The Science of Caramel Popcorn

Caramel popcorn is one of the most popular snack foods in the world, with a history that dates back hundreds of years. This delicious treat features caramelized sugar and often molasses, which gives it its distinctive flavor and texture.  Growing up my first taste of caramel popcorn had to be Kracker Jack's or popcorn balls from my babysitter.  Both of these are on the end of the spectrum from the caramel popcorn that we wanted to create in the factory.

Kracker Jacks

Kracker Jacks is a classic snack that has been around since the late 19th century. The Caramel Popcorn Company first began selling Caramel Corn in 1896, and Kracker Jacks was created in 1912 as an offshoot of Caramel Corn. Originally, the Caramel Popcorn Company sold Caramel Corn to movie theaters.  Molasses was the dominant flavor - and it had a present inside!

Popcorn Balls

Popcorn balls are an offshoot of kettle corn and are homemade treats of light caramel made with corn syrup, brown sugar, and butter. They became popular in the United States during the late 19th century, and are still a beloved treat today. The original recipe for popcorn balls used only popcorn as the main ingredient, but soon recipes began to incorporate molasses and other ingredients.  But growing up my babysitter only used corn syrup so they were clear and shiny but no real flavor other than sugar. 

So how do we make Hill Country Chocolate Caramel Popcorn?

The most common recipe for caramel popcorn typically includes butter, sugar, brown sugar, corn syrup, salt, baking soda, and kernels of popped corn.

Let’s start by talking a bit about popcorn and more specifically popcorn kernels.

Caramel popcorn is best made with the freshest corn kernels possible. When shopping for popcorn, it's important to look for kernels that are light and fluffy, as these are much more likely to pop into crisp and crunchy popcorn than denser and compact kernels. Additionally, look for popcorn that is organic and non-GMO. 

The type of popcorn matters

Today, most people grow up eating microwave popcorn or popcorn from the movies. These popcorn varieties are often described as "butterfly" or "snowflake" popcorn due to its unique shape. Butterfly popcorn has a large, round kernel that pops into a butterfly-like shape.  This popcorn is perfect for grabbing onto loose powdered cheese or even salt which can stick within the many crevices in this type of popped kernel.

Enter Mushroom Popcorn

Mushroom popcorn looks just like what its name implies - a mushroom. It has a round, round kernel with a slightly wrinkled surface. When popped, it retains its shape and puffiness, lending itself well to caramelizing the outside for delicious caramel popcorn. Caramel popcorn made with mushroom kernels also tends to stay crisper longer than those made with smaller varieties such as snowflake or butterfly.

Popcorn Machines

The Caramel Popcorn Project requires the best popcorn machine for air-popping corn kernels to create the perfect Caramel Popcorn. Growing up in a rural town in the hill country we almost always made stovetop popcorn.  We would put oil and popcorn kernels in a large pop with a lid and shake it on the stovetop while they popped.  Sometimes we would misjudge the volume of kernels, and it would push the lid off and scatter popcorn onto the stove.

 After some research in our test kitchen, it was we found that air-popped popcorn was the best way to achieve the perfect popcorn - light, fluffy and crunchy that will caramelize evenly when sugar syrup is added. 

They use hot air to pop the popcorn kernels (fun factoid: we use a giant hot air popper in the factory to roast our cocoa beans!) rather than oil or butter. This method results in Caramel Popcorn that is low-fat, crispy,  full of flavor, and a healthy snack. Air-popped popcorn machines also tend to produce more popcorn per batch per volume of popcorn kernels than other methods. 

For our test recipes, we found our air-popped popcorn machine on Amazon, but for the factory, we found a local supplier with a giant machine that can supply us with 50 gallons at a time.  These machines are efficient at making popcorn with a minimum amount of burnt kernels and unpopped kernels. Both of these are not pleasant in caramel corn!

We often get asked about “buying popcorn” at the grocery store to make caramel popcorn.  This popcorn is often old, has the wrong variety, and is cooked in coconut oil making it greasy and stale.  In a pinch, you would be better off using microwave popcorn and specifically something like Orville Redenbacher’s All Natural Popcorn. 

Leavening Agents

The recipe used almost always uses baking soda as a leavening agent. This ingredient helps the caramel to expand when it’s heated and creates an even coating of caramel over the popcorn. This adds crunch to the outer surface rather than being the hard texture of plain caramelized sugar which might shatter and crush the kernel as well as break a tooth!

The last step in making caramel popcorn is ensuring each piece of popped corn is coated evenly with the sweet and sticky caramel. To achieve this, the caramel must be heated to the correct temperature (often around 295F to 305F in our factory). This allows the caramel to become liquid enough to evenly coat each kernel of popcorn.  It is then tossed with fresh popcorn.  

To make sure there is an even coating on each kernel, a small amount of lecithin is often used. In our factory, we often mix the lecithin with a bit of canola oil to allow it to be more easily distributed.  

Lecithin is a phospholipid and a natural emulsifier that helps ingredients, like the caramel in Caramel Popcorn, not stick to themselves.  Lecithin is made from a variety of sources, although the most common source is soybeans. 

A word about caramel

 Caramel can be used to make an array of treats from candy to sauces, but the most popular use of caramel is in caramel apples and popcorn. Caramel can also be used as a flavoring ingredient in baked goods or as a topping for desserts. Caramel popcorn is one of the most popular ways to enjoy caramel, with its sweet and crunchy texture that pairs perfectly with the delicious flavor of caramel. 

Back to blog