Tuesday, April 20, 2010

The Trick to Making Crisp Caramel Corn

Popcorn has been a favorite afterschool snack since I was a kid. It might be the first thing I learned to cook. We had an old aluminum pot, probably about 2 quart capacity. I knew precisely how much oil to add to the pot without measuring it, and how many kernels should cover the bottom of the pot to ensure that when most of the kernels were popped the cover would lift off the pot, floating like a crowd surfer over an inch or two of popcorn.
(Learn steps, tips, and warnings for crowd surfing.)

In my own kitchen I have a dedicated popcorn pot. It’s huge - like 10 quart capacity. I was probably hungry when I bought it. To serve regular, salted popcorn to my popcorn-loving family of four, I cover the bottom of the pot with canola oil, heat it over medium-high heat for a minute or so, then add 1 cup of kernels. Cover and let nature run its course. When popping slows, remove the lid quickly (moisture and excess oil from the popped corn will have accumulated on the lid), dump the popcorn into a big bowl and salt generously. Kurt recommends Morton’s popcorn salt - a finer salt. I have some but still kinda prefer my salt-shaker of Redmond Real Salt.

Caramel corn is a different bird. When I was a kid we made it every once in a while, using a recipe from the Joy of Cooking, molasses and butter. It was good, don’t get me wrong, but nothing to write home about. When my daughter was researching Cracker Jack, which made its debut at Chicago’s first World’s Fair in 1893, we made a batch from a recipe another parent found online. This one called for brown sugar instead of molasses (an improvement, to be sure). It was better than both regular Cracker Jack and my childhood version. What made it better than Cracker Jack was the butter, and what made it better than the Joy of Cooking recipe, in addition to the molasses/brown sugar substitution, was that after sousing the corn with caramel, you bake it on a sheetpan in the oven. The final result was crispier and snappier. And it’s good for a few days, if you can keep your mitts off it that long.

Caramel Corn
Print recipe only here

Candy thermometer
Sheet pan

2 T canola oil
½ cup popcorn kernels
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup light brown sugar
1 stick unsalted butter
½ cup light corn syrup
¼ teaspoon baking soda

Heat oil in a large pot over medium-high heat. Add popcorn. Shake pan occasionally as corn pops. Keep over the heat until popping slows down.

Empty popped corn into a large bowl. Add salt and flip to distribute evenly. Transfer to a baking sheet.

Heat oven to 250.

Partially melt butter in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat. Add brown sugar, corn syrup and baking soda and bring to a boil. Cook, without stirring, until mixture reaches 235 on a candy thermometer, about 8 minutes. Remove from heat and pour over popcorn, stirring with a heat-resistant spatula or buttered spoon. Work quickly to spread it evenly.

Bake popcorn for 20-30 minutes, stirring every 5-10 minutes to continue coating uniformly. Remove pan from oven; cool on a wire rack or a cool cook top. Allow to cool for a few minutes, then break apart any clumps of popcorn using your hands or two teaspoons.

Still hungry? Try Kettle Corn!

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