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These Spicy Caramel Popcorn Clusters can go from football party to holiday party without missing a beat. Just mix chili powder into an EASY caramel sauce, pour over popped popcorn, and you're ready to go!
Photography Credit:Nick Evans
During the holiday season, I always try to have some homemade snacks on hand for any guests or family, such as these spicy caramel popcorn clusters.
But let’s get real here: sometimes it’s just for myself because it’s the holidays and I will absolutely treat myself.
What’s in a Popcorn Cluster?
These spicy popcorn clusters are my latest addictive snack, and they’re great in a big bowl. The combo of spicy chili and cayenne with sweet and chewy caramel is about as good as it gets. Once you have your popcorn popped, make the spicy caramel sauce and toss everything together. It’s pretty delicious stuff and is my favorite wheelhouse of snacks (spicy and sweet)!
My trick to making these great is to stir half of the spice mixture into the caramel, but then reserve half of it for sprinkling right on the popcorn.
The Best Way to Pop the Popcorn
You can pop this popcorn using your favorite method, but I’d definitely pop it yourself instead of using store-bought microwaved popcorn.
If you have an air popper, you can absolutely use that—it’s my go-to for everyday popcorn. For these clusters, however, I like popping them in a big pot with a little oil.
If you are using the pot method, add enough oil to lightly cover the bottom of the pot, which for me is usually about three tablespoons. Add one kernel to the oil and place the pot over medium heat. When that kernel pops, you know your oil is the right temperature.
Remove that kernel with tongs and add the rest of the kernels. Cover with a lid and shake the pot vigorously over the heat as the popcorn pops.
The popcorn is done when the popping slows to one pop ever few seconds. You will probably have some unpopped kernels, but that’s better than burned popcorn!
- Check out our step-by-step instructions: How to Make Perfect Popcorn on the Stove Top
Easy Caramel Popcorn!
I’m far from a caramel expert, but I find this version to be pretty forgiving and easy for even a beginner cook.
Using a medium pot, you just melt the butter over medium heat and then stir in the brown sugar and corn syrup. Stir the caramel slowly as it simmers for 6 to 8 minutes. When it coats the back of your spatula, it’s done. I like to add a little baking powder at the very end of the caramel process which makes the caramel light and bubbly and easier to mix into the popcorn.
No need to use a candy thermometer for this recipe.
How to Form the Clusters
Once you have your caramel ready, pour it into a bowl with the popcorn and peanuts and stir it together well. When you pour the caramel in, work quickly as it will start to set up as soon as it’s off the heat. You’ll have a few minutes before it really solidifies, but don’t go do something else!
After stirring in the caramel, spread the popcorn out on a baking sheet and sprinkle with remaining spice mix. Let it cool and then break it into clusters.
Make Popcorn Balls Instead of Clusters!
If you let the caramel cool to the point where you can touch it but it’s still somewhat pliable, you can shape these into actual popcorn balls for gifts, if that’s your style. Wrap them in plastic and tie them with a bow!
Make Them Nut Free!
Just take the nuts out if you need to. No harm done.
How to Store These Popcorn Clusters
These popcorn clusters keep perfectly at room temperature in an airtight container for a few days, or probably up to a week although I must admit that they didn’t last anywhere close to that long in my house. Make sure the popcorn is completely cooled off before storing.
More Best Snack Recipes
- Perfect Popcorn
- Herb-Spiced Mixed Nuts
- Caramel Corn
- Crispy Air Fryer Chickpeas
- Baked Vegetable and Cream Cheese Wontons
Spicy Caramel Popcorn Clusters Recipe
- 1 cup roasted peanuts
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1 teaspoon chili powder
- 1/2 teaspoon sugar
- 1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
- 1/3 cup popcorn
- 3 tablespoons canola oil
- 1/2 cup unsalted butter
- 1 cup brown sugar
- 1/2 cup light corn syrup
- 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1 Get everything ready: Add roasted peanuts to a large bowl (you'll add the popcorn later). In a separate, small bowl, mix together the spice mixture (salt, chili powder, sugar, and cayenne). Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and set it aside.
2 Pop the popcorn: Add canola oil to a large pot over medium heat. Add one kernel of popcorn to the pot and cover the lid. When that kernel pops, it means your oil is at the right temperature.
Remove the single kernel and pour in all the popcorn. Off the heat, cover the pot and wait 30 seconds to bring all the kernels up to temperature. Return the pot to heat and shake vigorously while the popcorn pops to prevent burning.
When the popping slows to a few seconds between pops, remove from heat and pour into the large bowl with the peanuts. There may be some unpopped kernels, but that’s better than burned popcorn.
- For more detailed instructions on how to pop popcorn, see HERE
3 Make the caramel: Melt the butter in a medium pot over medium heat. Add the brown sugar and corn syrup and stir well to combine. Cook over medium heat for 6 to 8 minutes until the mixture thickens and coats the back of a rubber spatula.
Add half of the spice mixture to the caramel sauce along with the baking powder. Stir well to combine.
4 Coat the popcorn with caramel: Immediately after making the caramel (don't let it get cold), pour it into the popcorn and peanut mixture. Work quickly and stir to combine and coat popcorn.
5 Cool the popcorn: Spread popcorn out on the baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Use a rubber spatula to press the popcorn down into an even layer. Sprinkle popcorn with the remaining spice mixture.
When the popcorn has cooled slightly, you can shape the popcorn into balls if you want, but I prefer it in freeform clusters. These popcorn clusters keep perfectly at room temperature in an airtight container for a few days, or probably up to a week.
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Spicy caramel popcorn
Yesterday was brutally cold and windy in New York City and although I generally tune out when people complain about being bored, I was. I admit it. Jacob and I take a walk somewhere, anywhere — seriously, I may or may not have used “Let’s go buy mama some bourbon!” as an excuse to leave the apartment one recent day — everyday. Even if it is cold that’s what the snowsuit and hat and footmuff and knit blanket (“We lost the baby!”) are for, right?
But yesterday’s weather bested us, and it was a long morning of This Is New York, Tiny Monkey and Jacob chewing on his girlfriend Sophie’s ears before I said, “That’s it! We’re making popcorn!”
It turned out to be an excellent idea. I had intended to make this Spicy Caramel Popcorn from The Craft of Baking in the whirl of holiday gift-worthy treats but talked myself out of it after it seemed everywhere I clicked, another drool-worthy take on caramel popcorn appeared. I guess it is having a moment, huh? I haven’t tried those other recipes so I cannot compare them, I can only tell you that this here is good, very good. And very surprising.
It is salty. And spicy. The caramel isn’t accented with salt and heat, it is balanced with it they’re all equal players out on the field. And the peanuts make you feel like you’re eating Cracker Jacks, for grown-ups. Minus the prize, that is, unless you went on a bourbon run too.
One year ago: Sugar-and-Spice Candied Nuts Oh you should really make these too!
Spicy Caramel Popcorn
Adapted from The Craft of Baking
This is a salty, spicy grown-up caramel popcorn — the taste will surprise you if you are expecting traditional caramel popcorn, and may delight you if you were never into the original.
That said, you might want to dial back both the spice and the salt a little, which is why I include the amounts in a range below. For example, DeMasco suggests using 1 1/2 tablespoons of Kosher salt, I used coarse sea salt instead, which is actually a little less salty, and still found the end result to be quite salty. It is harder to advise you on cayenne levels, as the amount you want to use will hinge on two factors: how much heat your jar of cayenne packs and how much heat you like in your food. The last time you used the suggested amount in a recipe, did it blow the roof of your mouth off, despite the fact that you actually like food with a kick? Mine has, many times, so I measured conservatively.
Want to make a traditional caramel popcorn with no spice or nuts? Just skip the cayenne and peanuts and use only a pinch of salt.
Note: Your volumes will look different from mine in the pictures because I only made a half-batch. Yes, I regretted it.
Nonstick cooking spray or vegetable oil
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
1/2 cup popcorn kernels
2 cups salted peanuts (optional)
1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
1/4 to 3/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper (see Note)
3 cups sugar
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 to 1 1/2 tablespoons kosher or coarse sea salt (see Note)
Lightly coat two large, heatproof rubber spatulas, a very large mixing bowl and two large baking sheets with nonstick cooking spray or a thin slick of oil.
In a large saucepan or pot with a lid, heat the oil over medium-high heat. Add the popcorn kernels, cover and keep the saucepan moving until all of the kernels have popped, about 5 minutes. Transfer to the prepared bowl, removing any unpopped kernels. Toss with salted peanuts, if using.
In a small bowl, whisk together the baking soda and cayenne pepper.
Have the two large baking sheets ready. In a medium saucepan, combine the sugar, butter, salt and 1/2 cup water. Cook over high heat, without stirring, until the mixture becomes a light golden-yellow caramel, 10 to 14 minutes. Remove from the heat and carefully whisk in the baking-soda mixture (the mixture will bubble up).
Immediately pour the caramel mixture over the popcorn and don’t fuss if it doesn’t all come out of the pot — you’ll have plenty. Working quickly and carefully, use the prepared spatulas to toss the caramel and popcorn together, as if you were tossing a salad, until the popcorn is well coated.
Spread the popcorn onto the baking sheets and quickly separate them into small pieces while still warm. Cool to room temperature, about 15 minutes. Once cool, store in an airtight container for up to two weeks or two minutes, if you’ve got a family like mine.
Get The Full (Printable) Microwave Caramel Popcorn Recipe Below!
What’s the difference between caramel corn and kettle corn?
Kettle corn is a simple stovetop popped corn, sprinkled with sugar at the last minute, so the sugar melts over the kernels.
However, caramel corn is popcorn thoroughly covered in a rich caramel candy coating. As the coating cools it hardens and turns crispy.
How long does this recipe last?
Homemade caramel corn can last in an airtight container for up to 2 weeks. Even longer in very dry climates. But if you are anything like my family with teenagers, they won’t last past the night!
How do you revive stale popcorn?
One way you can revive this recipe is by spreading it out on a baking sheet and bake at 250 degrees F for about 5 minutes.
You can also place it in another paper bag and microwave for 1 minute. Then shake vigorously.
Here&rsquos how to make Kicked Up Caramel Popcorn from Frank&rsquos RedHot.
- 12 cups plain popped popcorn
- 1 cup unsalted roasted peanuts
- 1 cup (2 sticks) butter
- 1/3 cup Frank’s® RedHot® Original Cayenne Pepper Sauce
- 1 cup brown sugar
- 1/4 cup light corn syrup
- PREHEAT oven to 275℉. Mix popcorn and peanuts in large bowl. Set aside.
- HEAT butter and RedHot Sauce in medium saucepan on medium heat until butter is melted, stirring to mix well. Stir in brown sugar and corn syrup. Bring to boil, stirring constantly. Boil 6 minutes without stirring.
- POUR RedHot caramel mixture over popcorn and peanuts. Toss to coat evenly with spatula sprayed with no stick cooking spray. Spread evenly on parchment-lined shallow baking pan.
- BAKE 45 minutes, stirring every 15 minutes. Cool completely on wire rack. Break into clusters. Store in airtight container.
Looking at this recipe, it is fairly easy to make, but it should be noted that cooking the brown sugar needs a keen eye. You do not want to walk away from that cooking step. Sugar can burn quickly.
Also, a plain popcorn is probably best. While microwave popcorn can be convenient, it might be best to avoid other flavors on the popcorn. It could compete with the other flavors or cause all the flavors to be muddled.
Lastly, periodic stirring is key. You want to have an evenly cooked snack, not just one big cluster. And, you could use a Silpat on the pan if you don&rsquot have parchment paper.
When thinking about these game day snacks, a great beverage needs to pair with it. While a beer is always a great choice to complement a sweet and salty snack, consider a newer beverage option. The Michelob Ultra Organic Hard Seltzer in the Spicy Pineapple flavor would make for a great flavor pairing. It continues that spicy and sweet flavor story.
Sweet Heat Caramel Corn
We’re starting off the week on a sweet note! With a big bowl of caramel corn! We frequently snack on popcorn in the evenings when we want something to munch on.
While we usually just stick to the healthier varieties, every once in awhile we mix it up with caramel corn.
But now we won’t be satisfied with plain caramel corn, we’ll be wanting more of this sweet heat caramel corn! A perfect combination of sweet and spicy!
This recipe comes from the talented Sally, of Sally’s Baking Addiction, and her new cookbook. Have you seen it yet? Sally’s Candy Addiction is full of tempting treats from truffles and caramels to marshmallows and brittles.
There is also a section filled with recipes that use some of your favorite candies. And one of my favorite parts of cookbooks? A helpful section containing cooking basics and essentials.
When I got the cookbook, I did what I normally do when I can’t decide what to make. I handed the cookbook over to my husband and asked him what he wanted me to make.
He had as much trouble as I did deciding, but we eventually decided on this sweet heat caramel corn. It was a good choice!
This caramel corn is easy to make, even if you’ve never made it before. The instructions were clear, and it wasn’t long before we were munching on this irresistible caramel corn that was the perfect blend of sweet and spicy.
If you make food gifts for the holidays, you’ll want to include this snack to any of your friends and family who love popcorn!
Want to win a copy of your own? Just leave a comment below to enter! Good Luck! (CLOSED)
Can’t wait to see if you win? Buy a copy here! This cookbook would make a great Christmas present for anyone who loves to spend time in the kitchen!
- Heat oil with 3 kernels in a 3-quart heavy saucepan, covered, over moderate heat until 1 or 2 kernels pop. Remove lid and quickly add remaining kernels, then cook, covered, shaking pan frequently, until kernels stop popping, about 3 minutes. Remove from heat and uncover.
- Line bottom of a large shallow baking pan with foil. Lightly oil foil. Melt butter in a 6-quart heavy pot over moderate heat. Add brown sugar and corn syrup and bring to a boil over moderate heat, stirring, then boil, without stirring, until syrup registers 300°F on thermometer, 8 to 10 minutes. Remove pot from heat.
- Using a wooden spoon or a heatproof spatula, stir salt and baking soda into syrup, then quickly stir in peanuts and popcorn to coat. Immediately spread mixture in baking pan as thinly and evenly as possible. Cool completely, then break into bite-size pieces.
This Recipe is Featured In:
Spicy caramel popcorn
This is one of my favourite recipes from my new cookbook ‘Sweet’ which was recently published by Penguin Random House in South Africa. I love the spicy flavours with the sweet and crunchy caramel which seem counter-intuitive but really work. The popcorn is not that hot and delivers a lovely earthy warmth to the mix. I always think I could add some chilli or cayenne pepper to give more of a kick, but erred on the side of caution when I developed the recipe to make it accessible to everyone, including children
I’ve demonstrated this recipe at 2 events since my book launch and everyone goes wild. It’s just one of those recipes. It surprises and delights.
I’m also desperate to get back into blogging after my travels to the US of A and AfrikaBurn. Its been a difficult 10 days since I got back and I’ve struggled with my health. Hopefully, I’m on the mend now and can get back into making recipes and sharing them with you. I’ve also got so many images and stories from my trip to tell so I’ve started the editing and will get them up as soon as possible.
recipe – spicy caramel popcorn
‘This recipe turns ordinary popcorn into something special, worthy of a party. The spice is mild enough to give it an exciting flavour edge, while still suitable for children. You could add more paprika, chilli or cayenne if you want to take the heat up a notch. I use coconut oil when making popcorn – it is a little healthier and gives the popcorn a lovely flavour – but a neutral oil such as sunflower works equally well.’
- 125 g corn kernels
- 10 ml coconut oil, or any other neutral oil
- 5 ml ground cumin
- 5 ml ground cinnamon
- 3 ml paprika
- 5 ml salt
- 2 ml bicarbonate of soda
- 150 g butter
- 200 g granulated white sugar
- 30 ml golden syrup
- 5 ml vanilla extract
Preheat the oven to 120 °C. Line a baking tray with silicone or baking paper.
Make the popcorn any way that you prefer. (I like to use a large skillet with a glass lid.) Transfer the popcorn to a large, deep bowl it should only half fill the bowl, allowing space to toss the sauce.
Mix all the spices and bicarbonate of soda together.
In a medium-size, heavy-based pot bring the butter, sugar, and syrup to the boil. Continue to let it bubble, stirring continuously, until the mixture turns golden-brown and reaches the hard crack stage of 155 °C. Add the vanilla extract and spice mix and stir vigorously for a few seconds, then remove from the heat. Pour the hot caramel over the popcorn and toss to coat.
Spread the caramel-covered popcorn evenly on the prepared baking tray and bake for 15 minutes. Remove it from the oven and toss to ensure it’s evenly coated. Return it to the oven for a further 15 minutes, then remove, toss again and leave to cool.
Special Diet Notes: Sea Salt Caramel Popcorn Clusters
By ingredients, this recipe is dairy-free / non-dairy, egg-free, gluten-free, peanut-free, optionally soy-free, optionally vegan / plant-based, and vegetarian.
For nut-free, dairy-free caramel popcorn clusters, you can certainly sub all popcorn for the nuts or use your nut-free add-ins of choice.
For corn syrup-free, dairy-free caramel popcorn clusters, note that honey is a suitable alternative because it is an invert sugar with a small amount of acid like corn syrup. From what I have read, other liquid sweeteners may not work the same in terms of preventing crystallization.
We’ve tried a lot of recipes looking for good, Easy Homemade Caramel Corn that doesn’t use corn syrup. We’ve finally found one that we love. This popcorn tastes amazing … buttery and caramel-y just the way it should. And no corn syrup required! And it could not be easier to make. It has quickly risen up the list of most requested family treats!
Start with approximately 10 cups of popcorn. Make sure you get out all of the un-popped kernels. You don’t want to bite down on one of those! We pop our popcorn on the stove (you can find our directions on How to Make Perfect Popcorn here) but you can use air-popped or microwave.
Melt 1 cup of butter in a medium saucepan over medium heat.
Add 1 cup of light brown sugar and stir until thoroughly mixed.
Stirring continuously, bring the butter and sugar mixture up to a boil on medium heat. When it reaches a boil allow it to cook for 5 minutes without stirring on medium heat. Add the 2 tsp. of vanilla at the 4 minute mark and mix.
At the 5 minute mark, add the 1/2 teaspoon of baking soda. This will cause the caramel to change colors and foam up a bit. This is the chemical reaction that you want. The bubbling effect of the baking soda will aerate the caramel and make it lighter and smoother and therefore easier to coat the popcorn.
Drizzle the caramel mixture over the popcorn. Use a spoon to gently fold the popcorn with the mixture until the kernels are all covered.
Pour the popcorn out onto a cookie sheet covered with aluminum foil or a silpat liner.
Allow the Easy Homemade Caramel Corn to cool prior to serving.
Our family loves this popcorn so it has never lasted longer than a day at our house. This popcorn definitely tastes best right after it is made but will keep for a few days in an airtight container.
This Easy Homemade Caramel Corn is super delicious – buttery with a distinct yummy caramel taste. And it could not be easier to make. Make up a batch for your family, you won’t be sorry!
Spicy caramel popcorn(Yoon S. Byun/Globe Staff)
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This caramel popcorn has a sweet crunch and subtle heat. Pop the popcorn and toss with salt and spices before you make the caramel. Pour the caramel over the popcorn while very hot and bubbling to ensure even coating.
1/4 cup canola oil
3/4 cup unpopped popcorn kernels
3 teaspoons kosher salt
2 teaspoons chipotle powder
1 teaspoon smoked paprika
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 1/2 cups sugar
1/4 cup cold water
4 tablespoons ( 1/2 stick) butter, cut up
1. Line 2 rimmed baking sheets with parchment paper.
2. In a large heavy-bottomed pot with a tight fitting lid, heat the oil over medium-high heat. When it is hot, add 3 kernels of popcorn. Cover the pot and heat until you hear the kernels pop. When the 3 kernels have popped, remove the pan from the heat and wait for 30 seconds before adding the rest of the popcorn (the oil will be at the perfect temperature for popping). Return the pan to the heat, and cover the pan. Shake the pot occasionally to prevent scorching. Cook for 5 minutes or until all the corn is popped.
3. Add the salt, chipotle, smoked paprika, and cumin.
4. In a heavy-based saucepan over medium heat, combine the sugar and water. Cook without stirring until the sugar dissolves. Turn the heat to medium-high and continue cooking without stirring until the mixture turns a rich amber color.
5. Turn off heat and whisk in butter.
6. Immediately pour the caramel over the popcorn (do not touch it) and stir with a wooden spoon to toss the popcorn with the caramel. Transfer popcorn to the baking sheets. Leave to cool for about 15 minutes or until the caramel has hardened.
7. Break popcorn apart and serve. Catherine Smart. Adapted from backbar