How to Make Vietnamese Caramel Sauce

My time spent cooking in the kitchen has been a continuous journey of learning. I have graduated from being the head herb and lettuce washer in my mom’s kitchen to the one calling the shots at the helm of my own little kitchen in France. When I was cooking only for one, I stuck to a handful of dishes that I had mastered and added variety to my diet by frequently indulging in the decadent Texas cuisine in Austin.

Vietnamese Caramel Sauce (nước màu) | Plated Palate

Sugar for making Vietnamese Caramel Sauce | Plated Palate

While living in the states, cooking savory dishes was more of a thing that I did out of necessity, though. I preferred instead to concoct sweet delights for my friends, coworkers and neighbors. I would often rush home from work, eager to slip into my apron to bake, sometime until the wee hours of the morning. It started with cookies, then evolved into cupcakes and then became an all-out obsession when I discovered French pastries.

After moving to France, I started to gravitate more towards savory dishes as my pâtisseries mania went from baking to eating them. Vietnamese cuisine, in particular, became central in my kitchen because that’s what D prefers to eat. After I rotated through the few dishes that I knew how to make well, I was at a loss for what to put on the dinner table. Many of the dishes that D likes to eat were well beyond my cooking skill level. But with time and patience, my repertoire of dishes began to grow steadily as I experimented and stumbled through countless disasters.

Vietnamese Caramel Sauce (nước màu) | Plated Palate Vietnamese Caramel Sauce (nước màu) | Plated Palate Vietnamese Caramel Sauce (nước màu) | Plated Palate Vietnamese Caramel Sauce (nước màu) | Plated Palate

With cooking (and just about about everything else in life), I’ve found that there’s no better way to learn than to just dive in head first. Many of my initial attempts were beset with failure and disappointment, but I kept getting back on the horse until I got something right. As the unfamiliarity of making the different dishes wore off with practice, cooking Vietnamese food (certain dishes, at least) has gradually become second nature. I’m still learning and working my way through the hundreds of dishes that make up Vietnamese cuisine. I’m now less likely to shy away from trying to make a complicated dish and more inclined to push beyond my cooking limits to explore new dishes and flavor profiles.

Vietnamese caramel sauce

Stocking my kitchen pantry in France required that I learn how to make a key ingredient commonly used in Vietnamese cooking, nước màu, which literally translates to colored water. This caramel sauce is often added to certain braised or stewed dishes, such as caramelized pork ribs or ginger chicken, to impart a deep amber hue to the dish. As I mentioned in my last post, I used to bring jars of this liquid gold back to Texas from California. My grandma is sadly no longer with us and I now live thousands of miles from home, so I’ve had to figure out how to make this indispensable caramel sauce myself.

Vietnamese caramel sauce

The challenge of this seemingly simple sauce is getting the color as well as the viscosity correct. Too much water and you end up with a sauce that is too runny and not sufficiently rich in color. I also believe that the key is to add hot water. I recently talked to my mom about this, and to this day, she still cannot get the sauce right, even though she is one of the best home cooks that I know. She had mentioned that she adds cold water and her sauce always comes out a little too runny. I don’t know if the runniness is caused by the quantity of water added or its temperature. In any case, my recipe has consistently yielded a sauce that mirrors that of my grandma’s in color and thickness and will surely give your dishes that glistening sheen that Vietnamese caramelized meat dishes have.

Vietnamese caramel sauce

Vietnamese Caramel Sauce

200 g white sugar
90 ml hot water

Heat the sugar in a small saucepan over medium-low heat. I recommend using a stainless steel or light-colored pot so that you can easily monitor the color of the sauce. As the sugar begins to melt and color, ensure that it is evenly heated by giving it a quick stir with a wooden chopstick. Be sure to keep an eye on the pot at all times, as the sugar will caramelize rapidly.

The sugar gradually transforms from crystals to a dark liquid. Once the melted sugar becomes a dark brown color and starts to bubble, allow it to continue to bubble for about 15 seconds. Remove the pot from the stove and place it in the sink. Then, pour the hot water over the bubbling sugar. Use extreme caution when pouring the water into the pot, as the sauce will splatter and hiss like an erupting geyser. Pour the sauce into a mason jar after allowing it to cool in the pot for 5-10 minutes. The sauce should keep for a couple of months if a clean spoon is used to scoop some out each time.

NOTE: This sauce differs from sweetened caramel sauces drizzled over desserts. It has a slightly bitter taste and is intended to be used only in savory dishes to impart a deep amber hue and to temper the salinity.

Bonne dégustation & thanks for reading!


About Nita

Vietnamese-American epicurean with a taste for home cooked meals & culinary stories living in Paris.

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