A persistent and delicious push-and-pull between sweet and savory. It’s probably the best—and let’s face it, most evocative—way of describing Vietnamese cooking. A careful balance that teases in your mouth, leaving you never quite sure where honey-like sweetness ends and salty-savory richness begins.

The effect is simple and addictive, and it’s a flavor tug-of-war on repeat in so many Vietnamese dishes. In fact, it’s a flavor so revered, there’s an entire family of recipes that bathe meat and seafood in a sweet-savory lacquer of caramel. They all are good. But our favorite is caramel shrimp. Tender, plump and briny, they are the perfect foil for sweet caramel.

So we asked Peter Franklin, owner of Ho Chi Minh City restaurant Ănăn Saigon, for a lesson in caramel sauce cooking. In his sleek, open kitchen hidden within the chaos of the Tôn Thất Đạm street market, Franklin walked us through the basics which, true to the name, really does begin with making caramel.

He began by combining ¼ cup white sugar—favored for a clean flavor that enhances rather than competes—and a splash of water in a skillet. The skillet puzzled us at first. We’d always made caramel in a saucepan. But when we considered it, a skillet actually makes so much more sense.

Visual cues are key to making caramel, watching and waiting as the sugar and water meld, melt, then slowly turn amber. A 12-inch skillet—our favorite is from All-Clad’s stainless three-ply line—provides ample surface area, making it easier to monitor the caramel’s color progression than from the depths of a saucepan. In fact, the sloped design of the All-Clad provides 30 percent more surface area than conventional skillets, making it ideal for the task.

Caramel also needs an even, consistent heat, so you definitely want a skillet with tri-ply construction and an aluminum core, which conducts heat reliably and evenly. This means no scorching, a common problem with pans—and a real problem for caramel—that have hot spots that deliver heat unevenly.

In Franklin’s hands, the sugar-water mixture quickly darkens to a rich, not-quite-burnt caramel. Most cooks don’t darken it enough, he says, creating more of a sugar water than the rich, barely bitter caramel the recipe needs.

To it, he adds savory-salty fish sauce—a flavoring played on loop in Vietnam—as well as lime juice and finely minced lemon grass. I taste a spoonful and the combination explodes in my mouth. Sweet. Sour. Bitter. Savory. Herbal. Citrus.

That’s it! In go raw, peeled shrimp. Glistening with caramel, they turn opaque and gently curl within minutes. Vietnamese cooks happily prepare all manner of proteins in this sauce, but shrimp stand above them all. Sometimes we finish them with fresh ginger and chilies. And a nice mound of steamed white rice is essential for sopping up the sauce. And since even heat is as important for perfectly cooked rice, our favorite pot for cooking it is All-Clad’s 2-quart saucepan from the same line.

But whatever you decide, ensure success by reaching for All-Clad. The perfect caramel is just a 12-inch skillet away.