April 16, 2004 1:02 AM | By Adam Roberts | 14 Comments


In my brief stint as an Amateur Gourmet there have been few genuine kitchen disasters. Let's see: there was the time I burnt my Martha Stewart Coconut Cake frosting; the time I almost poisoned Lauren with Isaac Mitzrahi's parchament paper fish; and the time I used 5 Tbs instead of 5 tsps of salt in a batch of what became known as The Salty Brownies.

But it can easily be said that with any of those disastrous kitchen episodes, I learned my lesson. Should I ever make Martha's coconut cake again, I'd time the sugar syrup and the egg whites perfectly. And with Isaac's fish I'd fold the parchment much tighter, and I'd cut down on the wine. And, of course, now I'm extra careful with the difference between a Tablespoon and a teaspoon.

Yet one cursed kitchen concoction haunts me; forcing me into failure every time I attempt it. There is no lesson learned, no improvement. Each time I have a go, it fails in its own dazzling way. The item in question--homemade caramel corn--is the bane of my culinary existence. And tonight's good spirited attempt ended, as they all do, in miserable failure.

Here's the deal: I know what I'm probably doing wrong. All the recipes I follow tell you to pop the popcorn in a pot with oil and plain popcorn kernals. I don't have any plain popcorn kernals. I just have the kind you pop in the microwave. So I cheat and use a bag of Newman's Own Plain Organic Popcorn (a good choice, one would think, because it's plain and can carry the flavors you add later) popping it properly in the microwave.

The next part is where things always go wrong. This is the part where you make the hot caramel sugar syrup. The idea is you make the syrup, and then you dump the popcorn in and stir it around, pour it out on a cookie sheet and whala! you have caramel corn.

The first time I tried this, I dumped the popcorn into the hot syrup and whala! the popcorn immediately shriveled and died under the heat; the white part of the popcorn literally melted away. It was like watching a balloon deflate. Kind of funny, yet kind of sad.

Other scenarios had the syrup too sticky, or--worse--too watery. Nothing more horibble than drowned popcorn.

Tonight I thought I was in good hands because I used Nancy Silverton's Sandwich book recipes for bar snacks. So far, her recipes have really come through and I figured: finally, I have a legitimate caramel corn recipe that I can trust.

Yet, the fact of my cursed caramel corn status prevented me from buying the vanilla bean she suggests you add to the sugar mixture. I couldn't, in good conscience, pay $6 for something I knew would end up in the garbage.

So, instead, I added everything else to the pot: sugar, water and vanilla extract (<--well, I subbed that for the vanilla bean):


Perhaps importantly, I was out of corn syrup and so I went online and found that you could sub corn syrup for more water and sugar. This probably contributed to the disaster.

Then I added Nancy's special mix of spices: cinnamon, nutmeg, and ground cloves


I turned up the heat:


And after several minutes of swishing sloshing and bubbling, I nervously added the popcorn.

Did it deflate? No. Well, a little. But all seemed well. I stirred it around, like Nancy suggests, and then I dumped it out on a cookie sheet.


It smelled good enough. It looked fairly decent. But then I tasted it.


The sugar had crystallized on the outside of the popcorn, creating chalky sugary patches that stuck together, and making the first bite very similar to eating sand on the beach. I could see how the flavors--especially the apple pie spices--could make for some really dynamite caramel corn. Unfortunately, this caramel corn's destiny was not my mouth, but the mouth of the garbage can:


Oh woe is me. Will I ever succeed at caramel corn? Only time--and a lot more sugar--will tell.


I had the same problems with popcorn until I found this recipe - it always seems to work for me:


40g of popping corn

60g butter
60g sugar
pinch salt
1 generous tablespoon of Golden syrup or Maple syrup

Pop the corn in the normal way - we have a popcorn duck machine thingy, but you can pop the corn in a big pan with a tight fitting lid if you want. Make sure all the popcorn has fully popped - those little buggers have a habit of popping afterwards and surprising you.

Let the popcorn cool, and melt the butter, with the sugar, salt and syrup over a slow heat. Let the mixture bubble for a minute. place the popcorn in a big bowl, and mix the sauce in, moving the popcorn around with a couple of forks. Ensure the popcorn is fully covered, but not too soggy or wet.

Pre-heat the oven to 150C/300/gas mark 5.

Spread the popcorn on sheet of non-stock paper on a baking tray, ensuring the popcorn is level. Bake the popcorn for 5 minutes, move them around with a fork, and bake them for a further 5 minutes or until all popcorn is a light-medium brown colour.

Break clumps of popcorn up with a fork, put in a bowl and serve warm.

They're yummy and crispy and crunchy.

You can also put chopped nuts into the butterscotch mixture for extra oomph.

i remember watching the food network and emeril was doing this thing with microwave caramel popcorn...he added baking soda to the caramel mixture, which made it foam up, and then poured it all into a brown paper bag full of popcorn and microwaved it. When it was done he just shook it up and he had perfect caramel popcorn. so maybe the baking soda lightens the caramel so it coats it without making it soggy.

I would guess that using more robust popcorn would help your recipe too.

I have found the best toy for making popcorn... every kernel pops into a perfect fluffy well, kernel. It costs $16.79 on Amazon:the Whirley Pop 6-Quart Hand-Cranked Stovetop Popcorn Popper. It's even fun to use. I give them to everyone for gifts.

I've had problems with caramel corn too; I think the trick is getting the temperature of the sugar right. Too hot and it will be bitter and shrivel your popcorn. Too cool and it will be clumpy and chalky. Once it's heated to the right temperature, though, you can let it cool a little bit before you add the popcorn (to avoid shriveling). There's a sugar temperature chart here. The best result I ever got was from a combination of sugar, corn syrup, and a little bit of butter, heated to about 330 degrees. Good luck.

Thanks everyone... I'll try some of your tips when I work up the courage to make caramel corn again!

Cathy mentioned the WHIRLY-POP popcorn maker...You haven't lived until you've tried one those...They are by far the BEST way to make popcorn!!!

I just got a special edition called Southern Living Favorites and found this recipe - it uses microwave popcorn! I don't think this one will cause your kitchen to explode like another recent SL recipe...

Crispy Caramel Corn
Makes 4 Qts
Prep: 10 min Bake: 1 hour

1 c sugar
1/2 c butter or margarine
1/2 c light corn syrup
1/2 t salt
1 t vanilla extract
1/2 t baking soda
2 (3 ounce) packages microwave popcorn, popped (16 cups)
1 cup mixed nuts (optional)

Stir together first 5 ingredients in a saucepan; bring to a boil over medium heat, stirring constantly. Remove mixture from heat, and stir in baking soda.
Place half of popcorn and, if desired, nuts in each of two lightly greased shallow roasting pans. Pour sugar mixture evenly over popcorn; stir well with a lightly greased spatula.
Bake at 250 for 1 our, stirring every 15 minutes. Spread on wax paper to cool, breaking apart large clumps as mixture cools. Store in airtight containers.

I make caramel corn all the time and have never had a problem. Want my recipe?

When I was a kid (back in the eary '80s) my mom got a popcorn/carmel corn maker -- it was round with a flat griddle like base and had a domed lid with air holes at the top and a margerine type lid to put over the holes when the popcorn had finished popping --great thing, don't know if they are still available -- the trick is to melt the margerine then add the brown sugar,corn syrup and salt -- mix well until bubbly(aprox.2mins) then add the vanilla -- stir- and baking soda and then stir like mad -- it will bubble and foam up -- watch the color -- when it is a smooth pretty tan color pour immediately over the popcorn and stir -- delicious

Don't forget to take the old maids out before you pour or you might break a tooth like my husband did when I made it.

I made carmel corn (the one where you add baking soda at the last). I forgot to add the baking soda. The carmel corn turned out o.k. Why add the baking soda?

Here's my recipe. It may be too basic for you, but it is wonderufl! It's my standby if I want to please everyone. Never had it NOT turn out.

1 cup UNpopped popcorn kernels
1/2 cup butter
2 cups brown sugar
1/2 cup light corn syrup
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Pop the popcorn anyway you want (air popper, microwave, stove top, etc.). "Sift" through it and pick out the kernels that didn't pop (they hurt if you bite down on them!).
Pour popped corn into a large brown paper grocery bag and set aside.
In a large pan, melt butter on MEDIUM heat.
Add brown sugar, corn syrup, and salt.
Stir with a wooden spoon to incorporate ingredients and dissolve sugar.
As soon as it starts boiling set the timer for 4 minutes.
While waiting (and NOT stirring!) Spray a large, shallow pan (or 2, to make it easier to stir and cool later) with cooking spray oil. Set aside.
After allowing the mixture to boil for 4 minutes, remove from heat.
Stir in vanilla and baking soda.
When it is fully mixed and a light tan color pour it into the bag with the popped corn.
Roll over the top of the bag and shake like mad!
When the caramel has fully coated the corn dump it onto the sprayed cookie sheet(s).
If you like slightly chewy caramel corn (I do) let it set and cool.
If you prefer crunchy caramel corn put it into the oven on 250 for 20 minutes stirring frequently.
Break the caramel corn into pieces when it is fully cooled.

Hope it works for you and doesn't end up in the trash.


The corn syrup you omitted would have prevented the sugar from crystallizing. If that's all that went wrong, you might want to try it again with the corn syrup.

I did it Adam!! Delicious recipe!

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