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Salted caramel is simply a caramel candy topped with sea salt. It was popularized by French chef Pierre Hermé in the 1990s when he invented a salted caramel macaron, which is an almond meringue cookie with a salted caramel filling. Soon after, American chefs began combining sea salt with a variety of sweets, including caramel and chocolate.
The recent popularity of salted caramel candy has led to the incarnation of other confections such as salted caramel ice creams, cakes, cocoas, and flavored coffees. This popularity has also led to the confection's appearance in more mainstream and less specialized stores. These retail locations can include grocery and discount stores as well as coffee and ice cream shops.
Caramel candy is made by carefully boiling sugar until it turns a light brown color, then adding heated cream, butter, and vanilla, and stirring until mixed. When cooled, the mixture becomes pliable and chewy. Salted caramel is made by sprinkling fleur de sel, or another variety of sea salt, on top of the mixture as it is cooling. The popularity of gourmet sea salts has lead to a variety of salts being used for salted caramel confections, each imparting subtle flavor differences.
Sea salts can vary in taste and color depending on how and where they were harvested. In general, sea salts are harvested by collecting salt water or a salty brine and allowing the water to evaporate, either naturally or through mechanical means. The resulting salt will vary in color and flavor depending on the mineral content of the water from which it was harvested. Grey sea salt, for example, obtains its color from the clays lining the salt ponds in the Brittany region of France's Atlantic coast. In contrast, some Hawaiian sea salts contain minerals found in the red clays of that region and therefore have a distinctive red color.
Caramelization can be traced back to the fourth century when Indians discovered how to crystalize the extracted juice of sugarcane. As trade routes expanded, the production of crystalized sugar expanded beyond India into China and the Arab world. Sugar wasn't introduced into Europe until the crusades of the 12th century. By the 17th century, women in the colonies were adding water to caramelized sugar and creating a hard, long-lasting caramel-like candy. The term for caramel candy was not coined until the 19th century, when milk and fat were added to the recipe to create the modern chewy confection.