How to Make Fresh or Microwave Popcorn Balls as Yummy as Grandma’s

Three steps, basic ingredients, and some hands-on fun are at the heart of these classic treats. Here's how to make easy popcorn balls at home.

Popcorn balls are guaranteed smiles both while mushing and while munching. They're also the ultimate nostalgic treat. Popcorn balls first appeared in 1874 when Nebraska weather caused rain to wash syrup from sugarcane onto corn that popped from the heat. Later, 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 tips to make the best popcorn balls you've ever tasted.

How to Make Fresh or Microwave Popcorn Balls

popcorn balls on tray
Peter Ardito

We'll go through all the steps here to make old-fashioned fresh or microwave 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.

Step 1: Pop the Popcorn

bowl of popcorn
Scott Little

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

Step 2: Prepare the Syrup Mixture

stirring popcorn
Peter Ardito

Mix sugar, water, corn syrup, vinegar, and salt in a medium saucepan ($40, Bed Bath & Beyond). Cook and stir over medium-high heat until mixture boils, stirring to dissolve sugar (about 6 minutes).

Clip a candy thermometer ($13, 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 is desired. Cool until the popcorn mixture can be handled easily.

Step 3. Form the Popcorn Balls

making popcorn balls
Peter Ardito

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-sized 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.

Holiday Popcorn Balls

Marshmallow Popcorn Balls
Adam Albright

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 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.

Try our other popcorn ball recipes, including S'mores Popcorn Balls and, for the kids, Gummy Worm Popcorn Balls.

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