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The BEST Caramel Popcorn (Gluten-Free!)

The BEST Caramel Popcorn – This easy homemade caramel corn recipe can be made crispy or gooey. You’ll LOVE the incredible flavor!

overhead view of two white bowls of crispy homemade caramel corn

Are you on team gooey caramel popcorn or team crispy caramel popcorn?

I grew up on gooey caramel corn, and while I still love it, I tend to gravitate toward crispy caramel corn these days. Why? Glad you asked:

  • It lasts better and longer than gooey caramel popcorn (holds its texture + keeps for weeks!)
  • It channels all those delicious toffee-caramel flavors I love
  • It’s got a satisfying crispy crunch that’s tough to beat!

Thankfully, our caramel popcorn recipe is also blessedly easy to make (no candy thermometer needed & no fussy ingredients or techniques!) which makes it a delightful movie night snack, or gifts for neighbors and friends during Christmas & the holidays!

Here’s what you need to make a batch of this easy homemade caramel corn recipe…

Overhead view of a large white bowl of homemade caramel corn

Ingredients For Homemade Caramel Corn:

  • Popcorn. Plain popped popcorn (or lightly salted if you must) provides the perfect base for caramel popcorn. (Don’t know how to pop popcorn? Check out the tips below!)
  • Butter. You can use salted or unsalted butter for caramel corn. I usually use salted, but use whichever you keep on hand!
  • Brown Sugar. Plenty of light brown sugar adds the classic caramel-toffee flavor you’re looking for. (It tastes so good!)
  • Corn Syrup. Using corn syrup prevents crystals from forming in the caramel sauce, which gives a gorgeous glossy sheen and delicately crisp coating to every piece of popcorn. It’s worth it!
  • Kosher Salt. A coarser grain of salt, which balances out the sweetness of the caramel sauce. If you’re using a fine grain salt, you’ll want to use less.
  • Vanilla Extract. Plenty of vanilla adds delicious flavor to the caramel.
  • Baking Soda. This reacts with the acidity of the brown sugar, which produces a foamy reaction. Tiny bubbles form in the caramel, which gives the caramel corn a more delicately crispy texture, rather than being dense, chewy, or tooth-cracking hard.
  • Flaky Sea Salt. If you love a salted caramel effect, you can sprinkle the caramel corn with a few flakes of sea salt before you pop it in the oven. This is optional!

How To Make Homemade Caramel Popcorn, Step By Step:

  1. Preheat The Oven & Prep Your Pans. If you’re making crispy caramel popcorn (which we recommend!), preheat the oven to 250 degrees and lightly grease a cookie sheet with spray oil or a little butter.
  2. Start By Popping Your Popcorn. If you haven’t already, pop the popcorn before you begin. Measure 12 cups (3 quarts) of popped popcorn and place in your a very large bowl, discarding any unpopped kernels. (If you have extra popcorn, keep it close by in case you want to add it in later.)
  3. Then Start The Caramel Sauce. In a medium saucepan, combine butter, brown sugar, corn syrup, and salt. Melt over medium heat, stirring regularly until the caramel comes to a boil. (Try not to rush this by cranking the heat up, as dissolving the sugar completely gives you the best texture.)
  4. Boil The Caramel Sauce 5 Minutes. Watch the clock and boil the caramel sauce 5 minutes, stirring constantly.
  5. Remove From Heat & Finish. After 5 minutes, quickly remove the caramel sauce from the heat and whisk in vanilla and baking soda. (This will make the caramel sauce bubble and foam.)
  6. Quickly Pour Caramel Over The Popcorn. Pour the caramel sauce mixture over the popcorn and stir to coat. I recommend pouring about half of the caramel sauce over the popcorn, then stirring and adding the rest of the sauce to any “dry” spots as needed. This makes it a bit easier to coat it evenly. Stir until the caramel is pretty evenly coated. Note: the popcorn will not look full-coverage/completely covered in caramel at this point. (There will still be some white spots visible at this point. This will resolve in the oven.)
  7. Spread The Popcorn Out On Your Prepared Pan. Transfer the caramel corn to the prepared baking sheet and spread out fairly evenly. (Don’t worry about a few clumps here and there!) If desired, sprinkle with a few flakes of flaky sea salt for a salted caramel effect.
  8. Bake The Popcorn. Place the pan of popcorn in the oven and set a timer for 15 minutes. At the 15 minute mark, remove the popcorn from the oven and stir. (The caramel will be more melty and fluid, so the pieces will get more evenly coated with caramel). Return to the oven and bake 15 minute more. Repeat this process two more times, until you’ve baked the caramel popcorn for 60 minutes total.
  9. Spread The Caramel Corn Out Onto Parchment Paper Or Waxed Paper to cool completely to room temperature. Wait until the caramel corn is completely cool before transferring to an airtight container or bags.

Mix It Up! Try stirring in some peanuts or other nuts before baking, or drizzle the cooled, baked caramel corn with white chocolate or dark chocolate for a fun twist!

Front view of a large white bowl of homemade caramel corn
Overhead view of one white bowl of homemade caramel corn

FAQ + Tips And Tricks For The Best Caramel Popcorn

What Does Baking Soda In Caramel Do? Baking soda reacts with the acidity of the brown sugar, which produces a foamy reaction. Tiny bubbles form in the caramel, which aerates and gives the caramel corn a more delicately crispy texture, rather than being dense, chewy, or tooth-cracking hard. This also helps prevent your caramel corn from going soggy.

Can I Make Caramel Popcorn Without Corn Syrup? Corn syrup helps prevent crystallization of the caramel sauce and gives caramel corn its signature glossy sheen and delicate crunch. If you’re nervous, I’d first recommend using this Organic Corn Syrup I find at Sprouts (made without pesticides), but if you MUST use something else, glucose syrup or Lyle’s golden syrup (invert sugar syrup) are the only other substitutes I recommend.

Can I Double This Recipe? Absolutely. Hit the “2x” button in the recipe card to easily double the amounts of ingredients. Then, you just need to use two baking sheets & rotate them every time you stir the popcorn.

How Long Does Caramel Corn Last? Once it’s baked and cooled, homemade caramel corn will keep in an airtight container for at LEAST a month! (Note: if you live in a humid climate, it will not stay as crispy) Gooey caramel popcorn is best eaten within 24 hours.

The Best Ways To Pop Popcorn For Caramel Corn:

If you’ve never popped popcorn before, it’s really easy and there are SO many ways to do it. Here are a few to choose from:

  • Use Loose Kernels In Brown Paper Bags. It’s easy to make chemical-free/oil-free popcorn in your microwave! Add a few tablespoons of popcorn kernels to a plain brown paper bag & follow these directions. Easy!
  • Use Store-Bought Microwave Popcorn. You can use salted or plain microwave popcorn to make caramel corn! Just don’t use buttered or flavored popcorn as it won’t work well. SkinnyPop (no chemicals!) and this Simply Salted popcorn are two great options. (Or, use (chemical-free!) Quinn just sea salt or this one from Quinn Popcorn & skip the butter packet.) You’ll need a little less than 2 bags for this recipe. If you use salted popcorn, you may prefer to reduce the salt in the caramel, using 1/4 teaspoon instead of 1/2 teaspoon.
  • Use An Air Popper. If you’ve got room to store one, this air popper is a classic with more than 13,000 reviews!
  • Make It On The Stove. Go classic and make your popcorn on the stovetop.
  • Use Your Instant Pot. Try making popcorn in the Instant Pot!
Front view of two white bowls of homemade caramel popcorn

WE ♥

Print
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Overhead view of one white bowl of homemade caramel corn

The BEST Caramel Popcorn (Gluten-Free!)


  • Author: Emily Dixon, Sweets & Thank You
  • Total Time: 1 hour 20 minutes
  • Yield: 12 cups popcorn 1x
  • Diet: Gluten Free

Description

This easy homemade caramel corn recipe can be made crispy or gooey. You’ll LOVE the incredible flavor!


Ingredients

Scale
  • 3 quarts (12 cups) popped popcorn
  • 1/2 cup (1 stick/4 oz.) butter
  • 1/2 cup corn syrup (light corn syrup)
  • 1 cup packed brown sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • Optional: flaky sea salt (like Maldon)

Instructions

  1. Preheat The Oven & Prep Your Pans. If you’re making crispy caramel popcorn (which we recommend!), preheat the oven to 250 degrees and lightly grease a cookie sheet with spray oil or a little butter.
  2. Start By Popping Your Popcorn. If you haven’t already, pop the popcorn before you begin. Measure 12 cups (3 quarts) of popped popcorn and place in your largest mixing bowl, discarding any unpopped kernels. (If you have extra popcorn, keep it close by in case you want to add it in later.)
  3. Then Start The Caramel Sauce. In a medium saucepan, combine butter, brown sugar, corn syrup, and salt. Melt over medium heat, stirring regularly until the caramel comes to a boil. (Try not to rush this by cranking the heat up, as dissolving the sugar completely gives you the best texture.)
  4. Boil The Caramel Sauce 5 Minutes. Watch the clock and boil the caramel sauce 5 minutes, stirring constantly.
  5. Remove From Heat & Finish. After 5 minutes, quickly remove the caramel sauce from the heat and whisk in vanilla and baking soda. (This will make the caramel sauce bubble and foam.)
  6. Quickly Pour Caramel Over The Popcorn. Pour the caramel sauce over the popcorn and stir to coat. I recommend pouring about half of the caramel sauce over the popcorn, then stirring and adding the rest of the sauce to any “dry” spots as needed. This makes it a bit easier to coat it evenly. Stir until the caramel is pretty evenly coated. Feel free to stir in some extra popcorn, as desired. Note: the popcorn will not look full-coverage/completely covered in caramel at this point. (There will still be some white spots visible at this point. This will resolve in the oven.)
  7. Spread The Popcorn Out On Your Prepared Pan. Transfer the caramel corn to the greased cookie sheet and spread out fairly evenly. (Don’t worry about a few clumps here and there!) If desired, sprinkle with a few flakes of flaky sea salt for a salted caramel effect.
  8. Bake The Popcorn. Place the pan of popcorn in the oven and set a timer for 15 minutes. At the 15 minute mark, remove the popcorn from the oven and stir. (The caramel will be more melty and fluid, so the pieces will get more evenly coated with caramel). Return to the oven and bake 15 minute more. Repeat this process two more times, until you’ve baked the caramel popcorn for at total of 60 minutes. 
  9. Spread The Caramel Corn Out Onto Parchment Or Waxed Paper to cool completely. Wait until the caramel corn is completely cool before transferring to an airtight container or bags. 

Baked caramel corn will keep in an airtight container about 1 month.

Notes

Prefer Gooey Caramel Popcorn? No problem. Follow the recipe steps 2-7 and skip the bake time in step 8. Spread the caramel corn out on parchment and enjoy warm. Gooey caramel popcorn will begin to harden as it cools, so it’s best enjoyed warm or within 24 hours. 

  • Prep Time: 10 minutes
  • Cook Time: 70 minutes
  • Category: Dessert
  • Method: Stovetop
  • Cuisine: American

Keywords: caramel corn, caramel popcorn, the best caramel popcorn, crispy caramel popcorn, caramel popcorn recipe

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