When Reese's Peanut Butter Cups' ads promoted “two great tastes that taste great together,” the American candy company was laying the foundation for a vaguely Continental flavor that would come to define dessert in the early 21st century.
Salted butter has been a mainstay of Brittany in northwest France since 1343, when the king imposed a national salt tax. Brittany was exempted from the law, so its confectioners had plenty of affordable salty butter to turn into caramels. But the salted caramel didn't receive any official attention until 1980, when Henri LeRoux won a prize for creating the best sweet in France. In the late 1990s, the concept was picked by up Parisian pastry chef Pierre Herme, who created a salted caramel macaron that excited food professionals on this side of the Atlantic.
Although the treat was new to Americans, the notion of combining salty and sweet was well-established, thanks to the efforts of Reese's and Snickers. In her chronicle of salted caramel's rise to stardom, The New York Times' Kim Severson cited Cracker Jack, tin roof sundaes and pralines as even older examples of the magical mix. The nation was primed for the groundbreaking gray salt caramels released in 1999 by Fran's Chocolates in Seattle.
After Fran's concoction won an award from the National Association for the Specialty Food Trade, salted caramel recipes started surfacing in glossy food magazines. Still, it took the backing of Barack Obama for the flavor to really hit the mainstream. In the years after Obama brought Fran's salted caramels on the presidential campaign trail, salted caramel items appeared at Walmart, Arby's, Starbucks and TGIFriday's.
According to consulting firm CCD Innovation, salted caramel desserts in 2010 were available at 0.4 percent of U.S. restaurants. By last year, the percentage had climbed to 3.1 percent.
“It's on people's minds now, and they're seeking it out more than ever,” Jael Rattigan of Asheville's French Broad Chocolate Lounge told NPR.
King of Pops (Salted caramel pop, $3)
In addition to traditional salted caramels, most supermarkets now carry Bigelow salted caramel tea; Planters' salted caramel peanuts; Nature Valley salted caramel protein bars; Skippy salted caramel peanut butter; Chips Ahoy salted caramel cookies; and Chobani salted caramel yogurt, among other products.
Because it's sweeter than it is salty, salted caramel is confined to the dessert menu: It's popped up on a Nutella candy bar at The Atlantic Room; atop chocolate mousse at Edmund's Oast; aboard the ice cream sundae at Old Village Post House; and as a panna cotta flavor at Tavern & Table.