on butterscotch versus caramel

You wouldn’t believe how often I am asked this, as if I’m some sort of know-it-all. Okay, fine, I am, but mostly thanks to Shuna Lydon, who I consider a butterscotch expert, as well as a booster for making it at home, as there’s absolutely no comparison with any butterscotch flavored confection you’d buy at a store.

Butterscotch and caramel are both cooked sugars, but regular caramel is made with melted granulated sugar and butterscotch with brown sugar. Butter and cream are usually added to make a caramel or butterscotch sauce, the pourable format most people with a pulse enjoy over vanilla ice cream. Both benefit from a pinch or two of sea salt, but butterscotch tastes especially lost without it. Vanilla extract is another magical ingredient in the butterscotch realm, one that lifts its excellent flavor into the exceptional. But I think the biggest confusion comes from “scotch” part of butterscotch, as there’s actually no Scotch in it and it has nothing to do with Scotland. “Scotch” is thought to originate from “scotched” or scorched (“to cut”) which made it easier to break the candy into pieces later. That said, a spoonful of scotch whiskey doesn’t taste bad in butterscotch sauce at all, it just doesn’t need any to taste good.

See also: Ridiculously Easy Butterscotch Sauce + A Deep, Dark Salted Caramel Sauce

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21 comments on on butterscotch versus caramel

  1. tyler

    Butterscotch is a play on the appearance of butterscotch, the pale yellow is similar to the color of scotch… Naming sweetened “soft” drinks after a “hard” drink was very popular around the turn of the 19th century, e.g Ginger Ale, Cherry Wine, etc.

  2. Eliza

    Thanks for the info. I’ve always wondered what the difference was.

    Because you can’t catch everything – a slight typo in the 2nd paragraph. I think you mean “sea” salt rather than “seal” salt*. There’s always one that slips by no matter how carefully proofed. Sneaky little buggers.

    *Though now I have an image of seals chilling out with butterscotch pudding popsicles held in their fins, which cracks me up. So, thanks for that laugh and for the marvelous recipe.

  3. Yet another Anna

    As a kid I always preferred caramel pies to the butterscotch kind. Never really knew why back then, but hey, there’s a meaningful difference!

    (If only I could find a caramel pie recipe to match the ones I remember. So good! Sugar-phobics stay away, LOL!)

  4. Mimi

    This is incredibly pedantic, but since it’s a tips section I hope you don’t mind one more: whiskey (with an ‘e’) is Irish and whisky (without) is Scottish. You should probably test a butterscotch with each one and report back… All in the name of research.

  5. Mary

    I need to make a turtle cake for my daughters birthday, but want to make my own caramel for the filling and glaze, not just melt store bought ones. Any ideas?
    P.s. It should not be stiff enough to pull dental work, but still taste like…well, caramel.

  6. Mary

    Oh…sorry! Just saw the links to caramel and butterscotch sauces: duh! They both look fantastic, thanks! I’ll send a picture if it turns out spectacular.

    1. Linda L.

      To Wendy (Aug 13,2014),
      There are two types of reports that are given following research. One is a ‘report out’ which entails a report given to people outside your research circle and may include the general public. A ‘report back’ is given to your immediate circle and, more importantly, to the group/person who commissioned and/or paid for your research.
      The ‘report back’ is essentially you answering the question that you were asked while the ‘report out’ is the further publicizing of the results of the question and answer process. It’s an important difference since the purpose and preparation for each may vary considerably.
      In this instance, Mimi is basically commissioning Deb to try whiskey and whisky in the recipe and let us know the result. That’s a report back to the original poser of the question. When I take that result, make one or the other and serve it at the school fundraiser with the explanation, I’m doing a report out.

  7. MG

    If you want CARAMEL, Eagle Brand Sweetened Condensed Milk is the thing. Take the label off the can. Place the can in a large enough saucepan of water to completely cover the can. Simmer for 3 hours, replacing water as needed. Cool sufficiently so the pressurized pudding doesn’t spurt out of the can as you open with the can opener. Seriously rich! As children, we (13 cousins) would line up after holiday meals for a caramel coated spoon to lick blissfully, keeping us quiet while the adults had their coffee.
    N.B. Do NOT let the water boil away. My son did this when he was a kid and he had caramel pudding to scrub off the kitchen from floor to ceiling after the can exploded.

  8. Ruby Doobie

    I disagree with the characterization of brown sugar to make butterscotch. Many people mix that up all the time then assume its correct, but true butterscotch is light golden color, mild flavor, but not nearly as deep flavored as caramel. White sugar, butter and cream makes butterscotch, brown sugar, either light or dark makes caramel. The colors are different, the flavor is different, and while caramel is easy to obtain a good flavor. Butterscotch, if made correctly is much harder to replicate, more delicate in flavor and color, and is more butter-tasting than caramelized.

  9. Tamara

    Hi Deb and Everyone,

    I have to put my two cents worth into both the “pedantic” conversation and the butterscotch vs caramel/brown vs white sugar debate.

    Deb, I believe you meant the word ‘scored’ instead of ‘scorched’ for “to cut”, because scoring does make something easier to break apart.

    As for the lighter butterscotch, I believe Ruby Doobie is correct–I’ve always had butterscotch that was lighter and butterier than caramel, while caramel is a darker, warmer flavor, so it makes sense to me that the granular white sugar would make butterscotch while the brown sugar would make a better caramel, though I imagine you could make good caramel with white sugar too if you cooked it long enough and were careful not to scorch it. ;-)

  10. I love butterscotch and I love caramel. I have just had this argument with my husband to tried to tell me they are the same. Thank you for helping me explain the difference to him and making me want Butterscotch now. yum.

  11. Andi

    butterscotch = butter scotched aka scorched, it is the browned butter with the browned sugar that gives the signature taste. long ago white sugar was not the norm and brown or raw sugar was the only choice…it is the browned (scorched) butter (finished at a lower temp) that makes it so delicious and different from caramel that is sugar caramelized (at a higher temp) without butter.