You’re just four ingredients and five minutes away from a fresh batch of homemade kettle corn! This salty-sweet popcorn recipe is dangerously snackable and quick enough to make on a whim.
For many, kettle corn evokes popped corn aromas wafting through the air at county fairs, where a cacophony of rapid-fire pops from giant kettles on the midway promised a light-as-a-feather treat.
Why wait for the fair? For a quick fix, make this kettle corn recipe at home in minutes. It’s a snack and a dessert all in one. Those who treasure variety from bite to bite will adore its occasional, delicate pockets of caramelized sugar and scattershot hits of salt.
It keeps well, so you can make batches and parcel them out for lunchboxes or on-the-go energy boosts.
What Is Kettle Corn?
Sweet and salty all at once, kettle corn is the golden child of regular popcorn and caramel corn. Not as cloying or sticky as caramel corn, it employs just a small dose of sugar, which melts and lightly coats the kernels as they pop.
No candy-making skills necessary! And I promise it has tons more character and a cleaner taste than an (admittedly handy) bag of microwave kettle corn can muster.
I’ve noticed every batch is a little different. That’s part of its charm. Sometimes the sugar just melts; sometimes it caramelizes.
The Best Popcorn to Use
As long as it hasn’t been sitting in your cupboard for years, most any type of popcorn kernels will work in the kettle corn.
However, I recently splurged on Amish Country Popcorn, and I’m a convert. It pops up extra-fluffy, with true corn flavor.
The Best Pot for Kettle Corn
For disaster-free kettle corn, use a pot that’s neither flimsy nor bulky. A cheapo stockpot? The thin base means the sugar will burn. On the opposite end, your heirloom Le Creuset Dutch oven is way too heavy for you to shake fast enough.
Use a pot that’ll hold at least 5 quarts, has a snug-fitting lid, and a sturdy base.
Gadget lovers and popcorn devotees may want to consider investing in a Whirley Pop, a specialty stovetop popper with a hand crank that agitates the popcorn. I’ve had mine for years and adore it, but remember, a decent stockpot makes fabulous kettle corn.
If you want to take a deep dive into the best popcorn makers we’ve done the heavy lifting for you. Read on to learn about some of our favorite popcorn makers.
Kettle Corn Swaps and Subs
Play around with flavor combos to customize your kettle corn.
- Choose your oil: I love coconut oil, extra virgin olive oil, and avocado oil. All of them can hold up to the heat. But canola oil or vegetable oil is fine too.
- Switch the sugar: Use brown sugar, turbinado sugar, or maple syrup instead of regular white sugar (don’t use honey, which is too sticky and burns easily).
- Spice it up: Mix 1 1/2 teaspoons curry powder and 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper with the sugar and salt or add 1 1/2 teaspoons pumpkin pie spice.
- Use another salt: Kosher salt works just fine here, swapped 1:1 with regular salt.
How to Store Kettle Corn
Though it’s terrific for sudden attacks of the munchies, kettle corn tastes best—crisper and sweeter—an hour or two after it’s made. Cool it completely, and once kept in an airtight container, it’ll stay crunchy and oh-so-snackable for three to four days.
Troubleshooting Kettle Corn
Got a pot of burned sugar or scorched popcorn? Either the heat was too high, you didn’t thoroughly stir the sugar-salt mixture into the corn, your pan has too thin a bottom, or you cooked the kettle corn too long.
If you smell burned or caramelized sugar, pull the pan from the heat, even if you think you need to cook it longer. This stuff goes from ideal to burned in seconds.
Unpopped Kernels: A Word of Caution
Our tried and true perfect popcorn has a method for popping that minimizes unpopped kernels. Kettle corn’s a little different, though.
To reduce the risk of burning the sugar, you need to pull the pot from heat a tad early—no hopeful extra seconds of cooking to be sure all the stragglers pop. Better to err on the side of caution and deal with a few hard kernels than a scorched pot or burned popcorn.
The melted sugar can make unpopped kernels stick to the popped ones, so eat kettle corn with a degree of mindfulness, rather than shoveling it in your mouth by the handful, lest you crack down on a rocky kernel. I don’t want you destroying a molar or a filling.
More Sweet Snacks
- Candied Walnuts
- Caramel Corn
- Homemade Granola Bars
- Pecan Pralines
- Chocolate and Hazelnut Matzo Toffee
- Spicy Caramel Popcorn Clusters
Mix the salt and sugar, set aside:
In a small bowl, combine the sugar and salt, and stir with your finger to combine. Set aside.
Heat oil, pop test kernels:
Place a medium to large stockpot (at least 5 quarts) with a tight-fitting lid over medium high heat. Add the vegetable oil and 3 to 4 kernels of popcorn. Secure the lid.
Add popcorn and seasonings, stir to coat:
Once the test kernels begin to pop, add the rest of the popcorn, along with the sugar and salt mixture. Stir quickly with a wooden spoon to combine (skip this step and you risk the sugar burning).
Shake the pot:
Quickly replace the lid and continue cooking, constantly shaking the pot. At first there won’t be any popping, but in less than a minute, the popcorn will begin to pop. Remove from heat when you smell a whiff of caramel, or the popping slows to 1 second between pops.
Empty kettle corn into bowl, let cool briefly:
Moving swiftly, turn the popcorn into a serving bowl and let it cool a few minutes.
If there’s some melted or burned sugar residue in the pot, add a few cups of water, bring to a boil, and simmer, covered, for 5 minutes to dissolve the sugar; dump the hot water down the sink, and your pot should be in much better shape.
Pick out unpopped kernels, then enjoy:
Before you dig in, sort through the kettle corn and pick out as many unpopped kernels as you can. A few stragglers often stick to clusters of the popped kernels.
Serve warm, or, for maximum crunch and flavor, at room temperature. The kettle corn will keep three to four days in a tightly covered container.