after the flavors have all had a chance to get to know one another.
- Serve with a bit of brown sugar whipped cream, if you want. Or just eat it plain.
Also, next time I make this, and there will be a next time, I'll use some coconut milk for part of the whole milk. Or maybe all of it. I think it will definitely play up the curry flavor, and it just plain makes sense. The only reason I didn't use it this time was that I was out of coconut mill and car-less. Find the recipe for traditional Doncaster butterscotch candy here.
And how does it taste?
I humbly admit that this is One Spectacular Pudding. The curry kind of shores up the butterscotchicness without screaming Curry! And the fruity heat builds slowly, bite after bite.
I also think that some spiced nuts would be a perfect accompaniment to this.
And now, as I have blathered on for Night Onto 1700 words, it’s time to draw this guy to a close, but I will be posting the butterscotch candy recipe tomorrow, so worry not.
Well, after all of this, have I changed your mind about butterscotch? Are you willing to give it a chance? I hope so. It deserves it. Thanks for reading.
Have a lovely day.
*Doncaster is a town in South Yorkshire, England. It also happens to be the town that is generally recognized as the Birthplace of butterscotch. Here’s my post on Traditional Doncaster Butterscotch, along with the recipe.
**These are Amazon affiliate links. If you click and purchase through these links, we will get a few cents that help us feed our kittens. Thanks!
PS Read this very silly discussion thread from 2007. Folks were talking butterscotch and making up Rather Amusing Tales of its origins. There is a bit of silliness and cursing over there, just so you know.
PPS Here’s another version of butterscotch pudding, plus a story about why The Beloved had to eat only soft foods for awhile.