This homemade caramel popcorn recipe has the perfect crunch as you bite into each handful of candy coated kernels. Only seven ingredients are needed to create a classic popcorn snack on the stove top!
Homemade caramel popcorn is an easy to make treat prepared on the stove top with just seven simple ingredients. One of my favorite childhood snacks is a vibrant red and white striped box of Cracker Jacks. There’s something nostalgic about eating an entire box piece by piece and anticipating the prize included at the bottom.
I wanted to recreate a simple version Cracker Jacks using available pantry ingredients like popcorn kernels, peanuts, cinnamon, and sugar. The recipe starts with making a classic caramel to glaze over the popped kernels and peanuts. These honey-flavored clusters give an irresistible crisp crunch as you devour each candy-coated handful.
How to make caramel popcorn
- Popcorn kernels: Light and crispy popcorn can be made easily in a large pot with the direct heat from the stove in just 5 minutes! The water contained inside each kernel turns to steam when enough heat is applied, literally making them explode into edible tender grains. Make sure to continuously shake the pan to distribute the heat and get each kernel cooked evenly. I like the control of this method better than the microwave. However, you can use microwaved or pre-popped popcorn for this recipe as a substitute.
- Caramel sauce: It starts with heating granulated sugar and water to begin the caramelization process. Once you see the color of the sugar turn to a golden amber and look like thin molten lava in appearance, make sure to remove the pot immediately from the heat to slow the cooking process. Caramelization occurs around 338°F. A Digital Oil & Candy Thermometer is a great kitchen tool to help you monitor the temperature changes of the sugar.
It’s incredible how combining sugar and water can create a honey-flavored candy coating. The enhanced flavors transform the popcorn into and entirely different taste experience.
The peanuts cook at the same time as the sugar caramelizes, until and a golden amber color is achieved. Adding a small amount of butter helps to prevent sticky popcorn after the caramel clusters are cooled.
A light dusting of cinnamon is tossed in with the popcorn before coating with the caramel sauce. This process naturally enhances the sweetness and gives a nice lingering flavor of the warm spice.
Once the popcorn is mixed with the caramel, it will be very hot and sticky. Try not to touch the mixture until after it cools completely on a greased sheet pan to prevent burns. It will be one of the hardest tests of will power!
The crunchy salty roasted peanuts add a nice crunch. This caramel popcorn stores well for a few days in an airtight container so that you can give them to others as a tasty gift, or sneak them into a movie theater, just sayin’. Each bite is more addicting than the last, so one batch won’t last long!
How temperature creates a caramel
When caramelizing sugar, it’s important to pay attention to how the sugar changes appearance and consistency as heat is applied over time. The sugar granules liquefy and change form from solid to liquid. As the temperature rises above 300 °F, the color turns from clear to golden brown. If you leave the caramelized sugar over the heat too long, the result will be an overcooked and almost burnt taste. Sugars brown and caramelize at 338°F, and burn at 375°F. That is a pretty tight window from being delicious to inedible.
Homemade Caramel Popcorn
- 3 tablespoons vegetable oil
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1/4 cup corn kernels, 3 cups popped corn for recipe
- 1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 3/4 cup granulated sugar
- 2 tablespoons water
- 1 1/4 cups peanuts, dry roasted unsalted
- 1 pinch kosher salt
- 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
- In a large heavy pot (5-6 quarts size), heat the oil and 1/2 teaspoon salt over medium-high heat. Add 1 to 2 kernels and cover pot. When the kernels pop, immediately insert the ¼ cup of kernels and cover pot.
- Gently shake the pot, sliding it over the burner until the popping slows to a few seconds between pops. This should take around 4 to 5 minutes. Listen for the popping to stop. Turn off the heat and pour popcorn on a sheet pan to cool.
- In a medium size bowl, add 3 cups of the cooled popcorn. Sprinkle cinnamon over the popcorn. Toss until evenly coated.
- Lightly spray a sheet pan with baking spray. Grease the bottom of a spatula with the baking spray.
- In a large saucepan, combine sugar with two tablespoons of water. Cook over medium heat, occasionally stirring until the sugar is dissolved and the liquid is clear. Use a heat stable on-metallic spoon for stirring.
- Add the peanuts and pinch of salt. Increase heat to high and cook, constantly stirring, until the sugar begins to turn amber at the edges. About 2 to 3 minutes. The sugar will look granular but will melt into a caramel with time.
- Continue cooking and stirring to even out the color for another 4 to 6 minutes, until the caramel is liquid and medium amber in color. Be careful as the caramel can become burnt if cooked too long.
- Turn off heat and remove the pan from the stove. Add the butter, and quickly stir.
- Immediately add 3 cups of popcorn and stir until evenly coated with the caramel.
- Carefully and quickly pour the caramel popcorn mixture onto the greased sheet pan. Using the greased spatula, spread into a thin layer. Do not touch the caramel popcorn because it is extremely sticky and hot.
- Cool the caramel popcorn at room temperature for 1 hour or until the mixture is completely cool and has hardened.
- Break the caramel popcorn into small clusters and store in an airtight container for up to 5 days.