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How to Make Any Caramel Corn in 5 Steps

By • August 12, 2013 • 16 Comments

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Here at Food52, we love recipes -- but do we always use them? Of course not. Because once you realize you don't always need a recipe, you'll make your favorite dishes a lot more often.

Today: Take back caramel corn from the state fair. With 5 simple steps and the perfect caramel ratio, you can make it better, and make it your own.

How to Make Caramel Corn

The whole summer revolves around fresh corn. First we anticipate, then we worship, and finally, we cook.

But even though we've covered the range of corn recipes -- from quesadillas to salad to ice cream -- there's been a serious oversight. The sweetest corn of all can't be found at any farmers market. And that's because the sweetest corn of all is caramel corn. 

Caramel corn is too sweet, too crunchy, and too simple to belong to just one season. Instead, it's claimed by all. In the summer, it's eaten out of paper cones at state fairs. In the winter, it's scooped into plastic bags that are tied with ribbons for holiday gifts. All year long, it arrives in large tins alongside the understandably less popular buttered popcorn and cheddar corn. Caramel corn is always the first to go.  

Thankfully, you don't have to make a trip to the state fair or wait for the holiday season to eat corn in its best possible form. Caramel corn isn't any more complicated than its name suggests.

Pop corn, make caramel, combine the two, and give it a brief time-out in the oven. There you have it. 

How to Make Any Caramel Corn in 5 Steps

1. Pop your corn in whatever way is easiest for you. It's important that your popcorn be fresh and sturdy, which is why we recommend popping your own. Start with 1/2 cup of kernels to make 10 to 12 cups of popcorn. (We like to pop it in a little bit of neutral oil in a big, lidded Dutch oven on the stovetop, shaking the pot here and there.)

Dump the popcorn into a large bowl and, if you want to get creative, add nuts or dried fruit, too.

How to Make Caramel Corn

2. Start making the caramel. Melt 1 1/2 sticks of butter, then add a cup of brown sugar and a tablespoon or two of molasses. After the sugar's melted, crank up the heat and boil for 3 to 4 minutes. Stir constantly so that the caramel doesn't stick and burn.

(If you like a bit of bite to your caramel corn, it's helpful to know that the longer the caramel is on the stove, the crunchier your corn will be. Just don't leave the caramel on the stove so long that it starts to smoke.)

How to Make Caramel Corn

3. Add a teaspoon of vanilla, a 1/2 teaspoon of salt (1 teaspoon if you want a salted caramel corn), and the magic ingredient: 1/4 teaspoon of baking soda. Baking soda makes the caramel airy and foamy, giving it a softer texture and allowing it to better coat the corn. The air bubbles that form when baking soda is added will make the caramel lighter in color and texture.

Now's your chance to add other spices or flavorings to the caramel: cayenne, hot sauce, or curry powder for a savory, spicy popcorn; cinnamon, cloves, and other spices for a holiday-themed variety; or maybe some maple syrup if you're Canadian.

How to Make Caramel Corn

4. Working quickly, pour the caramel into the bowl of popcorn and stir until all of the corn glistens with the golden sauce.

How to Make Caramel Corn

5. Into the oven it goes! Spread your caramel corn into an even layer on a lined baking sheet and bake at 250° F for 30 minutes to an hour, depending on how dry you like the corn. Stir every 15 minutes, breaking up any clumps (or leaving them intact, if you're a fan).

How to Make Caramel Corn

If you have self-control, let it cool completely. Otherwise, pop each piece into your mouth straight from the baking sheet. Corn really is wonderful, isn't it?

How to Make Caramel Corn

Still looking for a recipe? Here are a few for inspiration:

We're looking for contributors! Email [email protected] and tell us the dish you could make in your sleep, without a recipe.

Photos by James Ransom

Jump to Comments (16)

Tags: caramel corn, popcorn, caramel, dessert, snack, summer, state fair, how-to & diy

Comments (16)

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7 months ago JustPoppin Buck

@Rehana - Can't be sure exactly what happened in your case though I have a couple of guesses: 1. You cranked the heat up TOO far in step 2 and took the caramel past the needed stage; 2. The baking soda you used in step 3 was old an didn't give you enough "fluff". Good fluff in that step is really important to enable you to coat the popcorn.

@Simone - use raw nuts. 2 issues with using already roasted nuts - they're often oily and will actually slide out of the caramel corn!, and they're usually over cook while finishing the caramel corn recipe.

@Kaite - you can make caramel corn type snacks a week ahead of time easily as long as you package in "barrier" type bags - these are thick cellophane (polypropylene) bags with good heat seals. Don't use the cheapo bags sold in big box stores in the cake decorating section and don't use typical zip top bags made from polyethylene - they leak air and moisture and your caramel corn will go soggy very fast.

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8 months ago Rehana

Hi. I tried this without the molasses. The only thing is that the caramel dried up and wasn't runny so it didn't coat the popcorn. What could I have done wrong.
It was very tasty though but I do want to improve on this.

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9 months ago Simone

If I want to add nuts, should they be raw rather than roasted since the corn will be in the oven for 30 min to an hour? And what if I want to candy the nuts? Any suggestions would be appreciated. Thank you.

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10 months ago Kaite

How far ahead can you make this if your giving it as Christmas gifts?

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11 months ago Rachel

My jack has been crackered!

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12 months ago karencook

can't find the icon for printing!

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12 months ago Brooke Belobrajdic

I wish I could do this and hand out balls of caramel corn to the Halloween trick or treaters. But, sadly, these days the kids go for store bought candy.

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about 1 year ago JustPoppin Buck

Try using Mushroom Popcorn kernels. It pops into ball shapes and besides not clumping like regular popcorn after adding the caramel, it doesn't break into bits and pieces while stirring and mixing.

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about 1 year ago Dewey D

Looks great, I use jalapeno's a lot so I will try some on this.

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about 1 year ago MaggieRosenthal

Looks amazing! Definitely going to be making this soon.

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about 1 year ago Emma Wartzman

Mmmmm!

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about 1 year ago darksideofthespoon

Caramel corn is what my icon is of! During the Calgary Stampede, I used to have to make tonnes of the stuff. Double gloving with dish gloves (new ones!!) helps keep your hands from being burnt while you break up and evenly coat the mixture.

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about 1 year ago Sarah Jampel

Sarah is Food52's assistant editor.

What a great tip! I use a spatula to break up the clumps, but it will be great to get in there with my hands.

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about 1 year ago darksideofthespoon

The spatula/spoon never did the trick for me either! Heavily gloved hands are the only way to go. :)

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about 1 year ago Rochelle Bilow

I believe this is the most important news item I will read all day. I love the addition of cayenne, too. I once worked at a restaurant where we ran a dessert special with caramel-cayenne corn over peanut butter ice cream. I think it's time to revisit this idea ...

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about 1 year ago Nomnomnom

I agree with Rochelle: this is important news. Caramel corn truly makes everything better, and life that much sweeter.