The best caramel popcorn is a two-part process: making a stovetop caramel sauce and then baking the coated popcorn in the oven.
I consider caramel popcorn to be the ultimate party treat — beloved by the attendees of children's birthday parties and grown-up cocktail hours alike. It's crunchy, it's deeply caramelized, and it's utterly addictive. If your only experience with caramel popcorn is the sticky-sweet stuff that comes Christmas tins, then I insist that you drop whatever you are currently doing and make yourself a batch this afternoon.
Making crunchy caramel popcorn is a two step process. First you make a simple caramel sauce on the stovetop by boiling butter and brown sugar for a few minutes. Then you coat the popcorn with caramel sauce and bake it in the oven until dry and crispy. The whole process takes a little over an hour, and keeps well in sealed containers for several days. I often make a batch a day or two ahead of my party, though keeping yourself (and sneaky family members) from eating it is an entirely different battle. My best suggestion: make extra.
Consider this popcorn a blank slate for other flavorings and extras. For a sweet-savory dinner party appetizer, mix some hot sauce or curry powder into the caramel sauce. Salted caramel popcorn, sprinkled with sea salt while still hot from the oven, is an easy gourmet dessert to bring out midway through a cocktail party or movie night with friends. I also love packing small containers of caramel popcorn to hand to guests as they put on their coats — a little snack for the ride home.
P.S. If you need a quick, last-minute version of caramel popcorn, try making it in the microwave!
1/2 cup unpopped corn kernels (10-12 cups popped)
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
3/4 cup (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter
1 cup packed brown sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
Optional extras, see Recipe Variations (below)
Large lidded saucepan
Large heatproof mixing bowl
2 baking sheets
Parchment paper or silpats
Gather ingredients and equipment. Arrange two oven racks in the top and bottom third of the oven and preheat the oven to 250°F. Line the baking sheets with parchment or silpats. Once you start making the caramel sauce, everything comes together quickly so have all the ingredients and equipment you need handy.
Make the popcorn. Warm 3 corn kernels and the oil in a large lidded saucepan over medium heat. When the kernels pop, add the rest of the corn kernels to the pan, shake to coat with oil, and put the lid on the pan. Pop the corn, shaking the pan occasionally, until the popping slows. Empty the popped corn immediately into a large heat-proof bowl. This makes about 10 cups of popcorn; make the popcorn in two batches if your pan is not large enough. (Alternatively, use one of these methods for making your popcorn.)
→ To get rid of the unpopped kernels, see Recipe Notes, below.
Make the caramel sauce. Melt the butter in a 2-quart saucepan over medium heat. Mix in the sugar until the sugar is completely moistened. Increase the heat to medium high and bring the mixture to a boil. Once boiling, boil for 3-4 minutes while stirring and scraping the bottom of the pan continuously. (Boil for a minute less if cooking on an electric stove.)
→ The exact cooking temperature isn't critical with this recipe, but ideally you want the sugar mixture to reach between 250°F and 300°F. The longer you cook the syrup, the crunchier it will be. For very crunchy popcorn (my favorite!), stop cooking when you see the first wisps of smoke coming from the sugar mixture.
Add the vanilla, salt, baking soda, and any extras. Off the heat, add the vanilla, salt, baking soda, and any extras, and stir until combined. The sugar mixture will bubble up violently. Continue stirring until you form a thick, glossy sauce.
Combine the caramel sauce and popcorn. Slowly pour the caramel sauce over the popcorn while stirring the popcorn (it helps if you have a partner for this step — one person pouring while the other stirs the popcorn). Continue stirring the sauce into the popcorn until all of the kernels are coated.
Bake the caramel popcorn. Divide the popcorn between two baking sheets, spreading the popcorn out into an even layer. It's ok if the popcorn clumps together. Bake for one hour, stirring every 15 minutes and breaking up any clumps.
Let cool completely. Let the popcorn cool completely on the baking sheets. Serve immediately or store in an airtight container for up to a week.
Recipe Variations: Salted Caramel Popcorn: Increase the amount of salt to 1 teaspoon and sprinkle the baked popcorn with sea salt while it's still warm from the oven. Cracker Jacks: Add 2 tablespoons of molasses to the sugar mixture as it boils and mix in 1 cup peanuts when combining the caramel sauce and popcorn. Spicy Caramel Popcorn: Add 1/2 teaspoon cayenne or 2-3 tablespoons Sriracha or other hot sauce to the caramel sauce along with the vanilla. Curried Caramel Popcorn: Add 1-2 teaspoons curry powder to the caramel sauce along with the vanilla.
Popcorn Balls or Clusters: To make popcorn balls or clusters, quickly press the popcorn together with buttered hands after the popcorn is finished baking and before it cools. If the popcorn cools too much to stick together, put the trays back in the oven for another 5 minutes.
Getting Rid of Unpopped Kernels: To get rid of unpopped kernels before making the caramel popcorn, pour the popcorn into a large bowl and shake it a few times so the kernels fall to the bottom. Then use a measuring cup to scoop the popped popcorn into a second bowl, leaving the kernels behind.