This homemade caramel popcorn recipe is seriously addictive! It’s a buttery, sweet and crunchy treat that you won’t be able to stop eating. It’s a great make-ahead snack for parties, movie nights, or game day.
How to Make Easy Homemade Caramel Popcorn
- Popcorn: You can use air-popped, unflavored microwave popcorn, or stovetop popcorn (see here for how to make perfect stovetop popcorn).
- Butter: This recipe calls for unsalted butter. If you’re using salted butter, omit the salt from this recipe.
- Brown Sugar: I use dark brown sugar because I like its deeper, more caramel-like flavor, but you can use light brown sugar as well.
- Light corn syrup: Prevents the sugar from crystalizing and becoming grainy.
- Baking soda: Gives the caramel a soft and airy texture.
- Salt: Salt, in small amounts, enhances the taste and flavor of sweetness.
- Vanilla extract: Adds another dimension to the flavor.
What Does Corn Syrup Do to Caramel?
Corn syrup is an invert sugar which helps prevent sugar from crystalizing. Corn syrup acts as an interfering agent and interferes with the process of sugar granules wanting to reattach themselves to each other. It inhibits the formation of sugar crystals and provides a smooth texture to caramel.
Is Corn Syrup Bad for You?
When I first started making caramel popcorn, I was dead set on making it without corn syrup. In my mind, corn syrup was an extremely unhealthy substance to eat, even worse than table sugar. Turns out I was wrong, but not in the way you’re thinking.
There are two types of corn syrup – high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) and regular corn syrup. The two often get confused with one another. Both are made from the starch in corn, but HFCS goes through additional processing that turns it into fructose and glucose. This gives it a very similar chemical structure to sugar. Fructose can only be metabolized by the liver, so any extra fructose you consume will turn into fat.
Regular corn syrup is 100% glucose, which is the main type of sugar in the blood and the body’s main source of energy. It’s also much less sweet than HFCS (taste a bit and see for yourself!). Karo brand corn syrup does not contain any high fructose corn syrup.
HFCS is much sweeter than glucose and cheaper to produce than sugar which is why food manufacturers use it in processed foods. It can have the same health effects as sugar and is not good to eat in large quantities. HFCS may not be as evil as it’s portrayed to be, but a big problem is that it’s in so many unexpected foods – bread, yogurt, lunch meats, ketchup, applesauce, etc.
So, after doing my research, I feel much better about using corn syrup. It’s not something I eat every day, so occasionally as a treat works for me. I’m not a medical professional, so I encourage you to do your own research and make your own informed decisions.
Why Do You Add Baking Soda to Caramel?
Baking soda is added to caramel to give it a soft and airy texture. The baking soda reacts with the acids (the brown sugar and corn syrup) to form carbon dioxide gas. This causes the caramel to foam up and creates tiny air bubbles which fluff up the caramel. The softer texture makes it easier for the caramel to coat the popcorn. Instead of biting into hard caramel, the caramel will be chewy, crispy, and crunchy.
PREPARE THE POPCORN
Step 1: Prepare 10 cups of popcorn. I prefer stovetop popcorn (see my recipe for perfect stovetop popcorn here), but you can use air-popped or unseasoned microwave popcorn. Use 1/3 cup popcorn kernels to make 10 cups of popcorn.
Make sure to remove all un-popped kernels. Place popcorn in a large bowl and set aside.
Step 2: Preheat the oven to 250°F.
Step 3: Line a large, rimmed baking sheet with parchment or a Silpat baking mat. Optional – You can put the popped popcorn on the baking sheets in the oven to keep it warm while you’re making the caramel.
MAKE THE CARAMEL
Step 4: In a medium saucepan, melt the butter.
Step 5: Once butter has melted, add brown sugar, corn syrup and salt. Stir until sugar dissolves and mixture begins to boil.
Step 6: Let boil for 4 minutes. Do not stir! (You know you want to but don’t do it!) Stirring can cause sugar crystals to stick to the sides of the pan. If those sugar crystals get into the caramel mixture, it will cause the whole thing to crystallize.
Step 7: Remove from heat and carefully stir in baking soda and vanilla. The mixture will foam up and become lighter in color.
COMBINE POPCORN AND CARAMEL
Step 8: Put the popped popcorn into a large bowl.
Step 9: Pour caramel over popcorn. Use a spatula to gently mix together until popcorn is well coated. Do not use your hands! The caramel is screaming hot. Hot sugar can stick to your skin and cause 2nd or 3rd degree burns.
Step 10: Spread caramel popcorn mixture in an even layer on baking sheets. Don’t worry if popcorn isn’t completely coated with caramel. The warmth of the oven will remelt the caramel, making it easier to coat the popcorn.
Step 11: Bake for 45-60 minutes, stirring every 15 minutes to get the caramel to evenly coat the popcorn.
Step 12: Remove from oven. Let cool and enjoy!
Why Do You Bake Homemade Caramel Popcorn?
Sometimes you’re just having a caramel popcorn emergency and need to eat it as soon as possible (I’m speaking from experience here). If that’s the case, dig in and start eating the caramel popcorn without baking it. But if you have the time, and the patience, I recommend baking the popcorn, and here’s why.
- Even coating of caramel – Initially, baking the caramel popcorn remelts and thins out the caramel. When you stir the popcorn, the caramel coats it more evenly and thinly.
- Crispy and crunchy texture – Baking also dries the caramel popcorn so it’s not sticky and stays fresh and crispy longer.
What to Do if Caramel Crystalizes?
Add some water, bring to a boil to redissolve all the crystalized sugar. Then you can start the process of caramelizing the sugar over again.
What Temperature Should Caramel Be Cooked To?
I don’t use a candy thermometer to measure the temperature of this caramel. Unlike with other sugar candy, the exact temperature is not as important.
If you feel more comfortable making caramel with a thermometer, here’s what The Kitchn.com says – “The exact cooking temperature isn’t critical, but ideally you want the sugar mixture to reach between 250F and 300F.”
How to Clean a Pan After Making Caramel?
Don’t scrub the pan – boil it!
The easiest way to remove sticky caramel from a pan is to fill the pan with water and bring it to a boil. The boiling water softens and removes the hardened candy from the pot. If there’s anything else around the edges, it’ll be softened enough to scrape off with a spatula.
How Long Does Homemade Caramel Popcorn Last?
If stored properly, homemade caramel popcorn can stay fresh for up to 2 weeks. For the best results, make sure the caramel popcorn has completely cooled, store it in an air-tight container and keep it in a cool, dry place. There’s not usually much left to store when I make this, but when there is, I put it in a Ziploc bag. I make sure to remove as much air as possible from the bag, and then I store it in my pantry.
Can I Freeze Caramel Popcorn?
Yes! You can freeze caramel popcorn in an airtight container (I use Ziploc bags) for up to a year. When you’re ready to eat it just leave it out to bring it to room temperature.
How Do You Make Caramel Corn Crispy Again?
If it has lost some of its crispiness, you can crisp it up in the oven. Put the caramel popcorn on a baking sheet lined with parchment. Bake the caramel corn at 250 degrees Fahrenheit, tossing every 10 minutes. You can bake it for up to 60 minutes, depending on how crispy you’d like it.
- 10 cups popped popcorn
- 1/2 cup (1 stick) butter
- 1 cup brown sugar
- 1/4 cup light corn syrup
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 1/2 tsp baking soda
- 1 tsp vanilla extract
- Prepare popcorn, put in bowl and set aside (see my recipe for the perfect stovetop popcorn here).
- Preheat oven to 250°F.
- Line a large baking sheet with parchment paper or a Silpat mat.
- In a medium saucepan, melt butter over medium heat.
- Once butter has melted, stir in brown sugar, corn syrup and salt, stirring occasionally until the mixture comes to a gentle boil.
- Let boil over medium heat for 4 minutes. Do not stir!
- Remove from heat and carefully add in vanilla extract and baking soda. The mixture will get foamy and bubble up.
- Carefully (it's very hot!) pour caramel mixture over popcorn and gently stir together until popcorn is evenly coated.
- Using a spatula, spread caramel popcorn in an even layer on baking sheet.
- Bake for 60 minutes, stirring every 15 minutes to get the caramel to evenly coat the popcorn.
- Remove from oven and let popcorn cool completely before breaking apart.
Disclaimer: The nutritional information provided for this recipe is only an estimate. The accuracy of the facts listed is not and cannot be guaranteed.
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