How to Make Popcorn Balls for a Nostalgic Treat the Entire Family will Love

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 holiday party as at low-key streaming-movie night. Here's how to make popcorn balls with our easy process.

Popcorn balls are guaranteed smiles both while mushing and while munching. They're also the ultimate nostalgic treat. Apparently, popcorn balls first came to life thanks to Nebraska weather causing rain to wash syrup out of sugarcane onto corn that popped from the heat in 1874. Since then, popcorn balls 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. Read on for our tips to make the best popcorn balls you've ever tasted.

popcorn balls on tray
Peter Ardito

How to Make Popcorn Balls

We'll go through all the steps here to make old-fashioned popcorn balls at home using this basic recipe. Once you've got the classic recipe down, you'll be able to customize the sweet treats with add-ins, too.

bowl of popcorn
Scott Little

Step 1: Pop the Popcorn

Freshly popped popcorn works best to make popcorn balls. We love the flavor of popcorn made on the stove top, but lightly salted microwave popcorn or popcorn made in an air popper ($45, Target) works well, too. Avoid using buttered microwave popcorn—you'll be adding plenty of flavor later.

Remove any unpopped kernels. Put popcorn in a large greased baking pan. Keep popcorn warm in a 300°F oven. You will need at least 18 cups of popped popcorn for this recipe.

Test Kitchen Tip: If making your own popcorn on the stove top, use an oil that can withstand high temperatures without smoking or breaking down, such as canola oil, peanut oil, or oil specifically designed for popcorn popping. Do not use olive oil or butter.

stirring popcorn
Peter Ardito

Step 2: Prepare the Syrup Mixture

In a medium saucepan ($40, Bed Bath & Beyond) combine sugar, 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 ($14, Walmart) to the side of the pan. Reduce heat to medium; continue boiling at a moderate, steady rate, stirring occasionally, until the thermometer registers 250°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.

making popcorn balls
Peter Ardito

Step 3. Form the Popcorn Balls

With buttered hands (this makes it easier to shape the popcorn balls), quickly shape the mixture into 2½-inch-diameter balls. Wrap each popcorn ball in plastic wrap. Makes about 20 popcorn balls.

Test Kitchen Tip: One cup of popped popcorn should make a baseball-size popcorn ball.

How to Store Popcorn Balls

Place the wrapped popcorn balls in a single layer in an airtight container; cover. Store at room temperature up to one week.

Marshmallow Popcorn Balls
Adam Albright

Holiday Popcorn Balls

Personalize popcorn balls with holiday-themed colors and treats. Here are some fun ideas to get you started:

  • 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.

You can also try our other go-to Better Homes & Gardens popcorn ball recipe that features marshmallow creme and candy pieces.

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