Spicy Caramel Popcorn
Why This Recipe Works
Caramel strikes fear even in experienced cooks. Why? It's notorious for burning, turning gritty, or simply cooking unevenly. We worked through every variable and question we had to come up with an easy method that anyone can master. The highlights: We cook the sugar with water and corn syrup, which helps the sugar dissolve and melt evenly and prevents crystallization, respectively. We use two heat levels, starting the sugar mixture over medium-high heat so that it melts quickly and then reducing the heat to low to provide a wider window for nailing the temperature. And we use two basic but key pieces of equipment: a heavy saucepan, which cooks the sugar evenly, and an instant-read thermometer, which is the fastest and most reliable way to assess the caramel's doneness. Once the caramel reaches between 365 and 375 degrees, we add butter, salt, cayenne, and baking soda, an alkaline ingredient that reacts with the acidic caramel. The reaction causes the caramel to increase in volume, making it easier to evenly coat the popcorn, and it creates tiny air bubbles that make the coating crisp and delicate—not hard—when it sets.