The rich and buttery smell of a freshly homemade caramel corn lingers in the air for hours, evoking celebratory occasions like the Christmas holidays or a county fair. And it’s all thanks to a microwave—no candy-making skills required. Microwave caramel corn is incredibly simple yet deftly impressive. Make it on a whim as a snack or plan ahead to give it as a gift.
A Classic 1980s Recipe
As a 1980s kid, for all I knew, caramel corn never existed until the microwave came along. It was a fixture in our family every Christmas. Mom would throw some mystery ingredients together, microwave them until they smelled sweet and syrupy, and then pour the caramel into a paper grocery sack with popped popcorn and shake it. Minutes later, there was sticky, golden-brown carmel corn for the whole family to greedily gobble.
Variations of this paper bag microwave caramel corn have been around since at least the early 1980s, when microwaves had just become affordable enough to be a fixture in upper middle class American households. They were the Instant Pots of their time, in that creative home cooks came up with recipe variations for every conceivable thing that could be microwaved. Microwave canned biscuits? Not so great. Microwave meatloaf? Fantastic!
Now that I’ve grown up and made caramel corn the traditional way, I know that microwave caramel corn is easily an improvement on the original. It uses the same ingredients but comes together faster and requires no candy thermometer or candy-making guesswork. The genius of the paper grocery sack is how it eliminates the need for a giant bowl to stir the hot caramel and popcorn together. Once the caramel corn is finished, you simply throw the dirty bag away.
Troubleshooting Microwave Caramel Corn
Microwave wattages can vary. I developed this recipe for a 1000-watt microwave. If your microwave is more or less powerful, you may need to adjust the cooking time. To find out your microwave’s wattage, look on the sticker on the inside of the door, the inside of the microwave itself, or the back of the microwave and find the power output. That’ll tell you.
- The finished caramel corn is sticky. The caramel mixture needed to be microwaved longer in Step 3. It should be bubbling up quite a bit.
- A few corn kernels in the bag burned. This can happen in a matter of seconds! You microwaved the caramel-coated corn too long. I tinkered with the timing to prevent this from happening, but microwaves can be tricky. Dump the bag onto the greased baking sheet, wait until it’s cool enough to handle, and pick out the burned corn.
- Even with caramel made on the stovetop, every batch turns out a little different. The caramel can get very thick in some batches–thick enough to coat some popcorn pieces generously, while others barely get any coating.
Microwave Caramel Corn Variations
- If it’s easier for you, use a bag of microwave popcorn instead of starting with plain kernels. One typical bag (serving 2 to 2 1/2) should yield 13 cups of popped corn. Microwave popcorn is seasoned, not plain, so you may want to reduce the salt in the caramel syrup if you don’t love salty-sweet combos.
- The coating on this caramel corn is moderate. For a lighter coating, simply toss it with more popcorn. For a denser coating, decrease the amount of popped corn from 8 to 9 cups to 6 to 7 cups.
- Sub all or part of the corn syrup with molasses for copycat Cracker Jack. Add 1 cup salted peanuts when you add the caramel to the bag.
- Use honey or maple syrup instead of the corn syrup, or swap dark corn syrup for light.
- Substitute light or dark brown sugar for the white sugar.
- Make this recipe vegan by using vegan butter.
- Add up to 1 teaspoon dried red pepper flakes or 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper to the syrup in Step 4 for spicy-hot caramel corn.
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Pop the popcorn:
Pop the popcorn using your favorite method. Some recipes say to pop the popcorn right in the bag, but I always manage to burn it that way. I prefer the stovetop (yes, I know this is a microwave recipe). You want 8 to 9 cups of popped popcorn (a little more or less is fine). This is 1/4 cup unpopped kernels.
Put the popcorn in a paper bag:
Place the popped popcorn in a large, clean, sturdy paper grocery bag.
Grease a rimmed baking sheet and set it aside.
Make the caramel:
Combine the sugar, corn syrup, butter, and salt in a large (at least 4-cup) glass measuring cup or microwave-safe bowl. No need to stir. Microwave on high, uncovered, for 2 minutes.
Stir with a silicone spatula, then microwave on high until very bubbly (you should hear the bubbles popping in the microwave if you listen carefully), another 2 minutes.
Add the vanilla and baking soda:
Add the vanilla and baking soda to the hot caramel and stir with a silicone spatula to combine. The cooked caramel syrup will foam up and become lighter in color.
Immediately scrape a third of the hot caramel over the popped popcorn in the bag. Fold the bag closed and shake it vigorously to coat the popcorn. Pour another third of the caramel over the corn, then fold the bag and shake. Pour the remaining caramel over the popcorn and shake one last time.
Microwave the bag of caramel-coated corn:
Place the bag in the microwave and microwave on high for 45 seconds. Remove the bag and shake it. The bag is hot at this point; only adults should handle it. Wear oven mitts, or hold the bag by its top fold and bottom corners to avoid burns.
After shaking the bag, microwave it on high for 45 seconds one last time, then shake. Now’s when the bag is at its hottest; you may see greasy spots on the bottom.
Dump the hot caramel corn out of the bag and cool:
Immediately tumble the hot caramel corn onto the greased baking sheet and spread it out evenly using the silicone spatula. Some caramel corn will stick to the inside of the bag. It is very hot; don’t reach in and pluck it out with your bare hands. Just throw it away with the bag. This is simply the cost of microwave popcorn; you won’t get every last bit.
Let the caramel corn cool completely, about 20 minutes. Break it apart and enjoy!
Store in a tightly covered container for up to 3 days. It may last longer, but ours has never been around that long.
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