How to Make Popcorn Balls

Ah, the popcorn ball. Three steps, basic ingredients, and some literal hands-on fun are at the heart of these classic treats that go just as well at a party as at low-key streaming-movie night. Now pop to it!

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What's so great about popcorn balls?

They're fun! Popcorn balls are guaranteed smiles -- while mushing and while munching. They're also the ultimate in nostalgia; they rose to fame in the 1950s as a go-to Halloween treat.  

Today, party planners love how easy it is to customize popcorn balls with food coloring, candies, and nuts to suit any holiday or party theme.

Step 1: Pop the Popcorn

Freshly popped popcorn works best with this recipe. We love the flavor of popcorn made on the stove top, but lightly salted microwave popcorn works well, too. Avoid using prebuttered microwave popcorn -- you'll be adding plenty of flavor later.  

Remove any unpopped kernels. Put popcorn in a greased 17x12x2-inch baking or roasting pan. Keep popcorn warm in a 300 degree F oven. You will need at least 18 cups of popped popcorn for this recipe.  

How to Make Popcorn on the Stove 

  • In a heavy 3- to 4-quart saucepan combine about 2 tablespoons vegetable oil and about 1/2 cup popcorn kernels. Shake pan so all kernels are coated with oil. This amount of kernels will yield about 10 cups of popped popcorn.

Tip: Use an oil that can withstand high temperatures without smoking or breaking down, such as canola oil, peanut oil, or an oil specifically designed for popcorn popping. Do not use olive oil or butter.

  • Cover the pan and cook over medium-high heat for 4 to 5 minutes, shaking the pan occasionally and partially lifting the lid to let steam escape.
  • When the popping slows, remove the pan from the heat and transfer the popcorn to a serving bowl. 

Step 2: Prepare the Syrup Mixture

Gather the Ingredients 

  • 2 cups sugar
  • 1 cup water
  • 1/2 cup light-color corn syrup
  • 1 teaspoon vinegar
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 tablespoon vanilla
  • candies (optional)  

Mix the Ingredients

For syrup mixture, butter the sides of a heavy 2-quart saucepan. In the saucepan combine sugar, the water, corn syrup, vinegar, and salt. Cook and stir over medium-high heat until mixture boils, stirring to dissolve sugar (about 6 minutes). 

Clip a candy thermometer to the side of the pan. Reduce heat to medium; continue boiling at a moderate, steady rate, stirring occasionally, until the thermometer registers 250 degrees F, or hard-ball stage (about 20 minutes).

Remove saucepan from heat; remove thermometer. Stir in vanilla. Pour syrup mixture over the hot popcorn and stir gently to coat, adding candies. Cool until the popcorn mixture can be handled easily.  

3. Form the Popcorn Balls

With buttered hands, quickly shape the mixture into 2-inch-diameter balls. Wrap each popcorn ball in plastic wrap. Makes about 20 popcorn balls. 

TIP: 1 cup of popcorn should make a baseball-size popcorn ball.  

Holiday Popcorn Ball Ideas

Personalize popcorn balls with holiday-theme colors and treats. 

  • Add food coloring to the syrup mixture for vibrant popcorn balls.
  • Add candy-covered chocolate pieces in coordinating colors for any holiday.
  • Display popcorn balls in holiday-theme cupcake wrappers.
  • Add peanut butter, mixed nuts, and/or pretzel chunks to the mixture for a grown-up, trail-mix twist on popcorn balls.
  • Place a candy cane inside the plastic wrap with the popcorn ball and tie it together with a ribbon.

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