The thing is… I don’t even like caramel.
But this caramel popcorn is just really, really good.
There are some things where the storebought version just doesn’t compare, and caramel popcorn is one of them. In every kind of storebought caramel popcorn I’ve had, the glaze is thin, sugary, and flavorless. In a word, it’s weak. Even when the popcorn is fully coated in glaze, the flavor is still lacking. It’s a bland coating of chemicals and no wants that.
And then, one summer day in 2008 while visiting Kate in Maryland, I had caramel popcorn from Dolle’s in Ocean City. The flavor was intensely delicious–buttery and brown sugary, smothering each piece in caramel goodness. That led to an obsession, with Dolle’s caramel popcorn specifically. For years that was the gold standard, the one caramel popcorn that wasn’t disappointing. And then it occurred to me to make some myself.
I don’t know how I found this recipe, but I’m so glad I did. Normally I like to do research when I make things, look at a variety of recipes, put together a few components of each to form something that seems right to me. But in this case I just looked at this one, and I’ve only ever made this one. I’m too happy with it to consider anything else. So apologies in advance for my ignorance. Everything I know about making caramel popcorn is from this recipe alone.
In the post, they say they like to double the ratio of caramel to popcorn. And I haven’t made it any other way. If we’re making caramel popcorn, let’s commit. So I’ve already doubled the ratio for you in the recipe below because this is caramel popcorn the way I make it. If you like normal ratios, go visit the recipe source.
Other changes: I added vanilla. (Vanilla makes everything better.) I used dark brown sugar and dark corn syrup instead of their light counterparts–I do what I can for that added boost of flavor. And I’m going to recommend 3/4 of a teaspoon of salt instead of the full teaspoon. I’m all for the sweet/salty balance, but having double the sweet/salty mixture to coat each piece seemed to make the salt more prominent somehow.
This is fun to make. Making popcorn on the stovetop is easy, plus it makes me feel like I’m living in the past. Making the caramel is a little stressful–any time you boil sugar you know you’re in for some high-stakes science–but as long as you follow the instructions you’re fine. The process I usually go through is (1) Melt the butter and brown sugar, (2) Add the corn syrup and boil it for exactly five minutes, (3) Panic as the last minute slowly counts down because the mixture is looking a little too brown and bubbly and oh no what if I started the timer too late and what if this is burning and everything might be ruined, (4) Stir in the baking soda, and (5) Realize I didn’t mess anything up; marvel at how the baking soda changes the mixture; decide that I’m basically a scientist.
Really, though, look at that pre- and post-baking soda action. The baking soda makes it smooth, thick, and… weirdly doughy-looking. SCIENCE.
And then it’s just a matter of baking the popcorn low and slow for an hour, stirring it every fifteen minutes. The timing can be tricky–occasionally the popcorn has needed a bit more than an hour, as I learn when I find that even after cooling the caramel is a little chewy when it should be perfectly crisp–but you can throw it back in the oven a little longer, even after it’s cooled. This popcorn is forgiving that way.
Source: Adapted from Leite’s Culinaria
- 1/2 + 2 tbsp unpopped popcorn kernels
- 1 1/2 sticks salted butter
- 1 cup packed brown sugar
- 1/3 cup corn syrup (light or dark)
- 3/4 tsp salt
- 1 tsp vanilla
- 1 tsp baking soda
Pop the popcorn in an air popper or on the stovetop.(For stovetop popping, I follow the method outlined here. I find that 2 tbsp of vegetable oil gets the job done for me.) Once popped, you’ll have about 12-16 cups of popcorn. Lay the popcorn out on two large pans, preferably with edges.
Preheat the oven to 200 degrees F.
Heat the butter and brown sugar in a small saucepan over medium heat until the butter is melted and the sugar has dissolved. Add the corn syrup, salt, and vanilla and bring the mixture to a boil. Once it starts boiling, set a timer for 5 minutes and keep it boiling the entire time. Don’t panic if it starts to look intense–just wait out the five minutes.
When the time is up, remove the saucepan from heat and stir in the baking soda. You’ll see the mixture thicken and get lighter in color and honestly look a little creepy. This is okay. Pour the caramel over the popcorn, using a spoon to distribute it the best you can. If it doesn’t look even, fear not–you’ll be able to help the other pieces along when it bakes.
Bake the caramel popcorn for one hour, taking care to stir it around every 15 minutes to ensure even caramel distribution. After an hour, take the pans out of the oven and let the popcorn cool. Once cooled, devour endlessly. (If the caramel seems a little soft or chewy even after cooling, it may need to bake for longer–throw it back in the oven for another 15 minutes or so, stirring as needed.)