The Difference Between Caramel, Butterscotch and Toffee

Curious about the difference between these sticky treats? A professional pastry chef explains all.

You’ve probably eaten something drizzled with caramel or made with bits of butterscotch and toffee before. But can you point out the differences between these light-brown sweets? At their core, all three are made using sugar and butter. But small tweaks make each dessert delightfully unique. Let’s dive in.

What Is Caramel?

Plain caramel is typically made with white granulated sugar. Water, sugar and corn syrup are heated until the sugar dissolves. Then the mix is left to boil until the syrup turns golden brown. Butter, cream and vanilla syrup are added and the ooey-gooey sauce is heated again. “Caramel can be a sauce, a candy or a topping,” says Helen Fletcher, professional baker and author of European Tarts“It all depends upon the temperature of the caramel you are making. The higher the temperature, the more set the caramel [will be].” Try out caramel of all kinds with our 10 best homemade caramel recipes

What Is Butterscotch?

Like caramel, butterscotch is a cooked sugar. The main distinction is that butterscotch is made with brown sugar instead of white sugar. The traditional butterscotch recipe calls for butter to be melted with brown sugar to start. Once the mixture becomes more of a liquid (appearing less grainy), cream is added and the ingredients are boiled again until it reaches the optimal temperature. Drooling already? Check out our favorite butterscotch recipes and butterscotch chip recipes.

What Is Toffee?

Toffee is made from sugar and butter. Chefs cook toffee longer than caramel so it reaches a hardened, brittle state. (Check out Aunt Rose’s Fantastic Butter Toffee for a tasty example.) The candy is usually topped with chocolate, nuts or coconut—and gobbled up instantly.

All three are extremely versatile and can be incorporated into other desserts. “I use caramel in brownies, cookies and tarts as well as salted caramel and plain caramel sauce,” Fletcher says. “I use toffee pieces in the bottom of a brown butter tart.” As for substituting one for the other, here’s Fletcher’s expert advice: “As long as the consistency is maintained in the switch, I suppose they can be substituted for each other.”

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Joann Pan
Joann Pan is a content creator based in New York City. Her work has appeared on,, The Huffington Post and more.