When you need a sweet, salty, crunchy snack that everyone loves – homemade caramel popcorn is the answer! It’s easy to make with a rich caramel flavor that’s full of depth – plus a little saltiness for the perfect balance. It’s a snack you won’t be able to stop snackin’, whether it’s movie night or not.
If there was a poster-child snack for Fork in the Kitchen, it would definitely be homemade popcorn. And while savory favorites like spicy parmesan garlic popcorn and ranch popcorn have their place, sometimes you just need a sweet-and-salty popcorn snack.
For crunch and rich caramel flavor, nothing compares to old-fashioned caramel popcorn. It brings up memories of carnivals and county fairs, and my favorite Chicago mix popcorn combo. This recipe is easy to make and pretty fool-proof with the combination of ingredients to keep the caramel smooth.
It does require about an hour of baking, which is pretty hands-off with the exception of stirring every so often. Don’t let that scare you though, it creates a crisp, crunchy caramel layer that helps the popcorn keep its texture.
Caramel Corn Ingredients
Each ingredient in this recipe has a very specific purpose in making the best caramel corn around!
- Popcorn Kernels: I highly recommend making homemade stovetop popcorn to make caramel popcorn. You want to use unbuttered popcorn for this recipe.
- Brown Sugar: using brown sugar to make the caramel results in a rich flavor because of the molasses that brown sugar is made with.
- Maple Syrup: I might call this my *secret* ingredient. I just maple syrup in place of a lot of the corn syrup in this recipe (I have made it will all in place of corn syrup…but keep reading!). It adds a really good flavor and consistency.
- Corn Syrup: while I know you might want to make caramel corn without corn syrup, but there is a really good reason to add just a little as I do here. Corn syrup helps with the texture of the caramel; it prevents the sugars in the caramels from crystalizing and keeps the texture smooth. There isn’t much in this recipe, just enough to help prevent crystalization.
- Kosher Salt: I use Morton’s kosher salt (if you use another brand, note its weight, as different brands may be more or less dense) and have just enough in the recipe that there is a lovely sweet-and-salty balance. If you want the popcorn to be less salty and more sweet, you may want to consider halving the salt amount.
- Unsalted Butter: be sure to use unsalted since we are adding our own salt. The butter keeps the caramel absolutely luxurious!
- Vanilla Extract: use real vanilla extract for the most flavor!
- Baking Soda: a sneaky little ingredient that plays a big roll in making caramel corn. The baking soda reacts with the acid in the brown sugar (and corn syrup) and foams up. This reaction prevents the caramel from turning rock hard, keep a just soft-enough texture that you won’t break a tooth.
How to Make Homemade Caramel Popcorn
As I mentioned, I highly recommend making homemade stovetop popcorn to start this recipe off. If you have a tried and true microwave method, feel free to use that, too. Just be sure you’re using plain popcorn that has not been buttered. An air popper works, too!
Get a heavy-bottomed stockpot or dutch oven and heat the oil, adding three kernels that will signal to you when the oil is hot. Add the remaining kernels, cover, and remove the pan from the heat for about 20 seconds. Place it back on the heat and wait as the kernels all pop.
Be sure to read my full stovetop popcorn post for all the details, tips, and tricks for making the best homemade popcorn!
You shouldn’t have any kernels leftover if you use my stovetop popcorn recipe, but if you do the easiest way to remove the remaining kernels is to pour the popcorn on top of a cooling rack. The popcorn will stay on the rack and the kernels will fall right through!
Place the popcorn in a large bowl in anticipation of the next steps…
Make the Caramel Sauce
In a small saucepan, whisk together the brown sugar, maple syrup, corn syrup, and salt over medium heat on the stove. Bring the mixture to a simmer and let it continue to boil for 4-5 minutes, without stirring. Agitating the mixture encourages crystallization, which we are trying to prevent to ensure a smooth caramel sauce.
Then, remove from heat and whisk in cubed butter, vanilla extract, and baking soda. Once you whisk in the baking soda, the mixture will foam up, this is normal. Keep whisking until the butter is melted, then stir the caramel mixture into the popcorn.
It will be sticky, so work as quickly as possible to coat the popcorn evenly. The good news is that even if you don’t completely get it coated, as it bakes in the oven, the caramel will melt, and you’ll be able to stir it to coat again.
Bake the Popcorn
Once the popcorn is coated in the caramel sauce, spread it evenly across baking sheets lined with parchment paper.
Then, bake the popcorn low-and-slow, at 250F for about an hour. This process allows the caramel to harden and bake into the popcorn, essentially drying out the popcorn and removing any remaining moisture from the caramel. It also helps extend the shelf-life of the popcorn if you plan to keep it over several days or up to a week.
It’s important to toss the popcorn about every 20 minutes or so to ensure it heats evenly.
Once the popcorn has baked, let it cool on the pan (and if you’re anything like me..sneak a few pieces!). It will continue to harden while it cools.
Then, transfer it to an airtight container for storage. It should keep for about a week at room temperature. If you’re in a warmer or humid climate, the caramel will attract moisture and likely won’t keep for as long.
Caramel Popcorn Variations
I absolutely love noshing caramel corn as it is, but there are several other variations to enjoy!
Chocolate Drizzled Caramel Popcorn
Follow the directions for making chocolate drizzled popcorn, but use this caramel popcorn recipe after it’s baked. You’ll have a crunchy, caramel popcorn base and a delicious layer of chocolate – talk about a perfect combination! Go ahead and try a white chocolate drizzle, too.
Mix in Nuts
You can add in your favorite nuts for another crunchy addition. Peanuts are always a fan favorite, similar to Cracker Jacks. I also enjoy the hint of maple with chopped pecans. Go a little rogue and stir in cashews or almonds.
Classic Chicago Mix
If you’ve ever had the classic Chicago mix of cheddar and caramel popcorn, then you already know how amazing the sweet, salty, cheesy combination is. And if you haven’t had it, you definitely need to give it a try.
Make my easy version of homemade cheddar cheese popcorn and mix it with the cooled caramel popcorn after it’s baked. It makes the perfect gift, too!
Mix it with Candy!
If you have leftover candies, what better way to enjoy them than to pair them with caramel corn? This is an especially good tactic around Halloween. Add in M&Ms, Reeses Pieces, Rolos, Mini Snickers…whatever you can imagine, you can do!
Homemade Caramel Popcorn
- ½ cup popcorn kernels
- 3 Tablespoons oil of choice
- ½ cup brown sugar
- ⅓ cup maple syrup
- 2 TBSP corn syrup
- ½ TBSP kosher salt
- 3 TBSP unsalted butter, cubed
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- ¼ teaspoon baking soda
- Prepare a large rimmed baking sheet (or two) with parchment paper. Preheat the oven to 250F, and begin making the popcorn. If using already made, unbuttered popcorn, skip to step 5.
- In a large heavy-bottomed large stockpot or dutch oven, add the oil and three popcorn kernels, heating over high heat. Cover the pan. These are the "test kernels" and once they pop, it signals that the oil is officially hot enough to pop all the kernels at the same time.
- Meanwhile, measure out the remaining 1/2 cup of popcorn kernels. Once the three test kernels have popped, immediately add the 1/2 cup of popcorn kernels to the pan. Cover and remove from heat, gently swirling from side to side for 20 seconds. Return the pan to the heat, and the popcorn kernels will almost immediately begin popping.
- If needed, you can gently shake the pan side to side to allow any remaining kernels to make it to the bottom of the pan to pop, but don't remove it from the heat. Once the popping has slowed or just stopped, pour the popcorn into a large mixing bowl.
- In a small saucepan, whisk together brown sugar, maple syrup, corn syrup, and salt. Bring to a simmer and let the mixture simmer, without stirring, for 4-5 minutes. Remove from heat and whisk in small cubes of butter, vanilla extract, and baking soda. The mixture will foam up, but just keep whisking.
- Pour the caramel mixture over popcorn while stirring it, if possible. Work quickly, as it will be sticky, and stir to coat. Then transfer the popcorn to the baking sheet and spread it in a single layer. Bake for 1 hour to an 1 hour and 15 minutes, stirring in 15-minute increments to ensure no spots burn and the popcorn is evenly coated.
- Let the popcorn cool, then transfer to store in an airtight container at room temperature for 5-7 days.
Disclaimer: The nutritional information provided for this recipe is only an estimate. The accuracy of the facts listed is not and cannot be guaranteed.