This isn't your typical caramel popcorn recipe. It's easy to make and way better and fresher than any store-bought version. The sweetness of the caramel mixed with the saltiness of the popcorn is the perfect combination! The absolute best caramel popcorn recipe out there, it's quick to make and will have people reaching for more…down to the last kernel!
✔️ Quick Recipe Overview
Why this is the BEST homemade caramel popcorn recipe: It's easy to make with a distinct yummy caramel taste in every bite! This is the perfect caramel popcorn to make at home. And, it's an amazing grazing snack and is crazy addictive!
How Long It Takes: Start to finish, this recipe takes 45 minutes to make.
Equipment You'll Need: cookie sheet, parchment paper, saucepan
Oh my goodness y'all...I just made an incredible batch of caramel popcorn! This is the best popcorn recipe and it has to be the simplest version of caramel corn I've ever made. And, you don't need a popcorn machine or a microwave to make it! If you're a kettle corn or moose munch popcorn fan, you're going to enjoy this version. It has an even coating of caramel over every piece and is crunchy, lightly caramelized, and utterly delicious! A true family favorite that is perfect for snacking!
ℹ️ Why This Recipe Works
1. The homemade caramel is easy to make and uses the simplest ingredients!
2. You'll enjoy a light crunch with every bite. The caramel is not sticky and it lightly coats the popcorn kernels perfectly.
3. The variations are endless! Use this recipe as a base to make the most delicious bourbon caramel popcorn or popcorn balls!
4. It's great all year long, but wonderful during the holiday season. It also makes a great gift for your friends, family, and teachers!
I'm telling you, it's absolutely addictive. I have a really hard time putting the bowl down and walking away. And if I'm being honest, I'm not a huge fan of kettle corn or deeply caramelized sweet popcorn. I like flavored popcorn the most, but this caramel popcorn is just over the top scrumptious!
🛒 Ingredients You'll Need
It only takes five ingredients to make this recipe. And since this is a great base recipe to make bourbon caramel popcorn, I've included bourbon as an optional ingredient. To make this as easy as possible, buy a pre-popped bag of popcorn at the store. Any brand will work but I use SkinnyPop because it's guilt free. And, by using a bag of popped popcorn, you don't have to worry about biting into an unpopped kernel. I typically make this with the original flavor popcorn, but I've also used a butter flavor with this recipe and it was phenomenal!
A lot of caramel corn recipes use baking soda and/or cream of tarter in their ingredient lists. When baking soda is added to the caramel sauce, it will foam up and increases in volume. It becomes a thick and heavy hard caramel you typically find on store bought versions. I like a lighter caramel coating versus a full coverage of caramel which is why I don't use baking soda in this particular recipe.
You can use either salted or unsalted butter with this recipe. If you have a sweet tooth, then use unsalted butter. I don't add any salt to this recipe so if you want to cut some of the sweetness, use salted butter. Use light corn syrup. It adds sweetness and it helps prevent the sugar from crystallizing before the caramel forms. I prefer using dark brown sugar over light brown sugar because it contains more molasses and that's what helps give the caramel popcorn a robust flavor.
If you're going to make a bourbon-based caramel popcorn, use either Jim Beam or Maker's Mark. Both are easy to find, not overly expensive, and great to use when cooking. When I make my Slow Cooker Pulled Pork with Bourbon-Peach Barbecue Sauce, I use Jim Beam. It's mellow and low proof and that's what makes it a great choice when making homemade caramel corn.
📋 Step-by-Step Recipe Instructions
Start by opening a 4.4-ounce bag of SkinnyPop and pour the entire bag into a large mixing bowl. Set aside. Go ahead and preheat your oven to 300°F. From there, line a large cookie sheet with parchment paper.
In a medium saucepan, combine the unsalted butter, dark brown sugar, and light corn syrup.
Over medium heat, melt the ingredients until they come to a rolling boil. Stir the caramel mixture the entire time the ingredients are melting and coming to a boil. Once the mixture comes to a rolling boil, it will slowly start to thicken. Let the caramel sauce slowly boil for 3 minutes ensuring you are constantly stirring.
Once the 3 minutes is up, remove the saucepan from the heat and slowly stir in the vanilla extract. Once the caramel is well mixed, pour it over the big bowl of popcorn and stir with a non-stick spoon or spatula until it is well combined. You want to ensure you don't have any uneven globs of caramel on the kernels.
Transfer the popcorn to the baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Ensure it is spread out in a flat and even layer. The kernels should now be lightly coated with the caramel sauce.
Place the cookie sheet in the oven and bake for 30 minutes, stirring once halfway through. Once done, remove the cookie sheet from the oven and allow it to cool for 15 minutes before serving.
My favorite variation of this caramel popcorn recipe is to turn it into a bourbon caramel popcorn. The bourbon caramel sauce is so flavorful! The alcohol will cook out but it leaves a subtle hint of bourbon that pairs amazingly well with the buttery caramel coating and let me tell you...it is undeniably delicious! When you add bourbon, it changes the consistency of the typical caramel corn and makes the popcorn more light, airy, and crisp.
If you're adding in bourbon, you'll add it after the caramel sauce has boiled for 3 minutes. Before adding it, remove the saucepan from the heat and slowly stir in the bourbon. Expert Tip: Be prepared…when you add the bourbon to the caramel sauce, it's going to sizzle and splatter so be prepared to take a step back. Using a non-stick spoon or spatula, stir until it is well combined. Spread evenly on the cookie sheet and bake according to the recipe instructions.
If you want to turn this into popcorn caramel balls, simply roll the popcorn into a tennis ball size and place it on the cookie sheet and bake for 20 minutes. If you want to add nuts or chocolate, add them after the caramel sauce has been mixed with the popcorn. I recommend using chocolate chunks instead of chocolate chips so they don't melt while baking in the oven.
👩🍳 Serving Options
Turn this into an elegant snack or appetizer by serving the caramel popcorn in stemless wine glasses. I like to put white tissue paper in the glass and then place the popcorn on top. You can also use festive tissue paper during the holiday season! When you're having friends and family over, serve it in a large bowl with tongs or a large spoon so everyone can enjoy it. During the holiday break, I leave a big bowl of this on the counter so my husband and kids can grab a handful when they are in and out. It's the perfect snack for grazing!
I also love giving it as a gift during the holiday season. Popcorn tins are relatively easy to find online or you can use an old tin that may be lying around your house. You can also use clear bags and seal them with festive ribbon. The options are truly endless! Regardless of how you serve this, it's guaranteed to be a crowd pleaser!
🙋🏼 Frequently Asked Questions
I typically see homemade caramel popcorn get soggy when the caramel sauce is too thick and when it isn't cooked long enough. With this recipe, the caramel sauce does not use baking soda which ensures a less dense consistency. The magic time to boil the sauce is 3 minutes. Anything more will cause the sauce to become soggy. A 3 minute boil is the key to keeping the caramel corn crisp.
As long as it maintains a rolling boil for 3 minutes at medium heat, it won't scorch. Remove it from the heat at the 3-minute mark.
While there are a lot of similar recipes that can be made in the microwave, this recipe needs to be made on the stovetop. Maintaining a consistent heat while stirring for a certain amount of time is the key to success with this recipe.
It will last for 2-3 weeks! But I can guarantee, people will eat it up way before then.
Store this in a large bowl, a tin, or a sealable bag. Another key to keeping it crispy is allowing air to get to it so I typically leave it uncovered and in a bowl. If you choose to cover it, that is also ok. It won't get soggy. Store it at room temperature for best results.
💭 Expert Tips
- Don't be afraid to get your hands dirty with this recipe. While I like to use a spatula to mix the caramel, I also like using my hands (once it has cooled down a bit) to ensure all the kernels are evenly covered. I use the same method when spreading the popcorn on the cookie sheet.
- If you're making bourbon caramel popcorn, don't expect a "boozy" bourbon flavor. The bourbon adds a very subtle hint of flavor.
- If you like sweet and salty popcorn, add ½ teaspoon of salt to the caramel sauce or use a salted butter.
- To make it even more festive, drizzle on thin lines of melted dark or white chocolate! To do this, take a whisk and dip it into the bowl of melted chocolate wafers and then drizzle on top of the popcorn.
🍿 More Popcorn Recipes
If you're looking for more recipes to make using popcorn, check out these Marshmallow Popcorn Hearts. Drizzled with pink white chocolate, they’re sweet treats for kids or adults! And, you can never go wrong with a snack mix. Bursting with a sweet and salty flavor, this is a perfect snack that everyone can enjoy!
I can’t wait to hear how this recipe turned out for you! If you’ve tried this or any other recipe of mine on the website, make sure you rate the recipe. You can also leave a comment below! I love hearing from you! And make sure you sign up for my newsletter!
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Easy Homemade Caramel Popcorn
- 1 4.4 ounce bag SkinnyPop Popcorn, (6 cups in a bag)
- 6 tablespoons butter
- ⅓ cup dark brown sugar
- 3 tablespoons light corn syrup
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 4 tablespoons bourbon, Jim Beam or Maker's Mark
- Open the bag of SkinnyPop Popcorn and pour the entire bag into a large mixing bowl. Set aside.
- Preheat the oven to 300°F. Line a large cookie sheet with parchment paper.
- In a medium saucepan, combine the butter, dark brown sugar, and light corn syrup. Over medium heat, melt the ingredients until they come to a rolling boil. Stir the mixture the entire time the ingredients are melting as well as when it comes to a boil.
- Let the caramel sauce boil for 3 minutes while constantly stirring. Your mixture will start to thicken a little.
- Once the 3 minutes is up, remove the saucepan from the heat and add the vanilla extract.
- Once the caramel is well mixed, pour it over the big bowl of popcorn and stir with a rubber spatula. The popcorn should now be coated with the caramel mixture.
- Transfer the popcorn to the baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Ensure the popcorn is spread out in an even layer.
- Bake for 30 minutes, stirring once halfway through.
- Once done, cool for 15 minutes before serving. Store any leftovers in a bowl or resealable container.
To Make Bourbon Caramel Popcorn
- Follow steps 1-4 above.
- After the caramel sauce has boiled for 3 minutes, add in the bourbon at the same time you add in the vanilla extract. Before adding it, remove the saucepan from the heat and slowly stir in the bourbon. Expert Tip: When you add the bourbon to the caramel sauce, it's going to sizzle and splatter so be prepared to take a step back.
- Stir the caramel sauce and popcorn until it is well combined. Spread evenly onto the cookie sheet and place it in the oven.
- Bake for 30 minutes, stirring once halfway through.
- Once done, cool for 15 minutes before serving.
- Use a non stick saucepan and non stick utensils when making this recipe.
- Don't be afraid to get your hands dirty with this recipe. While I like to use a spatula to mix the sauce, I also like using my hands (once it has cooled down a bit) to ensure all the popcorn kernels are evenly covered. I use the same method when spreading the popcorn in the cookie sheet.
- If you're making bourbon caramel popcorn, don't expect a "boozy" bourbon flavor. The bourbon adds a very subtly hint of flavor.
- If you like sweet and salty popcorn, add ½ teaspoon of salt to the sauce or use a salted butter.
- To make it even more festive, drizzle on thin lines of melted dark or white chocolate! To do this, take a whisk and dip it into the bowl of melted chocolate wafers and then drizzle on top of the caramel popcorn.
- As long as it maintains a rolling boil for 3 minutes at medium heat, the sauce won't scorch. Remove it from the heat at the 3 minute mark.
- Don't attempt to make this in the microwave.
- Store this in a large bowl, a tin, or a sealable bag. Store it at room temperature for best results. This recipe is good for 2-3 weeks.
Update Notes: This post was originally published in December 2018, but was re-published with updated instructions and pictures in December 2021.
- Recipe inspired by: The Brewer & The Baker