During the holiday season, I always try to have some homemade snacks on hand for any guests or family, such as these spicy caramel popcorn clusters.
But let’s get real here: sometimes it’s just for myself because it’s the holidays and I will absolutely treat myself.
What’s in a Popcorn Cluster?
These spicy popcorn clusters are my latest addictive snack, and they’re great in a big bowl. The combo of spicy chili and cayenne with sweet and chewy caramel is about as good as it gets. Once you have your popcorn popped, make the spicy caramel sauce and toss everything together. It’s pretty delicious stuff and is my favorite wheelhouse of snacks (spicy and sweet)!
My trick to making these great is to stir half of the spice mixture into the caramel, but then reserve half of it for sprinkling right on the popcorn.
The Best Way to Pop the Popcorn
You can pop this popcorn using your favorite method, but I'd definitely pop it yourself instead of using store-bought microwaved popcorn.
If you have an air popper, you can absolutely use that—it’s my go-to for everyday popcorn. For these clusters, however, I like popping them in a big pot with a little oil.
If you are using the pot method, add enough oil to lightly cover the bottom of the pot, which for me is usually about three tablespoons. Add one kernel to the oil and place the pot over medium heat. When that kernel pops, you know your oil is the right temperature.
Remove that kernel with tongs and add the rest of the kernels. Cover with a lid and shake the pot vigorously over the heat as the popcorn pops.
The popcorn is done when the popping slows to one pop ever few seconds. You will probably have some unpopped kernels, but that’s better than burned popcorn!
- Check out our step-by-step instructions: How to Make Perfect Popcorn on the Stove Top
Easy Caramel Popcorn!
I’m far from a caramel expert, but I find this version to be pretty forgiving and easy for even a beginner cook.
Using a medium pot, you just melt the butter over medium heat and then stir in the brown sugar and corn syrup. Stir the caramel slowly as it simmers for 6 to 8 minutes. When it coats the back of your spatula, it’s done. I like to add a little baking powder at the very end of the caramel process which makes the caramel light and bubbly and easier to mix into the popcorn.
No need to use a candy thermometer for this recipe.
How to Form the Clusters
Once you have your caramel ready, pour it into a bowl with the popcorn and peanuts and stir it together well. When you pour the caramel in, work quickly as it will start to set up as soon as it’s off the heat. You’ll have a few minutes before it really solidifies, but don’t go do something else!
After stirring in the caramel, spread the popcorn out on a baking sheet and sprinkle with remaining spice mix. Let it cool and then break it into clusters.
Make Popcorn Balls Instead of Clusters!
If you let the caramel cool to the point where you can touch it but it’s still somewhat pliable, you can shape these into actual popcorn balls for gifts, if that’s your style. Wrap them in plastic and tie them with a bow!
Make Them Nut Free!
Just take the nuts out if you need to. No harm done.
How to Store These Popcorn Clusters
These popcorn clusters keep perfectly at room temperature in an airtight container for a few days, or probably up to a week although I must admit that they didn’t last anywhere close to that long in my house. Make sure the popcorn is completely cooled off before storing.
More Best Snack Recipes
- Perfect Popcorn
- Herb-Spiced Mixed Nuts
- Caramel Corn
- Crispy Air Fryer Chickpeas
- Baked Vegetable and Cream Cheese Wontons
Spicy Caramel Popcorn Clusters
- 1 cup roasted peanuts
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1 teaspoon chili powder
- 1/2 teaspoon sugar
- 1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
- 1/3 cup popcorn
- 3 tablespoons canola oil
- 1/2 cup unsalted butter
- 1 cup brown sugar
- 1/2 cup light corn syrup
- 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
Get everything ready
Add roasted peanuts to a large bowl (you'll add the popcorn later). In a separate, small bowl, mix together the spice mixture (salt, chili powder, sugar, and cayenne). Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and set it aside.
Pop the popcorn
Add canola oil to a large pot over medium heat. Add one kernel of popcorn to the pot and cover the lid. When that kernel pops, it means your oil is at the right temperature.
Remove the single kernel and pour in all the popcorn. Off the heat, cover the pot and wait 30 seconds to bring all the kernels up to temperature. Return the pot to heat and shake vigorously while the popcorn pops to prevent burning.
When the popping slows to a few seconds between pops, remove from heat and pour into the large bowl with the peanuts. There may be some unpopped kernels, but that’s better than burned popcorn.
- For more detailed instructions on how to pop popcorn, see HERE
Make the caramel
Melt the butter in a medium pot over medium heat. Add the brown sugar and corn syrup and stir well to combine. Cook over medium heat for 6 to 8 minutes until the mixture thickens and coats the back of a rubber spatula.
Add half of the spice mixture to the caramel sauce along with the baking powder. Stir well to combine.
Coat the popcorn with caramel
Immediately after making the caramel (don't let it get cold), pour it into the popcorn and peanut mixture. Work quickly and stir to combine and coat popcorn.
Cool the popcorn:
Spread popcorn out on the baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Use a rubber spatula to press the popcorn down into an even layer. Sprinkle popcorn with the remaining spice mixture.
When the popcorn has cooled slightly, you can shape the popcorn into balls if you want, but I prefer it in freeform clusters. These popcorn clusters keep perfectly at room temperature in an airtight container for a few days, or probably up to a week.