My mother has been making caramel corn since before I was born. As a child, I remember always being excited for fall because that meant mom was making caramel corn. I used to be fascinated watching her in the kitchen, like a mad scientist with her gadgets and thermometers, as the house would take on this wonderfully sweet smell.
The hardest part about this recipe is waiting the hour for it to bake. I am impatient and have burned my hands and tongue many times trying to taste this dish before it was properly cooled. I have yet to learn my lesson because I did it again while making this.
It is important that you do not use microwave or air popped popcorn. In order to have the best outcome, you need to use fresh, oil popped popcorn. You can also make variations of this recipe by adding 1 teaspoon of chili powder for a sweet and spicy mix, adding extra salt for a saltier caramel, or even by adding crumbled bacon. Before you get all "'Murica!" on me...don't knock the bacon thing 'til you try it. Bacon and brown sugar are a great pairing for a salty, sweet, umami treat!
Yields approximately 12 4-5 ounce bags (approximately 60 ounces total).
- 5-6 tablespoons vegetable oil
- 1 cup popcorn kernels
- 2 sticks salted butter
- 2 cups light brown sugar, packed
- 1/2 cup light corn syrup (we strongly suggest the Karo brand...also, spray your measuring cup with nonstick cooking spray for easy pouring)
- 1 teaspoon table salt (do not use kosher salt)
- 1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar
- 1 teaspoon baking soda
- Preheat oven to 225 F.
- Pop the popcorn: You will do this in two batches. For each batch, heat 2 1/2 to 3 tablespoons vegetable in a large pot with a lid. (If you're a popcorn lover, you should invest in a Whirly Pop pan...it's the closest you'll get to movie theater style popping.) Heat the oil over medium high heat. You will begin to slightly smell the oil once it's ready; this takes about 3 minutes. Be careful not to burn the oil. Add 1/2 cup popcorn kernels and put on the lid. You will being to hear popping. Be sure to shaken the pot to turn the kernels over to maximize the amount that actually gets popped. If you have a Whirly Pop pan, continuously turn the stirrer. It only takes about 1 minute or so to pop all the kernels, so be careful not to leave them on too long. Once done, spread popcorn into a large pan (we used a 14" by 14" baking pan) and pick out any un-popped kernels. Repeat process for the second batch. Set aside.
- In a large saucepan, combine butter, brown sugar, corn syrup, and table salt. Heat over medium high heat until butter is mostly melted. Stir in cream of tartar.
- Once butter is melted, use a wooden spoon coated in nonstick cooking spray to stir occasionally and heat mixture until it reaches the hard ball stage (260 F) on a candy thermometer. This should take about 15 minutes.
- Once the hard ball stage is reached, remove from heat and quickly stir in baking soda using your coated wooden spoon. The mixture will lighten in color and become somewhat foamy.
- Pour caramel mixture over popcorn and toss using the spoon. Don't worry if all the popcorn isn't caramel coated before the caramel hardens. It will even out in the baking process.
- Place pan of coated popcorn in oven and bake for 1 hour. Make sure your stir/toss the popcorn every 15 minutes in order to distribute caramel and prevent the bottom from getting scorched. Baking the popcorn makes it less sticky and more similar to a candy coating and makes it retain its crunchiness. If it is raining outside or very humid, you may need to bake the popcorn a little longer.
- Once baking is complete, dump popcorn out onto parchment paper and let cool. Then break apart the larger pieces and enjoy! You can package into cellophane bags for wonderful edible gifts if you're in a sharing mood. Or keep it all to yourself. Just be sure to store popcorn in an airtight container. It will last about a week before it stales or the caramel softens from the moisture in the air.