It's hard for anyone to forget his first burned marshmallow. The exterior turns brown, the insides melt and when popped in the mouth, there is an exquisite taste of nutty, buttery, sweetness that is the essence of caramelizing. It's also when we learn the colors sugar can take and the results.

Some like a flaming, charred marshmallow with a dark, crisp, leaflike wrapping and very hot goo inside. Others are careful to turn the marshmallow slowly over the flame, wanting a pale brown, and still others want a darker but not charred result. Whatever the fancy, the marshmallows are caramelized.

Caramel is a word that is thrown around loosely to mean browning. It sounds so much more exotic than "browning" that TV chefs blithely refer to caramelizing meat, caramelizing apples and bananas, onions, carrots, sweet potatoes, even toast, without explaining what and why is going on.

While technically true, it's putting the cart before the horse. Caramelization is just one thing that contributes to browning. There is the browning of fruit when it is bruised, for instance, which is caused by enzymes, and has nothing to do with caramelizing.

Caramelization is the breakdown of sugars or starches (which are broken down into sugars before the sugars are broken down) at high temperatures, which produces a complex flavor. Even experts don't understand completely what happens, so that is all you need to know unless you want to become a professional candymaker or baker.

Browning can occur only when all the liquid is removed, which is why meat should be dried before it is browned and why many times meat is coated in flour before browning. Ideally, the browning of meat occurs over high heat, with the exterior browned and the interior still holding its juices. It's also why a pan shouldn't be crowded, as too much liquid in a pan slows the browning, and why a steak is easier to brown on the grill than in a pan.

The browning of onions and the browning of sugar are two of the most commonplace instances of caramelization. Onions must lose all their water to caramelize, but not become so caramelized they become thin and hard; sugar syrups must lose all their water or they will not turn brown and develop the rich, complex flavor we love.

Onions are also a good way to learn what the color of caramel really is and how much natural sugars enhance a product when browned. As a bonus, they make the house smell delicious and stir the eater's taste buds with their beauty and aroma, for we also eat with our eyes and our noses.

For some of us, it is a Zen experience to stand and stir, an initial preparation to making any one of a number of luscious dishes. Like the marshmallow, the final result depends on the palate and patience of the cook. Once onions are mastered, the world of vegetables and fruits is open: Caramelized carrots, tomatoes, apples, pears, pineapples, sweet potatoes and more beckon, adding flavor to our cooking.

We have a deep-rooted love of sweets in America's South, as do most "warm" regions of the world. You can see this by the number of sugar-based desserts that have endured in our cuisine. In addition, in the early 1900s, sugar was not readily available all over the country. In the South, however, cane sugar was abundant, encouraging the development of recipes using it, both as a preservative and a sweetener.

Caramel cake emerged in the 1930s. Some of the earliest caramel cake recipes such as in "Two Hundred Years of Charleston Cooking" called for caramel chocolate cakes. Divinity fudge and sea foam candy shortly followed. The South is where they rested.

Pralines, most likely an offshoot of the sugar-nut base credited to Marshal du Plessis-Praslin in France in 1636 (whose cook, Clement Lassagne, invented the sugar-coated almonds), are a firm fixture in New Orleans, Charleston and other coastal areas. It is ironic that this is where they reign, because the humidity in those areas increases the difficulties in sugar work. Although there are dire warnings about doing sugar work in humid areas, it is not impossible, even on rainy days.

To stabilize sugar and prevent it from crystallizing, add a small amount of an acid such as corn syrup, corn starch, lemon juice, vinegar, orange juice, etc. Interestingly, brown sugar is acidic, and that is why so many people find it easier to caramelize.

Cane sugar and beet sugar are chemically the same. However, jam, marmalade and candymakers insist that they don't behave the same and much prefer cane sugar. So, too, many fine candy and pastrymakers disdain brown sugar, calling it harsh. Brown sugar also varies according to the region of the world.

Finally, sugar workers and candymakers have some specialty sugars that make their work easier and finer. We are defining only those available in a grocery store.

Don'ts and dangers

Although sugar can be caramelized in the microwave, author Harold McGee states that a "different spectrum of flavors is produced" using that method ("On Food and Cooking," Revised Edition) It also is dangerous because no glass or plastic producers guarantee their products at heat that high, which could result in terrible burns by damaging the product and causing leakage. So don't do it!

Somehow, caramelizing sweetened condensed milk in a can covered by water became popular, even though the can is liable to explode if the water is not sufficient, causing loss of eyes, terrible burns and disfigurements. So don't do it! (There are directions on the can that specify pouring the can's contents into a shallow, ovenproof container such as a pie pan and cooking it in the oven at low heat for at least an hour. It's much safer and much less scary than the idea of the can exploding.)

Hot sugar and sugar syrups can cause burns, so using oven mitts and cloths is crucial. When sugars cool and harden on the skin surface, it is their rigidity that causes the skin to come off so painfully. Rather than cooling the surface, a less onerous result can be achieved by adding warm water to the spot, which helps remove the sugar, rather than pulling the hardened sugar off.

Caramels and sugar work

Here are some simple rules for sugar work and caramelizing of sugars:

--Brown sugar is acidic.

Tip: Although sugar can be caramelized in the microwave, author Harold McGee states that a "different spectrum of flavors is produced" using that method ("On Food and Cooking," Revised Edition). It also is dangerous because no glass or plastic producers guarantee their products at heat that high, which could cause burns. So don't do it!

--Cane sugar and beet sugar are chemically the same.

However, jam, marmalade and candymakers dispute that they behave the same.

Cane Syrup: Clarified sugar cane juice boiled down to a syrup.

Scum: Beet sugar sometimes can contain compounds called saponins, which resemble soap. They are responsible for "sugar scum," which is not harmful and needs to be removed only for advanced sugar work.

Dark treacle: Similar to blackstrap molasses.

Light treacle: Also known as golden syrup, is cane syrup. (Lyle's Golden Syrup is familiar to people from England, where it originated.)

Sorghum: Traditionally thought of as "Southern," this grasslike plant grain's pith can contain a sweet juice boiled down to a syrup.

Caramel color: A sugar solution heated with ammonium compounds. It's used in soft drinks and to color many food products, including some breads.

Caramel and caramelization

Browning reactions are very important in the food world.

Just think of a crusty baguette, the crispy exterior of a burger, coffee, tea, onions, and even browned apple slices.

There are four main causes of browning:

Caramelization can be carried to the extreme and the final result is black carbon. Think of a burned pan bottom! (Or a burned marshmallow?)

Caramelization is the oxidation of sugar. It is a process used in cooking which results in a nutty flavor and a brown color.

During caramelization, heat causes the sugar to break down into volatile compounds. These compounds produce the flavor of caramelized sugar.

No enzymes are involved in caramelization so it is sometimes called Non-Enzymatic Browning.

When sugar and water are combined into a sugar syrup and heated, the sugar passes though a series of stages at different temperature. These stages are known as the “candy stages.” They are all a measure of the percentage of water and concentration of sugar.

All water is evaporated at 212 F. The sugar is melted; impurities rise to the surfaces. (Most commercial sugars have impurities, or sugar scum, which are not problematic for eating, but are for fine sugar work.)

Small Thread Stage – 230 F. The sugar has not changed in color or flavor. It cools soft. Used in making buttercream frostings (sugar syrups).

Large Thread Stages – 234 F. No change in color or flavor. Used for preserving fruits, candied fruits, glaceed fruits.

Soft Ball Stage – 234-240 F. Forms soft ball and can be flattened between thumb and finger. Used in Italian meringue, fondant, fudge, marshmallows.

Firm Ball Stage – 244-248 F. No color or flavor change. Malleable. Used to make caramels.

Hard Ball Stage 250-266 F. Ball is hard and firm. Used for divinity and nougat.

Soft Crack Stage 270-290 F. Flexible threads; cools firm. Used in saltwater taffy, butterscotch.

Hard Crack Stage 300-312 F. Shatters when cool. Used in hard candies, lollipops, nut brittles hard toffee.

Light Caramel Stage 350-356 F. Pale amber color; rich flavor. Used to make crème caramels, caramel cages.

Medium Caramel Stage 356-370 F. Golden brown to chestnut brown color, rich flavor

Dark Caramel Stage – 370-400 F. Very dark color; bitter flavor. Very little sweetness left; used for coloring.

Black Jack 410 F – Sugar begins to break down to pure carbon.

Caramelization results in new compounds with new flavors. An important one is diacetyl. It is the “buttery” flavor of caramelization.

Dry method

It is important to select a pan that can take the heat. Do not use a lined pot as the lining can melt. Cast iron can be used. This is the most difficult way for a novice to make a caramel, particularly from granulated sugar. Do not add all the sugar at once. As the sugar melts, add more to the pan, allowing better control over the process.

Wet method

This is the easiest method of making a sugar syrup and/or a caramel. It takes a bit longer than the dry method, as the water has to reduce.

Use a heavy pan.

Always dissolve the sugar before bringing it to the boil. It is easier to dissolve sugar if it is mixed with an equal amount of liquid, but it takes more time. This is fine for a simple syrup, but not when the amount of liquid has to evaporate in order to cause the sugar to caramelize. When making a caramel, start with enough liquid to make what looks like “wet sand” from the sugar and liquid. This distributes the sugar evenly, helping to prevent lumps and dense areas that will crystallize.

Crystallization, which makes a sugar product grainy (think rock candy), occurs when the sugar is not dissolved before the mixture boils. To prevent crystallization, add a small amount of corn syrup. Only pure syrups can crystallize. The corn syrup makes the solution “unpure” and therefore the crystals cannot form. Lemon juice, vinegar and cream of tartar also do the same – i.e., lower the pH factor.

Stirring, or not stirring, before the sugar is dissolved, is usually determined by whatever is easier for the cook. Although there are some small technical results from stirring that affect large quantities, these are not usually of concern to the small batch home cook. Because a small amount of crystallization can spread through the entire hot mixture, care must be taken to avoid re-introducing sugar-coated objects once the sugar has melted. Spoons, brushes, and other objects should be clean before re-entered into the mixture. A small pan of water will provide a good resting spot and cleaning spot for implements should you suddenly see a need to use them again.

Any splashing of sugar on the sides of the pan may cause errant sugar crystals to drop down into the pan, causing crystallization. The pan is usually brushed down with a wet pastry brush prior to boiling. Another technique to keep the sides of the pan clean is to partially cover the pan, causing moisture in the pan to run down the sides. Brushing down the sides seems easier to the novice as it is possible to see what is happening in the pan. (Roland Mesnier, former White House pastry chef, used his hands to feel the sides of the pan for sugar crystals.)

The bottom of the pot should be slightly smaller than the burner to enable the heat to reach up the sides of the pot slightly and reduce the possibility of crystallization.

Oranges in Caramel Sauce

Serves 6

Our Valencia oranges are a simple and refreshing dessert. A caramel sauce puts it "over the top" as a memory dessert. A cookie or two on the plate wouldn't hurt a bit.

Ingredients:

6 oranges, preferably Valencia

1 recipe caramel sauce (follows)

Directions

Before peeling the oranges, zest the peel. Either use a grater, one of the little gadgets with multiple holes on the top, or peel strips with a potato peeler (no white to be attached) and slice into thin julienne strips. Remove the remaining peel and slice the oranges into rounds, removing the seeds.

Pour caramel sauce over the oranges up to a day before serving. Sprinkle on the grated or julienned orange peel. Cover with plastic wrap. This is particularly pretty served in a glass bowl.

Variation: Add candied ginger and/or candied orange peel rather than the grated peel, or add candied ginger to the caramel sauce.

Caramel Sauce

There are two specific kinds of sugar work and caramelization: dry and wet. Some people find it easy to melt sugar in a pan and stir it until it caramelizes. Others like adding some liquid, from an equal amount to a fraction of the amount of sugar. Although it takes longer to remove all the liquid, it is a safer and easier method of caramelizing. Liquid can be added back into the hard caramel, as in this case, to make a sauce.

The corn syrup is a stabilizer, making it much easier to work with in humid climates. After trying the full complement of water for a time or two, reduce the amount of initial water to what is comfortable to the cook, or remove it entirely.

The trick is to dissolve the sugar before bringing it to a boil. This is doubly important when it is humid and the sugar is clumping and retaining moisture.

If the syrup boils before the sugar is dissolved, crystallization will occur. The same thing will happen if, once the sugar is dissolved and begins to boil, a spoon, the sides of the pan or other objects with grains of sugar attached cause undissolved sugar to drop into the boiling liquid. For this reason, some like to cover the pan, letting the resulting steam wash down the sides. Because covering the pan can cause inattention, I prefer a cup of water and a pastry brush. I brush down the sides of the pan with the wet pastry brush before bringing to the boil, and I return the spoon to the cup of water in between stirring.

A different result comes from the different kind of sugars, with preferences open to the cook.

Ingredients:

1 cup granulated sugar, a mixture of brown and granulated sugar, brown sugar or honey

1/4 cup white corn syrup

2 cups water

Directions

Heat the 1 cup of sugar in a sauce pan with 1/4 cup corn syrup and 1 cup water, but do not boil. Stir to completely dissolve the sugar in the water if necessary. (There may be a little sugar floating on top, but the sugar on the bottom should be dissolved.) Brush down the sides of the pan with some water if there are sugar crystals on its side. Add cold water to a frying or roasting pan large enough to immerse the caramel pan if the caramel browns too quickly.

Once the sugar is completely dissolved, bring up to the boil. Boil steadily until large bubbles form on the surface. Remove the slice of ginger (if using). Watch closely as the caramel turns from bursting bubbles to little bubbles, then caramel. Cover your hand or use an oven mitt and tip the pan once it colors so the sugar is uniformly colored. When it turns amber, remove from the heat. It will continue to bubble. If it becomes as dark as mahogany, move it to the pan of water carefully to cool it down immediately and stop the cooking. (Be careful of the bubbling water and sugar.)

Wipe the bottom if necessary and return to the heat, adding the remaining cup of water. Return to boil. Stir with a clean wooden spoon if part of the caramel syrup has solidified so the caramel will be evenly distributed. Bring back to the boil, and boil until reduced by 1/4 and slightly syrupy. Cool, pour into another container and chill. It will last several weeks in the refrigerator, covered.

Variations: Add heavy whipping cream in place of the added cup of water. It will boil up, but not over, in a large enough pan. It makes a much richer, creamier sauce. Butter also can be added, and why not a few roasted pecans if pouring over ice cream?

Nathalie Dupree, who lives in Charleston, is the former director of Rich's Cooking School in Atlanta and the author of eight cookbooks, including "Nathalie Dupree's Comfortable Entertaining." She may be reached at www.nathalie.com.