Mirepoix (carrots, onions, and celery) being caramelized
Caramel of sucrose; all brown color is a result of browning, as sucrose is normally colorless

Caramelization is the browning of sugar, a process used extensively in cooking for the resulting sweet nutty flavor and brown color. The brown colors are produced by three groups of polymers: caramelans (C24H36O18), caramlens (C36H50O25), and caramelins (C125H188O80). As the process occurs, volatile chemicals such as diacetyl are released, producing the characteristic caramel flavor.[1]

Like the Maillard reaction, caramelization is a type of non-enzymatic browning. However, unlike the Maillard reaction, caramelization is pyrolysis, as opposed to reaction with amino acids.

When caramelization involves the disaccharide sucrose, it is broken down into the monosaccharides fructose and glucose.


Caramelization is a complex, poorly understood process that produces hundreds of chemical products, and includes the following types of reaction:

Effects on caramelization

The process is temperature-dependent. Specific sugars each have their own point at which the reactions begin to proceed readily. Impurities in the sugar, such as the molasses remaining in brown sugar, greatly speed the reactions.

Caramelization temperatures[2]
Sugar Temperature
Fructose 110 °C, 230 °F
Galactose 160 °C, 320 °F
Glucose 160 °C, 320 °F
Sucrose 160 °C, 320 °F
Maltose 180 °C, 356 °F

The caramelization reactions are also sensitive to the chemical environment. By controlling the level of acidity (pH), the reaction rate (or the temperature at which the reaction occurs readily) can be altered. The rate of caramelization is generally lowest at near-neutral acidity (pH around 7), and accelerated under both acidic (especially pH below 3) and basic (especially pH above 9) conditions.[3]

Uses in food

Caramelization is used to produce several foods, including:

Note that the preparation of many "caramelized" foods also involves the Maillard reaction; particularly recipes involving protein and/or amino acid -rich ingredients.

See also

Media related to caramelization at Wikimedia Commons


  1. Miller, Dennis (1998). Food Chemistry: A Laboratory Manual. Wiley-Interscience. ISBN 978-0471175438.
  2. Food-Info on caramelization
  3. Villamiel, M.; del Castillo, M. D.; Corzo, N. (2006). "4. Browning Reactions". In Hui, Y. H.; Nip, W-.K.; Nollet. L. M. L.; Paliyath, G.; Simpson, B. K. Food biochemistry and food processing. Wiley-Blackwell. pp. 83–85. ISBN 978-0-8138-0378-4.
  4. "Caramelizing Pears | Stemilt". Stemilt. 2016-10-10. Retrieved 2016-10-27.
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