If you’ve ever been disappointed with the consistency of your homemade caramel popcorn, you know how important it is to cook the caramel just right. Get it wrong, and your sweet treat will be too sticky or too hard to enjoy. When it’s done well, caramel popcorn is crunchy, salty, sweet, and delightfully chewy all at the same time.
What is Caramel?
Caramel refers to many different types of sauce or candies. It can be blonde or dark golden brown, silky and soft like a sauce, or crunchy like the top of a crème brulee. One thing you don’t want caramel to be is crystallized. Crystallization gives caramel an unpleasant, grainy texture. It happens when sugar sticks to the sides of the pain, usually from too much stirring.
Caramel is made by using one of two methods.
1. Wet Method
Wet method caramel comes in many variations. Simply put, it is sugar with some type of liquid. Water, butter, heavy cream, or condensed milk are a few options with plain water being the most common. Many recipes for homemade caramel popcorn also include corn syrup.
2. Dry Method
Dry method caramel contains only one ingredient, sugar. This method calls for melting white granulated sugar slowly in a heavy pot until it melts and turns brown. Though the ingredient list is simple, the dry method is actually the more difficult technique to master.
The Secret to Chewy Homemade Caramel Popcorn
Caramel isn’t difficult to make at home, but it takes practice. It burns easily, can be too sticky, too grainy or so hard it practically takes a hammer to break off a piece.
Ouch, be careful of your teeth! While caramel corn with a dark, crispy caramel is popular, there’s nothing like the old-fashioned popcorn snack made with a soft, chewy version of caramel. It’s not too thick and not too runny. The caramel remains soft, adding the perfect contrast to crunchy popped corn.
The most reliable way to make chewy caramel is by using the wet method. Adding liquid such as cream, water or corn syrup will create a gooey sauce. More liquid makes a runny sauce to drizzle on ice-cream, less for the thick sauce used for coat apples or making solid candies.
Trouble-Shooting Your Homemade Caramel
You’ve got the movie picked out, and the pizza is on the way. All that’s left for the perfect movie night at home is some ooey, gooey, old-fashioned caramel popcorn. The popcorn part is simple, but making caramel like grandma’s can be a little intimidating. Fortunately, fixing caramel that’s gone wrong is possible and may even be easier than you think.
Adding fat (from butter or cream) makes caramel smooth and rich, but it also increases the chances of the ingredients separating or splitting, Instead of a luxurious, thick sauce you end up with a gloppy golden brown mess with fat solids swimming on the top. You may save a split caramel by following these steps:
- Let the caramel cool, then gently reheat while stirring consistency
- Add water and stir while reheating. The amount of water doesn’t need to be precise. If it’s too much—resulting in a too-thin sauce—just let the extra liquid boil off.
- Reheat and cool down slowly. Since fats melt and solidify at a different rate than sugar, gentle changes in the temperature can repair or prevent a split sauce to begin with.
Crunchy, crispy caramel has its place, but caramel that’s too hard is inedible The solution for this is easy. Add water or cream and reheat slowly with constant stirring.
This is the most disappointing of all caramel fails. Caramel that’s a little too thick, a little too thin, or a little too crunchy is usually still delicious. But caramel that’s lumpy with sandy grains of sugar is not fun at all to eat.
The most reliable way to prevent the crystallization that results in a grainy consistency is to add corn syrup or some other type of glucose syrup. Glucose syrup inhibits crystallization because its molecules are larger than sugar molecules. Simply put, glucose molecules “get in the way” when sugar molecules try to bond and form larger crystals.
Another way to prevent crystallization is to resist the urge to stir while the sugar is caramelizing. Stirring leaves bits of sugar on the sides of the pan where there is no moisture to interrupt them. Once a sugar crystal is formed, it grows quickly and easily.
If you’ve done everything right—or even if you haven’t—and you still end up with a grainy caramel, water is the solution. Allow the mixture to cool, add water, and gently reheat.
Luckily, lovers of old-fashioned chewy caramel popcorn don’t have to rely solely on their own kitchen skills in order to enjoy this tasty treat. Candy companies like Gary’s Caramel Corn that focus on small-batch production with high-quality ingredients can ship a batch of gooey goodness directly to your door. Movie night just got that much more fun.