Caramel: The brown syrup created when sucrose is heated to 170°C (340°F). Also a chewy confection made from sugar and dairy products (butter, milk, cream, etc.). Also a name for a moderate yellow-brown color.
Orange & Honey Salt Caramels from Das Foods.
Caramel syrup can be produced by simply heating sugar (“dry caramel”) or by heating sugar plus a liquid, usually water (“wet caramel”). In either case, a dramatic transformation occurs in appearance and flavor. Here’s Harold McGee in his authoritative reference book On Food and Cooking (2004):
Caramelization is the name given to the chemical reactions that occur when any sugar is heated to the point that its molecules begin to break apart. This destruction triggers a remarkable cascade of chemical creation. From a single kind of molecule in the form of colorless, odorless, simply sweet crystals, the cook generates hundreds of new and different compounds, some of them small fragments that are sour or bitter, or intensely aromatic, others large aggregates with no flavor but a deep brown color. The more the sugar is cooked, the less sugar and sweetness remain, and the darker and more bitter it gets.
There’s considerable disagreement about where the word caramel comes from. Here’s McGee again:
Our word for browned sugar may come from its resemblance to straw. Caramel first appears in French in the 17th century as a borrowing via Spanish from the Portuguese caramel, which meant both the elongated sugar loaf and “icicle,” perhaps because they shared a similar shape and sparkly appearance. The Portuguese in turn seems to derive from the Latin alamus, meaning “reed.” The Greek kalamos meant “straw,” and the original Indo-European root meant “grass.” The Italian calamari, “squid,” comes from the same root! Perhaps the common element is the brown color of dry grass, partly refined sugar, cooked sugar syrup, and camouflaging squid skin.
McGee’s etymology follows the one used by the American Heritage Dictionary, but it’s not universally accepted. The Oxford English Dictionary entry reads:
< French caramel , < Spanish caramelo (Italian caramello , Portuguese caramelo ) , of uncertain origin.
Scheler suggests that the Spanish represents Latin calamellus little tube, in reference to its tubular form; Mahn thinks it from medieval Latin cannamella sugar-cane: an Arabic source is conjectured by Littré.
And here’s the Online Etymology Dictionary:
All of the sources agree on the preferred pronunciation of “caramel”: it’s /ˈkærəmɛl/ – roughly “carra-mel.” Yes, three syllables, although Merriam-Webster gives the two-syllable kärml (CAR-m’l) as a variant. Someone even more obsessed than I once determined that there are 18 pronunciations in all. This United States dialect map doesn’t go far toward settling the matter: there are no clear regional distinctions, and about 17 percent of respondents say they use both “carra-mel” and “CAR-m’l” interchangeably.
Not Baltimore Sun editor John McIntyre, though. Indeed, he gets quite exercised about it. “CAR-m’l is a mountain in Israel!” he exclaims in a video tutorial. “If you’re going to stuff it in your pie-hole, it’s carra-mel!”
Perhaps you’re more interested in the taste of caramel than in its history or pronunciation. In that case, I recommend an excellent tutorial for making dry caramel from David Lebovitz, the pastry chef and cookbook author. I also like Elise Bauer’s recipe for caramel sauce, made with white sugar, butter, and whipping cream.