Caramel Corn

The memory has faded some, but the feeling of pure joy is as strong as ever – dad coming home and pulling out from behind his back, to the raucous squeals of us kids, boxes of Cracker Jack, caramel corn that rattled when you shook the box. (Remember those commercials?) We had to have our own box, couldn’t possibly share, because each box had a surprise gift and we each had to have our own gift. (Is that brilliant marketing or what?) No wonder I love caramel corn.

Caramel Corn Recipe

  • Yield: Makes about 5 quarts.

Caramel corn is quite easy to make, just don't attempt to make it (or any candy) on a humid day. Be careful as the caramel sauce is quite hot; as a safety precaution do not have children running underfoot while making this recipe.

Ingredients

  • 4-5 quarts popped popcorn (a double batch of this popcorn recipe, unsalted, unbuttered)
  • 2 cups firmly packed brown sugar
  • 1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter
  • 1/2 cup dark corn syrup
  • 1 Tbsp molasses
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 2 cups salted peanuts (optional)

Method

1 Heat oven to 225°F. Place popcorn in large roasting pan; set aside.

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2 Combine brown sugar, butter, corn syrup, molasses and salt in a thick-bottomed, 2-quart saucepan. Cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until mixture comes to a full boil. Continue cooking, stirring occasionally, until candy thermometer reaches 250°F or small amount of mixture dropped in ice water forms a hard ball (about 12 to 14 minutes). Remove from heat; stir in baking soda. The caramel will foam up a little and turn a lighter color when you add the baking soda.

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3 Carefully pour hot mixture over the popcorn in a large roasting pan. (If you would like peanuts with your popcorn, sprinkle the salted peanuts over the caramel sauce at this point.) Using a wooden spoon, stir until all popcorn is coated. (Be careful not to let the caramel touch you; it's very hot.) Place in oven for 20 minutes. Remove from oven, stir to more evenly coat the popcorn with the caramel sauce. Return to oven. Continue cooking for 20 minutes. Remove from oven. Immediately spread caramel corn out onto waxed paper. Let cool completely. Break into bite-sized pieces. Store in tightly covered container.

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28 Comments

  1. Sandra

    Hi Elise,

    I’ve got some ‘munchkins’ coming over next week to carve a jack o’ lantern and will totally use this caramel corn to keep them on a nice sugar high for the evening :)
    Great Recipe (as always)

    Sandra

  2. Felis

    I used to make caramel corn as an after school snack when I was about 12. My mom had me dump it into a Paper bag and shake it to coat. I guess the boiling sugar wasn’t as big of a deal as spilling it all over while trying to stir it? Great memory, thanks for the recipe!

  3. Katherine

    Elise, I am trying to make caramel corn with a batch of caramels that I made that came out too soft – when I heat the caramel, mix it with the corn, and put it in the oven it got dark, almost bitter after 45 minutes. It also seemed to melt off the corn. I wonder if it’s the fact that I use a copious amount of cream in my caramel. Any thoughts?

    BTW, I’ve read your site for months now, and it’s now as much of a staple as williams-sonoma for recipes. Thanks for all the hard work you’ve put in to this!

  4. Liz

    If I were to make caramel popcorn balls, at which point could I form them into balls? Is there a science to it, or is it just when it is cool enough to touch with our bare hands? This sounds like an awesome Halloween Party treat! :) Yum!

  5. EH

    For popcorn balls, I think the standard technique is to let the popcorn cool only enough so that it doesn’t melt the cling wrap that you use to form the balls. Get a square of cling wrap, put a modest pile of caramel corn (or other) in the middle, then draw the edges up so that you can mold and wrap the ball in one go. Seal with a kiss.

  6. Timothy

    Yum! This version sounds delish, and just in time for halloween.

    From traumatizing personal experience, I am compelled to share with my fellow Elise fans that when she says the melted sugar will be “very hot,” she means it is molten lava that will stick to your flesh like tar and burn right through your skin leaving a scar for years.

    So, for heaven’s sake, be careful! That photo of the finished corn looks awesome, and I’m definitely going to try this one – possibly wearing gloves throughout. Eek.

  7. rosemari

    My caramel popcorn is in the oven as I type this. Can not wait to eat this with my little munchkin. Quick question. What does the baking soda do? I forgot to add it so I hope that I did not mess it up that much.

  8. deb

    This looks incredible. I am fascinated by the addition of baking soda–is this to keep the caramel from getting too hard? A friend that is a pastry chef always puts a pinch in her brittles to keep them from getting to glass/shard-like when eaten. It sounds genius, but I haven’t tried it…

  9. Lydia Hamre

    Mmmmmm….My Gram used to make these for us on Christmas, they’d be stuffed in our stockings. Your recipe looks wonderful, I’ll have to start the tradition with my new son this Christmas.

  10. Elise

    Regarding the question about baking soda. I’m not sure. Every recipe I have found for caramel corn includes baking soda, so I’ve included it. I think it may have something to do with allowing the caramel to spread more easily. When you add the baking soda, the caramel sauce foams up and expands. Perhaps it makes it less brittle as well? Any food chemists out there who might know how this works?

  11. Another Elise

    Mmm, I don’t normally like caramel corn, but this looks so good! Seems like it would make a good homemade holiday gift, in nice bags tied with ribbon. Maybe I’ll finally take that candy thermometer out of its packaging.

    The tattoos were definitely the best Cracker Jack prizes. I used to make my own, with felt-tipped markers and looseleaf paper. I believe I started a craze in my second-grade classroom…

  12. Deborah Dowd

    Showing my age by saying that I remember getting Cracker Jack as a coveted treat (it was up there with the little circus wagon boxes of animal crackers!) Thanks for this homemade version.

  13. Mejkin

    Carmel Corn will always be my one true weakness. Once I start, I simply cannot stop. I remember my mother making carmel corn with a recipe like this when I was a child, but have never made it myself b/c it seemed too involved. Then when I was in college I was re-introduced to my Uncle Roger’s carmel corn, which is super-easy, utterly delectable, and incorporates ingredients any layperson will have in the pantry.

    ROGER’S CARMEL CORN
    1 1/2 c. brown sugar
    2 T. butter
    1/3 c. water
    2-3 bags of microwave popcorn, popped (I use lite butter)

    Directions:
    Mix and boil the first three ingredients on medium, stirring continually, until reaching the “softball” stage. Once the carmel is ready, pour over the popped corn and distribute the sugary goodness evenly by stirring with a wooden spoon. If you can’t possibly wait a minute longer, dig in immediately! However, I find the popcorn tastes a bit better once the carmel has cooled and set (about 30 minutes).

  14. Kelli

    I made caramel popcorn balls last year, and the next day, the popcorn was all soft…like it was stale. Any ideas of what caused this? I can’t remember the recipe I used, off the top of my head, but I’m sure it was similar to this.

    BTW, Elise, your short rib stew is baking in my oven right now, and it smells delicious. Thanks for the great recipes!

  15. Sang

    When I make caramel corn, I throw the popcorn and the hot mixture in a paper bag (the big ones from grocery store) and just toss it around til all the kernels are evenly coated.
    this method works great. Trust me :)

  16. Cindy

    We made this recipe and it was incredible! Thanks :)

  17. Kevin E.

    I made this at the beginning of December using the Perfect Popcorn as the base and it was the best caramel corn I have ever tasted. I took it to work and it was all gone before the end of the day. People that do not eat sweet products had two or three cupfuls. Thank you for posting such a wonderful recipe.

  18. Shannon

    I am normally indifferent to packaged caramel corn–even the “good” stuff from the shore. Unfortunately for my waistline, I am totally, completely, head over heels for this version. I actually opened the oven door twice during cooking to sample the goods. I burned my tongue, but it was worth it. Needless to say, I inhaled the cooled stuff. So I must say “thank you”; this is going to be my go-to gift for Halloween and Christmas (I was thinking holiday m&m’s after it comes out of the oven). I will, however, curse you when I have to do deep knee bends to get into my jeans.

  19. Samantha Beggs

    Great! I’m 10 years old and this was pretty easy. I usually HATE caramel corn, but this was great! I would be a good idea to sift the kernels, though. I makes quite a lot. We started in a turkey cooking pot. We used 6 bags, so don’t make that mistake:)

  20. april

    I have made this twice in the last month… its soooo good! 4 of us hog it all up in about 2 days. I’ve been out of molasses for a while (big gingerbread people binge) so I omitted that from the recipe both times, still delicious. The second time I forgot the baking soda. It was still tasty and almost as good, but much harder to eat- the caramel sticks to your teeth a bit, and its just hard to chew.

  21. Kay

    I made this popcorn a couple of months ago it was was sweet & crunchy :) My husband and I couldn’t eat all of it so my co-workers gladly did.

  22. Sean

    This recipe goes great at parties. My family can’t get enough, it barely lasts long enough to cool.

  23. Meena

    re: the baking soda question. Baking soda (sodium bicarbonate) acts as base and reacts with an acid (the molasses, the brown sugar) to form carbon dioxide and water. My guess is that the function of the tiny carbon dioxide bubbles is to create pockets of “air” as the sugar cools and reforms its crystalline structure. I believe this makes the brittle, the caramel, etc. easier to bite through versus biting into a completely solid block of hardened candy – like breaking through three layers of giant bubble wrap, versus punching through a a 3-inch-thich layer of saran wrap.

    Thank you for the explanation of the chemistry Meena, it makes sense. ~Elise

  24. Lydia

    Made this tonight it was terriffic! Made a few modifications… 6 bags of microwave popcorn. Cut bag on the butter, didn’t have corn syrup so I used pancake syrup. The molasses really added nice flavor! We used about 6 quarts of popcorn because the caramel was so sweet. I like my caramel corn googey and hot so omited the baking. Will deffinatly make this again!! New family favorite!!

  25. Elsa

    It was my first time popping my own popcorn and everything turned out great! I visit this site religiously and have used multiple recipes from here. Thanks for all the good recipes and the nice helpful tips along with it!

  26. Mrs4444

    This is exactly the same recipe my family’s used for generations. One tip I would add is to take the time to remove any seeds at the end–Dental work is such a DRAG!

  27. Couldn't Be Parve

    This sounds delicious. Just a quick question. How long will this caramel popcorn last before it gets stale? I want to make some for gifts and am wondering how far ahead I can make it. Thanks

    Don’t know. We usually eat it up within minutes. ~Elise

  28. jonathan

    Molasses as an ingredient? I’ll have to give this version a whirl.

    I’m ambivalent about the whole Cracker Jack thing, quite honestly. No matter how many boxes I opened, I always…and I mean ALWAYS…ended up with a cruddy little comic book or useless plastic tchotchke (sp?). It seemed as if everyone else got the tattoos and whistles, but me? Never.

    This, I fear, may have done irreversible psychological damage.

    Thanks. A therapist would’ve charged me $200 for that rant.

    And if you should ever be in Ocean City, MD, you really must try http://www.fisherspopcorn.com/

    The gold standard by which all caramel corn should be judged.

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