changing it up
serious evening sun

liberated man: house chef/food scientist

homemade caramel popcorn

This is Meg's husband, Patrick. She asked me to write up the experience of making caramel popcorn for the first time this morning. I based it on a recipe I found in a Ready Made magazine. It was fairly easy, actually, once I figured out how to overcome the problem of crystallized sugar.

First step, make the popcorn. This is just as easy on the stove top as it is in the microwave, and you can avoid all those synthetic chemicals that fool your tastebuds into telling you you're eating butter. Just buy some popcorn kernels and heat a large, covered pot on high for a minute or two. Add some oil to the bottom, which will help ensure that all the kernels get heated equally.

You need to let it get really HOT, at or just below the temperature at which the oil starts to burn. (There is a small amount of water inside the kernel, and you want it to very rapidly reach the boiling point so it causes the kernel to explode. If you start on too low a heat, the pressure generated by the water boiling will escape slowly, and you won't get a fluffy piece of popcorn.) Test the temperature by throwing in a couple kernels. If they pop in 10 seconds or so, you're probably good.

Now throw in all your kernels and cover it. I added a little less than a cup of kernels, and probably got somewhere between 8 and 10 cups of popcorn. Now, wearing your oven mitts, move the pot around over the heat, ensuring that the kernels all receive heat, and shaking so that unpopped kernels fall to the bottom. Like in the microwave, turn off the heat when the popping slows almost to stopping. If you leave the pot closed, some kernels will keep popping. Be sure not to burn the popcorn too much.

Mix in some unshelled peanuts with the popcorn, to taste.

For the caramel, I added about 1 cup of sugar to a saucepan, then 1 cup of water. You heat this on a medium-low heat for about 10 minutes, allowing it to boil and bubble away, stirring often. It should turn a nice golden color at some point. When it's a nice brown, turn down the heat. Then add about 6 tablespoons of butter and stir it in. If you have extra water, like I did, I don't think it's a big deal. You could try to pour it off (since the caramel will sink), but I decided just to pour it over the popcorn and peanuts too.

BE CAREFUL not to touch the hot caramel. It will be scorching hot and STICKY - a bad combination.

The first time I did this, the sugar suddenly crystallized on me, coating my pan with hard rock candy. (If you've ever taken a good chemistry class, you might be familiar with the reason for this. Sugar dissolves in water at higher temperatures and with mixing. As the water boils off, the ratio of sugar to water increases, and the solution can become saturated, meaning no more sugar can dissolve in that amount of water. If you continue boiling off the water or lower the temperature of your mixture (which I did), the solution will become "super-saturated." You have more sugar dissolved in your water than is actually possible to dissolve! This is very unstable, so any disturbance - such as your mixing spoon - will cause the excess sugar to crystallize, touching off a process that will quickly turn your liquid into a solid.)

I think this happened to me because I live at a very high altitude, where water boils at a lower temperature (due to the lower atmospheric pressure). So, when I followed a recipe written for you low-landers, I didn't add enough water. The sugar didn't get hot enough to carmelize before most of my water boiled off.

Not to worry, I simply turned off the heat, added more water, and used a wooden spoon to scrape all that crystallized sugar off the bottom. I started up the heat again, this time stirring the entire time. The sugar eventually redissolved, turned that golden brown, and though I had a little extra water, once I added the butter, it made some delicious caramel popcorn!