I can’t quite remember what made me decide that I wanted to make caramel popcorn, but I can remember why I decided to try a microwave version – I just don’t see the point of spending well over an hour preparing something that will be gone in less than 20 minutes. And, while I’m not psychic, I had a feeling about this stuff…
As always, I did plenty of internet research and reviewed a good number of recipes and recipe reviews (this always works for me, as I’m more interested in the experiences of other people who tried the recipe than in the originator, who will naturally propose it as a winner). In the end, I combined bits from different recipes, as well as some things I’d learned before and ended up with a great result (which – between mom, dad and me – didn’t last longer than the time it took for me to prepare the photos for this post!)
(The ingredient list was primarily based on a 5-star Allrecipes.com recipe)
This is how I made 5 cups of delicious, chewy caramel popcorn in approximately 12 minutes:
1/8 cup margarine
½ cup brown sugar (I used treacle sugar because it was already open – worked fine)
2 tablespoons corn syrup/ liquid glucose (Second batch update: OR golden syrup)
¼ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon vanilla extract
1/8 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda (baking soda)
The quantities may seem a little unusual, this is because most of the recipes I read made 20 cups. That is quite a lot of caramel popcorn, and this was a first attempt, where I prefer to go smaller with quantities just in case my taste differs completely from everyone elses (hey, it happens with men, it could just as easily happen here; they’re not that different from popcorn are they?) So I divided everything by 4, which led to the quantities given above.
2 x 1.5l glass bowl with lid (or a plate that fits fairly securely on the bowl)
0.5l glass or microwave-proof bowl
Oven gloves, or thickly folded kitchen cloth (the bowls get seriously hot in the microwave)
Popping the corn
The first thing I researched is how much unpopped corn you need to make 5 cups of popped corn. There is a little variation in the answers to that question, but most people seemed to agree that 2 tablespoons of kernels will give you approximately 5 cups. I’m happy to report that that was my experience too. I had a slightly heaped 2nd spoon, so ended up with just over 5 cups. The bowl I used to pop this amount holds 1.5 litres.
In order to get only a little amount in the tablespoon and to have control over pouring, I cut just a small triangular opening on the corner of the popcorn packet. 2 tablespoons of unpopped popcorn in a 1.5l bowl looks like this (in case you want to count the kernels):Now, about the bowl….
A number of recipes recommend using brown paper bags to make popcorn in the microwave, with some suggesting paper grocery bags. I cannot imagine using a used grocery bag, and I don’t generally have unused brown paper bags around the house. So, I always use a bowl. The key to making popcorn this way is to use a glass or ovenproof bowl. Note: ovenproof, not microwave-proof (i.e. not plastic). The reason for not using a plastic bowl is that, as the kernels reach popping temperature, the heat causes the plastic to melt slightly, pocking the surface of the bowl (and sometimes leaving a brown scorch mark too). So glass bowls are definitely the way to go for this.
And, of course, ensure that your bowl has a lid. And that, when popping the corn, you put the lid on. Because, unless you’re Calvin and Hobbes, this scenario is unlikely to give quite as much pleasure:
In our 1000W microwave, I set the timer to 5 minutes on 100% power. The first kernels started popping after a minute, and then the rest jumped right in (so to speak). The best way to track progress is to listen to the frequency of pops – lots of pops means there’s still a way to go, fewer pops means it’s closer to the end. I like to take mine out when there are still a few random pops, otherwise I think the risk of burning is too high. Mine was ready at 4 minutes and 8 seconds.
Using oven gloves, (or that thickly folded kitchen towel) take the bowl out of the microwave. Using a spoon, or similar, transfer the popped kernels into the other bowl, so that the unpopped kernels are left behind in the first bowl (you don’t want those in the final product).
Place the margarine, sugar, corn syrup, salt and vanilla in a microwave-proof bowl (I used a glass bowl again, but just because it was the right size). As an aside, most of the caramel popcorn recipes use butter, but I only stick to butter when making shortbread or butter biscuits. For sweets and other treats I haven’t yet noticed a significant difference in using margarine instead. It’s cheaper, we always have it, and it’s softer and easier to work with when I want a slightly unusual quantity.
Heat for another minute. At this point, if you’re watching it (and you should be – hot sugar-based items in the microwave should never be left unattended), you should see biggish lighter colour bubbles forming as the caramel boils. After the minute, remove and stir once or twice. Initially, the mixture will be a slightly lighter colour, but stirring it will return it to the dark colour from before. The mixture should be slightly thicker and the sugar dissolved.
Add the bicarbonate of soda (baking soda) and stir well. I didn’t notice much of a change in the caramel, but have read that leaving the bicarb out results in really awful, separated caramel that should not be eaten, so don’t be fooled. Experience update: This popcorn is becoming somewhat of a Saturday morning rugby tradition, with a batch made at half-time during the exciting matches almost every week. I used “fresher” bicarb in the latest batches, and definitely noticed the effect of its work. You should actually see the dark mixture transforming into a caramel-coloured slightly foamy sauce as you stir the bicarb in, like this:
Put the lid on the bowl and heat in the microwave on 100% for 1 minute. At 30 seconds, remove with gloves and stir through again. At 1 minute, do the same. Experience update: In my haste to return to a particularly exciting game after the half-time break, I skipped this step one morning. It made no real difference at all. As long as you have managed to stir all the syrup through, and all the popcorn has a coating, it seems that this step is not a necessity. (What is does do is soften any hardened syrup and enable further stirring to ensure all the popcorn is coated, if not already achieved.) What I did notice though, is that skipping the heating of the coated popcorn seemed to leave the popcorn in the end product slightly “crispier” and a little bit less chewy, so if this is your preference, you might want to purposefully skip this step.
- Tip the coated popcorn on to a baking sheet and spread out to cool. Or rather, try to spread it out; it’s not as easy as it seems, but give achieving a single layer of individual pieces your best shot.
- When cooled, break up any clumps. (Ok, I’ll be honest. I broke most of them up. But, really, it was far easier just to eat a lot of them as I worked. And I was going to eat it anyway, so where’s the harm?)
And, that’s it!
Oh yes, apparently you should store leftovers in an airtight container, or they will go chewy (and not the good kind of chewy it is at the start). To which the only real response is “Leftovers? Ha ha!”
Second batch update: I made another 5 cup batch today, during half-time of a rugby game (yes, it’s that quick!). Given the scarcity of liquid glucose here, and the relative cost, I decided to try using golden syrup instead. The taste is ever so slightly different (which you wouldn’t know unless you tried both versions close together like I did) but still absolutely delicious. There is also no noticeable effect on the caramel or popcorn texture, so I will definitely use golden syrup again.