Perfect Caramel Popcorn
Why It Works
- 1/2 cup un-popped pop corn
- 2 Tblsp vegetable oil
- 1 cup of lightly packed brown sugar
- 1/2 cup (4 oz) of butter
- 1/4 cup of light corn syrup
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 1/2 tsp vanilla
- 1/2 tsp baking soda
- Gather ingredients and equipment. Arrange two oven racks in the top and bottom third of the oven and preheat the oven to 300°F. Line the baking sheets with lightly oiled parchment or silpats. Once you start making the caramel sauce, everything comes together quickly so have all the ingredients and equipment you need handy.
- Make the popcorn. Combine the corn kernels and the oil in an extra large lidded pan over medium heat. Pop the corn, shaking the pan occasionally, until the popping slows. Empty the popped corn immediately into a large heat-proof bowl. Be sure to remove any un-popped kernels. Keep hot in the oven while you make the caramel.
- Add the brown sugar, butter and light corn syrup to a pot, heat over medium heat and stir constantly until the mixture comes to a boil. Reduce heat and boil for five minutes without stirring.
- Insert the candy thermometer. You want to heat the sugar mixture to 300°F. If you don't have a candy thermometer, drop a bit of the sugar mixture into a cup of cold water. If the caramel hardens it is probably the right temperature. If the caramel is still soft to the touch when removed form the water, you need to cook it a bit longer. The exact cooking temperature isn't critical with this recipe, but ideally you want the sugar mixture to reach between 250°F and 300°F. The longer you cook the syrup, the crunchier it will be.
- Once the sugar mixture has come to a boil and reached 300°F (the hard crack stage). Turn off the heat. While still stirring constantly, add the vanilla and then add the baking soda and salt. It will foam and rise up so keep stirring until it is well mixed.
- In the large pan with the popped corn add the caramel mixture. Stir as you pour until all the popcorn is coated with caramel.
- Spoon the caramel popcorn onto the cookie sheet lined with a silicon baking mat or parchment paper. Use a plastic spatula to spread it around a bit.
- Put in a pre-heated 300°F oven for 20-30 minutes. The baking process dries out the popcorn and gives it added crunch, plus helps distribute the caramel a little more evenly on the popcorn.
- Using the plastic spatula, every 10 minutes or so, stir the popcorn on the baking sheet to help distribute the caramel.
- Recipe Variations: Salted Caramel Popcorn: Increase the amount of salt to 1 teaspoon and sprinkle the baked caramel popcorn with sea salt while it's still warm from the oven. Cracker Jacks: Add 2 tablespoons of molasses to the sugar mixture as it boils and mix in 1 cup peanuts when combining the caramel sauce and popcorn. Spicy Caramel Popcorn: Add 1/2 teaspoon cayenne or 2-3 tablespoons Sriracha or other hot sauce to the caramel sauce along with the vanilla. Curried Caramel Popcorn: Add 1-2 teaspoons curry powder to the caramel sauce along with the vanilla.
- Popcorn Balls or Clusters: To make popcorn balls or clusters, quickly press the popcorn together with buttered hands after the popcorn is finished baking and before it cools. If the popcorn cools too much to stick together, put the trays back in the oven for another 5 minutes.
Why It Works
- Cooking to 340°F drives out excess water to promote caramelization, for a crispy caramel candy.
- During the cooking process, the butter browns along the way, adding a nutty vibe; for a vegan variation, try aromatic cocoa butter instead.
- The candy syrup dilutes dark chocolate, producing a mellow cocoa flavor.
- 2 ounces unsalted butter (4 tablespoons) or 1 1/2 ounces raw cocoa butter (shy 1/4 cup; 40g), plus more for greasing
- 2 ounces freshly popped popcorn (about 7 cups once popped; 50g)
- 3 ounces water (about 1/3 cup; 85g)
- 4 ounces golden syrup or light corn syrup (about 1/3 cup; 110g)
- 9 ounces sugar (about 1 1/4 cups; 255g)
- 3 ounces 72% dark chocolate, finely chopped (about 1/2 cup; 85g)
- 3/4 teaspoon baking soda
- 1/4 teaspoon (1g) Diamond Crystal kosher salt; for table salt, use about half as much by volume or the same weight
- Lightly grease a large bowl, and add freshly popped popcorn. You should have about 7 cups; if significantly less, this may be a sign the the popcorn is dense and stale and that a newer batch of kernels is in order.
- In a 3-quart stainless steel saucier, combine water, golden or corn syrup, butter or cocoa butter, and sugar over medium heat. Stir with a fork until bubbling hot, about 4 minutes. Increase to medium-high, clip on a digital thermometer and cook without stirring until the syrup is 340°F, about 10 minutes. If the process is taking too long, simply increase the heat.
- Meanwhile, lightly grease a rimmed half sheet pan, and prepare the remaining ingredients so they’re ready to add at a moment’s notice. When the syrup comes to temperature, remove from heat, stir in chocolate with a heat-resistant spatula, followed by the baking soda and salt. When the mixture is foamy, pour over the popcorn and fold until the pieces are thoroughly coated.
- Scrape onto the prepared baking sheet, pulling the chunks of popcorn into bite-sized clusters with a pair of metal forks. Cool until the soft candy shell is hard and crisp, about 45 minutes, then transfer to an airtight container. It’s best to store the popcorn as soon as it's cooled, as excessive exposure to air may cause it to soften from humidity. Store up to 2 weeks at room temperature, or 1 month in the fridge.