How To Make Popcorn Balls

Popcorn balls

Anyone who knows me knows that I don’t like corn syrup. I try to avoid it in anything I buy, which is surprisingly hard to do if you buy anything other than raw fruits and vegetables and unprocessed meat.

Yes, we still buy some prepared foods, but less and less all the time. Jenn complains that I’ve ruined her. She doesn’t even like things any more that she used to love. She’d rather have something good than something quick. (Score.)

But then there’s candy. I know it’s not good for us, and we don’t eat much of it. In fact, Halloween is almost here and we still have some of the girls’ haul from last Halloween in a bowl on the kitchen table. So there are some things I’ll accept in candy that I won’t accept in my everyday cooking.

All of which is a long way of saying — in case you hadn’t guessed already — that these popcorn balls are made with corn syrup. If you’re more anti-HFCS than I am, you can just stop reading right here. But if you know candy is a sometimes food, here’s how to make them.


101016-120249_Lg6 quarts popped popcorn (about one cup unpopped)
1 cup Karo syrup
1 teaspoon vinegar
3 cups brown sugar
2 tablespoons butter
½ teaspoon baking soda


Pop the popcorn.


Hot air poppers are the only way to go. Everything else is at best messier to clean up and doesn’t pop everything as consistently. At worst, you end up with greasy popcorn before you even add the butter. (Or in this case the caramel.)

Different brands of popcorn pop up very differently, so make sure to measure the first time to make sure you’ve got about the right amount.


Pour it onto several baking sheets lined with wax paper. (We used three sheets.)


Combine the Karo syrup, vinegar, sugar and butter in a pan over medium heat.

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Heat, stirring occasionally, until it is 235-245 degrees F. It’s best to use a candy thermometer for this.


If you don’t have one, what you’re looking for is “soft ball” stage. That means when you drip some of the mixture into cold water, it will form a small, soft ball.



Remove from heat and stir in the baking soda, dissolved in a tablespoon of hot water.

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Yeah, “Oops.” We were rushing and dumped in the soda before mixing with the water. So Jenn just beat it together really well.


Pour the caramel evenly over the popcorn and stir it in quickly, before it cools.

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This will be very sticky when you roll it into balls, so rub a small bit of butter into your hands first.

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Correction: Have your children rub butter into their hands, since they really want to do this part anyway.


Just pick up small handfuls of popcorn and press them into round-ish shapes.

Popcorn balls

You can add sprinkles if you think they need it.


And that’s it.


Popcorn Balls

Popcorn Balls


  • 6 quarts popped popcorn (about one cup unpopped)
  • 1 cup Karo syrup
  • 1 teaspoon vinegar
  • 3 cups brown sugar
  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • ½ teaspoon baking soda


Pop the popcorn and pour out onto several baking sheets lined with parchment or wax paper. Combine the Karo syrup, vinegar, sugar and butter in a pan over medium heat. Heat to between 235° & 245° F. Dissolve the baking soda in a tablespoon of hot water, then stir quickly into the hot candy.

Pour the mixture evenly over the popcorn and stir together with a wooden spoon. Rub some butter on your hands to prevent sticking and, working quickly, form the popcorn into balls about the size of a baseball. (Yes, make sure it has cooled enough before grabbing a handful.)


  1. Mike Stockman says:

    It looks as if you’re equating corn syrup (stuff your grandmother used) with high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS, created in labs and shown, in some studies, to be worse than other sugars for our health). See this Wikipedia entry for more info.

    Sorry if I mis-read your point, but it seemed worth clarifying. I have never heard that corn syrup is any worse for us than sugar. But I do my best to avoid HFCS.

  2. I’m going to have to write up my position on corn syrup so I can just link to it whenever it comes up. Highlights: Dietary impact of corn syrup (high-fructose or otherwise) could be equivalent to sugar and I still wouldn’t like it, because of the distortion that corn subsidies have throughout the agriculture industry. And because of these subsidies, corn syrup is found nearly everywhere, including places sugar never appeared.

  3. I’ve heard that agave syrup is just as processed as corn syrup. Do you know? I would love to see some more info on that topic.

  4. Mike Stockman says:

    Fair enough, Drew. I just saw you use the two kinds of corn syrup interchangeably (and was surprised by it) and thought I should jump in. I’ll know for next time.

    And thanks for the recipe. I do plan on trying it. Would this, in the absence of pressing-together, work for plain old caramel corn? Or would you want to use less of the caramel for that to avoid a big clump?

  5. Mike, the basic recipe is pretty close. It’s what you do after pouring the caramel on that it changes. Take a look here for step-by-step photos how to make caramel corn. Essentially you take what I did then, instead of forming balls, bake in the oven and stir a few times.

    Robin, see here for all you need to know about agave.

  6. I don’t have strong feelings either way about popcorn balls, but I could eat brown sugar and butter for dinner.

  7. Don’t know if you saw this, but Chris Masterjohn recently looked at a study that compared HFCS, honey and starch. Honey comes out way ahead of HFCS and more or less stays even with starch. The study was done on rats, not humans, but interesting nonetheless.

    Not sure if it is possible to make popcorn balls with honey though . . .

  8. I always find it interesting to see what people call those things you put on the popcorn balls. To me, those are “jimmies.” “Sprinkles” are the colored sugar granules.

  9. Actually there were both. If you look close in the picture where she’s sprinkling them on, it actually says “Sprinkles” on the container. But it had both the sugar granules and the … well, the jimmies. ‘Cause that’s what I call them, too.

  10. I don’t know how easy it is to get over in America but could you not replace the Karo syrup with Golden syrup (or pale treacle/partially inverted sugar syrup dependant on what you call it)

    • You can — and it’d taste more delicious, I bet — but it would cost the earth to do. Golden syrup is usually costly, at least in my part of the U.S.

      • I wouldn’t know about the cost. I’ve never even found any in my part 0f the U.S.

        You could probably do this with just about any of the “syrupy” sugars: molasses, honey, golden syrup, even maple syrup. Hmm, that one sounds interesting. I’ll suggest it to the wife and kids.

  11. I’ve used this peanut butter caramel recipe to make popcorn balls. It tastes great and doesn’t use corn syrup.

  12. Best recipe ever for popcorn balls is one I got from my mother-in-law about 45 years ago.

    1 c. cream (heavy, fresh, raw if possible)
    1 c. corn syrup
    1 c. water

    boil to soft ball. have 8 qts of popcorn all popped and put into your clean kitchen sink. Pour the syrupy mess over the popcorn, stir with a wooden spoon or paddle, and form quickly into balls, with hands which have been smeared with butter. Set balls on waxed paper or parchment paper.

    These are creamy and delicious and they never get hard as a rock. Even my gramma who had none of her real teeth by age 90 could eat these!

    BTW, I’m signed up for your newsletter and I never received an issue with a recipe for popcorn balls. Might wanna check your newsletter list.

  13. D, the newsletter doesn’t contain what’s on the blog. It’s a whole separate set of stuff. There’s also the email feed of what’s on the blog. If you look in the column to the right, you’ll see two separate places you can enter your email address. The first is for what appears on the blog, the second is for the newsletter.

  14. Can you use white sugar instead of brown sugar? I have the ingredients from a recipe that my great-aunt used but not the amounts and it calls for white sugar. Just curious if it will work the same. I do remember her popcorn balls being lighter in color than yours. Thanks! :o)

    • Heather, you’re right about the color being lighter, and there won’t be quite the same flavor, but the texture will be the same. So sure, it should work just fine.


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