Recipe: The Best Caramel Corn Ever

A decade or so ago, I was stuck at an airport, hungry and looking for something sugary. I believe it was San Francisco Airport, which has the little See’s Candy booth in the United departure area; they had bags of caramel corn and it wasn’t bad.

When I got home, I started thinking maybe I’d make some of my own for christmas gifting. So I looked around for some recipes and decided to try one that I found. But the results were unsatisfactory – there was a lot of brown sugar and corn syrup in the recipe and the caramel corn came out like Cracker Jack. I loved Cracker Jack when I was a kid but I instinctively figured out that, as a bulk-produced retail product for kids, it was probably made with the most inexpensive (hence: nastiest) stuff possible.

My usual approach when I am not sure of a recipe is to research a bunch of variants and look at the relative ratios of the key ingredients, and to see if one recipe or another has a particular ingredient. For example, if I notice that one recipe is made with (proportionally) 10% butter to sugar, and another is 10% Crisco to sugar, I begin to figure out the overall fat ratio to sugar ratio, then I normalize all my quantities for a certain size batch and see what looks right. Then I think about whether I want to try any experiments, and make some test batches. Sometimes, it’s a pain in the neck; when I figured out my Loukoum (Turkish Delight) recipe, I made about 10 batches (using reduced amounts of ingredients) that failed for various reasons. But: the scientific method prevails!

ready player one (I pop the popcorn in to the small pan, then transfer the popcorn into the larger pan and sift for any unpopped kernels while I am at it. I don’t want to gift someone popcorn they break a tooth on)

In the case of the caramel corn recipe, I didn’t want it to be as brown-sugary or as prone to getting gooey as the first recipe I tried. That meant backing off the the corn syrup and using hard fats (butter) instead of a mix of vegetable oil and butter. In the process of adjusting my recipe, I made it much more decadent. I replaced all the fats with butter and went with a classic confectioner’s caramel instead of the corn syrup, for a considerable amount of the corn syrup’s contribution. The hard fats and crunch caramel give an entirely different texture. That’s the good news. The bad news is that you get to make one caramel with your left hand, another with your right, and mix them together at the critical time. Trust me, it’s worth it.

This is a great project for cooperative play. One of you makes each of the caramels. Coordinate so you don’t get caramel on eachother. I can’t emphasize this enough: sugar burns are extremely unpleasant.

Things you’ll need:

  • 2 pans to melt caramel in. I use a 1/2 gallon saucepan and a 2 gallon saucepan. Don’t try this in small pans; a boil-over of caramel is not something you want to clean up; in fact it can send you to the hospital
  • A big canning pot . I use a 5 gallon one. You’re going to do all your big stirring and combining in this.
  • 2 long-handled wooden stirring spoons
  • 1 long-handled and strong stirring paddle
  • 6 quarts of popped corn (use an air popper; do not butter or salt it)
  • 2 cups of light brown sugar
  • 1/2 cup of clear corn syrup
  • 1/2 lb butter
  • 1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/2 cup pure white sugar
  • 1/4 cup water
  • 1/2 pound of roasted (lightly salted) cashews – to taste. Alternately, good un-oiled peanuts
  • stay-dry packets, if you plan to bag and store any of the caramel corn [amazn]
  • (Optional, 1lb of semisweet dark chocolate, to be melted and drizzled over top)

Put the popped corn in the big canning pot. Have a big (strong! carmel takes force to stir!) heat-resistant spoon to stir it with sitting nearby. I use a wooden spoon and have broken 2 so far. Nowadays I use a big bamboo stirring spoon that can pretty much lever a truck off the ground.

Pour the cashews into the popcorn pot. Do not stir them in. This way, when you add the caramel, it’ll hit the cashews first and cover them first. Yum!

Have a plan for what you are going to do if you manage to set the boiling sugar on fire. Do not pour it into the sink. It holds heat incredibly well. Do not – whatever you do – get it on yourself or you will be on your way to the emergency room with a potentially life-threatening injury. If anything happens like a pan gets knocked over, just get out of the way. Keep lids for both caramel pans handy by the stove: if there’s a fire, just cover the pan, take it off the heat and take it outside and pour the pan out onto something that can take the heat, e.g: those weeds you wanted to set fire to, or your neighbor’s lawn gnome. I once burned a batch of caramel and put it in a cardboard box on the porch. Turns out that it melted a hole right through the composite porch-floor and there was a cardboard box full of sugar for the ants and mice to have a field day with. Your best plan is not to set the sugar on fire. You should have a Plan B.

popcorn and nuts are ready to go

[update: keep the nuts aside.]

Put the baking soda in a spoon near the stove, ready for use. When you need it, you won’t have time to fumble for it.

When you get to the carmelizing, you will not have time to read directions. Read them now, think about them, and just Do It.

Put the butter, corn syrup, brown sugar, cream of tartar, and salt in the 2 gallon saucepan and melt it at medium temperature. While it’s doing that, go to the next step (below)…

butter, brown sugar and corn syrup, ready to cook down

Put the pure white sugar and the 1/4 cup water in the 1/2 gallon saucepan and heat at high heat, stirring constantly. In this pan you are going to be making a hard-crack light brown caramel. It’s heat-sensitive and touchy. Spend most of your attention on this pan. It should begin to boil rapidly. Once it begins to boil rapidly bring the other pan (with the brown sugar in it) to a rapid boil also.

It will take 10 minutes or so for the white sugar to begin to caramelize (depending on the heat and your stirring) and it will take 15 minutes or so for the brown sugar/butter to begin to caramelize. What you’re going to do is caramelize the white sugar and add it to the brown sugar mix. Trust me, this works great.

stirring the white sugar vigorously to caramelize it. I not only worked my iPhone, I made 2 batches of caramel simultaneously. You can, too.

Stir both pans constantly but pay more attention to the pan with the white sugar in it. The sugar will begin to carmelize and will turn a kind of light straw-color when it starts.

This is the brown sugar mix, fully melted, and simmering away. Keep stirring it and pay attention to the white sugar.

You’re almost there and you need to be particularly careful of it and keep stirring. As soon as the white sugar caramel turns about the color of light (or dark depending on your taste) oak, pour it into the saucepan with the brown sugar caramel (which presumably you have also been remembering to stir, and which should be boiling merrily as well). Stir the brown sugar caramel as you’re pouring in the white sugar caramel! Be careful, when you mix the caramels the mixture will expand violently and might boil over if you don’t keep stirring.

When the white sugar starts to turn straw-colored it is caramelizing and will caramelize VERY fast. Here it is a few seconds from ready.

I actually did the pour one-handed while I shot that with my iPhone. That was stupid, but it worked.

mixing the white sugar caramel into the brown sugar caramel.

Mix/stir the combined caramels to about 260degrees / hard ball stage. It should start to take on a “boiling lava” appearance and if you pull the spoon out it’ll begin to make strings as the drips come off it.

The two caramels are mixed and caramelized. Add the baking soda and it’s ready to pour into the tub of popcorn and stir it in!

[update: now put the nuts in the caramel, stir them thoroughly until they are coated and let them exchange some flavor with the caramel.]

I don’t have any pictures of what it looks like mixing the caramel into the popcorn – you have to do that quick;y and the caramel begins to set up fairly fast. This is where you need a big strong spoon. Try to get everything coated as completely as you can. When it’s done, I turn it out into a great big turkey roasting pan. Baking trays will also work.

Put it in the oven and let it cure for an hour at 100 degrees F. What you’re doing is driving out any residual moisture. You need to keep this stuff fairly dry or it will revert to goo.

If you’re feeling exceptionally decadent you can melt some good semi-sweet chocolate and drizzle it in thick blobs over the caramel corn. It’s really good, but it’s almost overkill.

When it’s cured, I usually break it up into chunks and put them in ziploc bags with little stay-dry packets.

The finished product. Picture is shaky because my arm was exhausted.

You are going to wind up with 2 pans full of congealed caramel. It is difficult to remove, but there one technique: The Taoist Way. Caramel is sugar and dissolves in water as long as there is a diffusion gradient. So, what you need to do is put your pan under the faucet with just a little dribble of water going into it, and leave it for 15 minutes or so. If you want to stir, go ahead, but it doesn’t really make a difference. You just need to wait the stuff out. Heat won’t make much difference, stirring won’t make much difference – just time and a dribble of water.

there is no kill like overkill.

------ divider ------

Please don’t sell this stuff.

Is anyone interested in Loukoum? I would need to make a batch so I have photographs, which would mean … someone would get turkish delight. It’s a really hard recipe. If you think this one is tricky, turkish delight is much more technical. On the other hand, it’s not every day you get to make the original sugar “gum drop” and you get to mix polymerized corn starch with caramelized sugar! Oh, what could possibly go wrong?


  1. says

    Reginald Selkirk@#1:
    Burning sugar, you say? Reminds me of feuerzangenbowle

    That appears to be “fire zangen bowl” .. and it looks like it. What is “zangen”?
    Google translate, btw, utterly garfs on that page.

    Looking at the pictures and the ingredients it appears to be a sort of meringue that is simultaneously inflated and cooked by igniting it. Sort of like a giant marshmallow roast. Hard to go wrong with lots of sugar and lemon.

  2. kestrel says

    This sounds like a really exciting recipe: heat, danger and science! Perfect!

    The dessicant is interesting. Our normal humidity level is 16%. From what I’ve been told, kiln-dried lumber is 30%… so even kiln-dried lumber will check and twist a bit here.

  3. kestrel says

    Oh whoops, I meant to add this and hit post too quickly: I’m going to try making a coated corn using maple syrup. I’ve seen the directions that have you raising the heat to 300F. And yet no warning about setting things on fire and burning yourself! I think they are being pretty careless!

  4. says

    I’m going to try making a coated corn using maple syrup

    That sounds super interesting!

    I’ve seen the directions that have you raising the heat to 300F. And yet no warning about setting things on fire and burning yourself! I think they are being pretty careless!

    Yes. My one burning caramel experience, where it went through the porch, was pretty sobering. Another thing that’s easy to do: you see the caramel starting to harden and get gooey and think it’s edible – well, it’s not – it’s still 200degrees F and it burns your tongue really badly. This stuff is dangerous and I dont’ think I over-emphasized the need to be careful in this recipe.

    With something like my turkish delight recipe you cannot even try to make it without an accurate candy thermometer, because it’s all about getting the right amount of moisture at the right phase in the caramelization.

    Here’s an interesting thing I learned while making turkish delight: the temperature of boiling sugar is not controlled by the setting you have the burner on it’s controlled by how much water is still in the sugar. So as you get the sugar past a certain temperature, you’ve driven virtually all the water out of it, which means that there’s no more water to boil off, and the sugar will suddenly, rapidly, and violently go to the temperature of your stove’s burner. Which is to say that you’ll have burning sugar in your sauce-pan – it may not look like it’s burning because the flames aren’t particularly visible but your stove is on fire. Please don’t ask me how I know this.

    I have 2 large fire extinguishers in my kitchen, but that’s because my house is an 1805 timber-framed farmhouse that is basically a mass of very dry 200-year-old hemlock and pine.

    The dessicant is interesting. Our normal humidity level is 16%

    I was living in Maryland when I perfected this recipe. Summer humidity there is about 90%.

  5. says

    I did have some corn once that was lightly kettled with sea salt and maple sugar. It was pretty dang good!

    My guess is that you drive enough moisture out of the syrup and it’ll start to caramelize pretty quickly – you can’t put a lot of moisture on the popcorn or it turns to goo.

  6. says

    I realize I did not explain that very well: when you boil sugar and water, the water turns to steam (absorbing latent heat from the mixture) and carries the heat out in the steam. The burner setting controls the rate at which the steam is produced, the amount of water to turn to steam controls the temperature – until there is no more water.

    A physicist could explain it better.

  7. jazzlet says

    The boiling off of water to get the correct sugar concentration is also crucial in making marmalades and jams which I am more familiar with. When making those you boil off the excess water before you add the sugar because you don’t want caramalised sugar as it will obscure the taste of the fruit.You can check if you’ve boiled off enough water by weighing the pan and contents, assuming you have suitable scales, which saves a lot of hassle.

    I admit I’m intimidated by caramel making, though I have done it for Sticky Toffee Pudding (it’s not toffee despite the name, it doesn’t set that hard when cold). Might have another go at that as it is very good, also you can freeze the individual puddings so you have a scrummy fancy pudding to go whenever you need a boost. But I think making two caramels at once is something I’l have to work up to.

  8. nastes says

    Reginald @1 I was thinking more of the great Boston molasses flood…
    Marcus @2
    Zange means pliers, it’s that weird metal piece that holds the sugar cone (no marshmallows involved) Not that it resembles any pair of pliers I’ve ever seen. Some one in my department came up with the translation of “fire pliers punch”.
    If you ever want to entertain some people on a cold winter evening, that is a good way to go. Setting fire to sugar with burning rum, what could ever go wrong.

    Have fun,

  9. says

    This is terrifying.
    I’ll stick with salt and butter.

    It’s hard to go wrong with salt and butter. I’d eat a jeep if you put enough melted butter and salt on it.

    I have a trick that I use where I infuse garlic in olive oil (very simple: peel garlic and put it in olive oil, let sit) and use that half and half with butter and salt on popcorn. It’s also pretty good. And it doesn’t involve “take a pound of butter…” which is usually the sound of trouble in the distance.

  10. says

    Some one in my department came up with the translation of “fire pliers punch”.

    “Fire pliers punch” sounds like something from an anime superhero show.

  11. Raucous Indignation says

    That looks pretty good, Marcus. I’ve had the same dish prepared fresh for me by a graduate of the Culinary Institute on America. I tired to break up with her one night, but she made fresh freakin’ caramel corn. But put it in the oven to cure? For an hour? Yeah, right. That’s what happens. We ate it piping hot right outta the pot. I kept dating her for months. Months! And I don’t regret it one bit!

  12. says

    Raucous Indignation@#13:
    I remember one time I said that “the CIA is the greatest exporter of terrorism in the world” which really upset the Culinary Institute of America-trained saucier who happened to be in the room.

    One time I made a large batch of this stuff and a house-guest ate the entire thing – about 2 gallons of caramel corn – in one afternoon. It’s definitely a trap.

  13. says

    Perhaps I should post a walkthrough on how to make creme caramel?

    It’s also a caramelization process but it’s much much less complicated. It’s also a perfect accompaniment for pizza: you cook the pizza at 400 or 500F then, when you take it out, set the oven for 350, leave the door open to warm up the kitchen while you prep the creme caramel, and it goes in just so it’s ready for dessert. And best of all, if there are leftovers you can put them in the fridge and they are absolutely scrumptious for breakfast.

    The only problem is I have no pictures of making creme caramel so I’d have to take one for the commentariat and make a batch just so I could illustrate the walk-through. Life is hard!

    Raucous Indignation@#13: creme caramel is also pretty good anti-dumping insurance.

  14. lanir says

    This sounds like something to put on my bucket list. Not of things I necessarily want to do before I die… More like things that I could do that might rather suddenly and shockingly cause me to kick the bucket. The results sound awesome but freshman year highschool science classes taught me I have an amazing tendency to blow up or catch fire to all manner of things without really trying.

  15. Reginald Selkirk says

    Feuerzangenbowle: nastes #10 has it basically correct. Tongs sounds slightly less awkward than pliers. You start with a large bowl of fruit and wine punch. The zangen has to be noncombustible, and it holds the sugar cone, which you can purchase. The sugar cone is soaked in high octane rum (e.g. Bacardi 151). The alcohol sustains the flame, and drops of flaming, sugar-infused rum drop into the punch. sells both zuckerzange (sugar tongs) and zuckerhut (sugar cone). presumably there are other vendors who specialize in German imports. An appropriate setting is essential, be aware of low ceilings and smoke detector placement.
    A video
    Now that you have the basics, you can find other videos and recipes.

  16. Reginald Selkirk says

    Your discussion of boiling water carrying off the heat reminds me of something. I read a book The thermodynamics of pizza by Harold J. Morowitz which consists of “essays on science and everyday life.” In the eponymous chapter I think he entirely missed the show on why pizza retains heat fairly well, burning the consumer’s mouth. I think it is because the cheese, which goes on top, prevents water from evaporating and cooling the lower layers of crust and sauce. This suggests a series of experiments involving relative placement of ingredients, which would require only fairly simple instrumentation (IR thermometer would be useful). I suggest that you are the exact person who is suited to carrying out these experiments.

  17. says

    Reginald Selkirk@#19:
    I make my pizzas chunky and don’t use a marinara sauce base. One of the things I have noticed is that red peppers retain heat better than mushrooms or garlic or meat – it’s easy to get a mouthful that is a fine temperature and then burn the roof of my mouth on the next bite if it has a tomato or red pepper in it. My assumption has been that the sugars in the fruit make them retain heat differently.

    A lifetime of experimentation is needed!