I love making homemade candies and have been playing with caramel in a variety of recipes this past month, and one of my favorite creations is this deliciously addictive Sea Salt and Vanilla Caramel Corn. Clusters of perfectly popped kernels of corn are coated in a glaze of hot, glossy caramel and then sprinkled with flaky sea salt to create the ultimate sweet-and-salty treat.

If you’re new to the world of caramel or candy making, this is a terrific way to introduce yourself to the technique without having to worry too much about the final result. While making caramels can be somewhat challenging, making caramel corn is a fairly easy and forgiving process.

A candy thermometer is an inexpensive and effective tool to ensure that the caramel is cooked to 300 degrees — the-hard crack stage. Sarah Nasello / The Forum
A candy thermometer is an inexpensive and effective tool to ensure that the caramel is cooked to 300 degrees — the-hard crack stage. Sarah Nasello / The Forum

To get started, you will need a candy thermometer, a heavy-bottomed pan and some basic staples from the pantry, including popcorn, white and brown sugars, corn syrup, water, butter, vanilla extract and your favorite flaky sea salt (mine is the Icelandic sea salt sold at the Stabo Scandinavian boutique in downtown Fargo).

A candy thermometer is essential to cooking your caramel to the correct temperature, which is 300 degrees for this recipe (also known as the hard-crack stage). This step may seem intimidating, but it is a lifesaver when it comes to making candy and removes any guesswork from the process. While there are a variety of fancy digital options, I still use my trusty mercury thermometer which you can find in home and hardware stores for about $10.

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Baking soda is added to the caramel once it is fully cooked, which causes a chemical reaction that results in a wonderfully light texture. Sarah Nasello / The Forum
Baking soda is added to the caramel once it is fully cooked, which causes a chemical reaction that results in a wonderfully light texture. Sarah Nasello / The Forum

Once the caramel reaches the hard-crack stage, I remove it from the heat and quickly stir in a splash of pure vanilla extract, which enhances the creaminess of the caramel. Next, I add a teaspoon of baking soda, which is the key to creating the wonderful texture of this caramel corn.

The baking soda reacts to the acids in the caramel (from the brown sugar and corn syrup) and forms tiny air bubbles of carbon dioxide. You will actually see this happen as the caramel will foam up and turn lighter in color once the baking soda is added. The reason this matters is that those air bubbles will lighten the caramel — both in color and texture — and keep it from being too sticky.

The hot caramel is tossed with freshly popped popcorn until thoroughly coated. Sarah Nasello / The Forum
The hot caramel is tossed with freshly popped popcorn until thoroughly coated. Sarah Nasello / The Forum

Once the caramel is ready, I pour it over the popcorn and use two large utensils (like rubber spatulas or spoons) to toss the mixture together. This is an interesting process, as the caramel is very hot so you must work quickly, yet thoroughly and with caution, as you mix the caramel corn together. Strands of caramel may begin to appear as you mix, but just keep mixing and they will blend back into the mixture.

Once the popcorn is fully coated in caramel, I turn it out onto a greased baking sheet and use my hands or two forks to break it down into bite-size clusters. Then, the real challenge is to wait for it to cool to room temperature before diving in, but I rarely achieve that.

Once coated, you can use your hands or two forks to break the caramel corn into clusters. Sarah Nasello / The Forum
Once coated, you can use your hands or two forks to break the caramel corn into clusters. Sarah Nasello / The Forum

With its beautiful, glossy finish and perfect blend of sweet-and-salty flavors, this Sea Salt and Vanilla Caramel Corn is the perfect treat for gift-giving or even just to snack on as you pass out Halloween candy this weekend.

Sea Salt and Vanilla Caramel Corn

PRINT: Click here for a printer-friendly version of this recipe

Serves: about 8 to 10

Ingredients:

10 cups freshly popped popcorn (1/2 cup kernels)

1 ½ cups white sugar

½ cup light brown sugar, packed

½ cup light corn syrup

½ cup warm water

4 tablespoons unsalted butter

1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

2 ½ teaspoons flaky sea salt, divided

Directions:

Grease a large baking sheet, 2 large spoons (rubber spatulas or wooden salad forks also work) and a large bowl lightly with butter or cooking spray; set the tray and utensil aside and place the popped popcorn into the bowl.

In a large, heavy-bottomed pan, use a wooden spoon or rubber spatula to gently combine the sugars, corn syrup, water, butter and ½ teaspoon of the salt. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally.

Once the syrup reaches a boil, cover the pan and cook for 1 minute — this will dissolve any sugar crystals that have formed on the sides of the pan.

Remove the cover and attach a candy thermometer to the edge of the pan. Continue to boil the syrup over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally, until the temperature reaches 300 degrees (hard-crack stage). Remove the pan from heat and immediately stir in vanilla until combined. Add baking soda and stir gently until well combined. The hot caramel will foam up as you stir, so use caution as you stir.

Pour the hot caramel over popcorn and use the 2 greased utensils to toss the mixture. The mixture will be thick, and strands of caramel will appear as the caramel hardens, so work quickly but thoroughly until the corn is evenly coated.

Sprinkle 1 teaspoon of the remaining sea salt onto the greased baking sheet. Turn the caramel corn onto the sheet and use your hands or 2 forks to separate the corn into clusters of any size you desire. Sprinkle the remaining teaspoon of salt onto the clusters and let the caramel cool completely.

To store: Store in an airtight container at room temperature for 2 to 3 weeks.

Sarah’s Tips:

  • Nuts can be added for more flavor and crunch. Simply combine 2 cups of peanuts (or your favorite nut) with the freshly popped popcorn and then toss with the caramel glaze.
  • For a fancy finish, drizzle the cooled caramel corn with melted dark chocolate.
  • Package the caramel corn in cellophane bags with decorative ribbon or festive tins for holiday teacher and hostess gifts.

Sarah's Sea Salt and Vanilla Caramel Corn is perfect for gift-giving or just plain old snacking. Sarah Nasello / The Forum
Sarah's Sea Salt and Vanilla Caramel Corn is perfect for gift-giving or just plain old snacking. Sarah Nasello / The Forum


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“Home with the Lost Italian” is a weekly column written by Sarah Nasello featuring recipes by her husband, Tony Nasello. The couple owned Sarello’s in Moorhead and lives in Fargo with their son, Giovanni. Readers can reach them at sarahnasello@gmail.com.