Slightly Spicy Caramel Popcorn

I’ve been testing recipes for America’s Test Kitchen for years. They have a cooking show on TV, do food and recipe demonstrations at local venues around the country, and create cookbooks with these recipes. I don’t remember how I hooked up with them originally, but it has been a fun experience and always interesting to try a new recipe for them, or see how they have put a spin on a tried and true recipe from the past. 

This recipe is for the Cooks Illustrated division of America’s Test Kitchen. It’s not something I would normally make. It turned out good enough – what my hubby could not wrap his head around is the fact that this version of caramel popcorn was supposed to be spicy not as sweet. Here is their goal for this recipe :

“Our goal was lightly spiced, popcorn with rich caramel flavor.”

It accomplished that goal, and was easy enough to make – starting with popping the popcorn. In the review notes I send to America’s Test Kitchen after making the recipe it was hard for me to determine if the recipe yielded the listed amount. Fresh popcorn just popped was hard to resist. I made sure there was enough popcorn to make the recipe, but many popped kernels ended up in a snacking bowl that I devoured while completing the recipe. 

If you are not a fan of the smoky flavor, skip the cayenne pepper and smoked nuts, replace with plain almonds or cashews instead. 

This caramel popcorn would make a good gift (stored in a large mason jar with a decorative lid and bow) at holiday time , given to a teacher at the end of the school year, housewarming gift, etc. That is, if you part with the finished product to give it away. 

Sugars are creating the caramel video.

This looks so dark in the photo, but it was actually a dark caramel color.
Coating the kernels was a bit tricky and sticky. You have to work quickly as the caramel sets up fast. 

Lay out mixture on a pre-sprayed cooking sheet to set up. 

It’s done! Let the taste testing begin!

Spicy Caramel Corn

Makes 2 quarts

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    Popcorn3 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • ½ cup popcorn kernels
  • Caramel coating1 ¼ cups granulated sugar
  • 1/3 cup corn syrup
  • ½ cup water
  • 6 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • pinch cayenne pepper
  • 2 quarts popped popcorn (recipe follows)
  • 2/3 cup smoked almonds, chopped coarse


    PopcornHeat oil and 3 kernels in large cooking pot (with tight fitting lid) over medium heat until kernels pop.
  1. Remove pan from heat, add remaining kernels, cover, and let sit for 30 seconds.
  2. Return pan to medium heat. Continue to cook with lid slightly ajar until popping slows to 1 to 2 seconds between pops. Shake pan during cooking to avoid burning kernels on the bottom.
  3. Transfer popcorn to large bowl. (Makes about 2 1/2 quarts)
  4. Caramel coatingLightly spray rimmed baking sheet with vegetable oil spray, set aside.
  5. Bring sugar, corn syrup, and water to boil in large Dutch oven type pot over medium-high heat.
  6. Cook, without stirring, until mixture is straw colored, 6 to 8 minutes.
  7. Lower heat to medium-low and continue to cook, stirring frequently until mixture is dark-amber, 2 to 5 minutes. (Caramel will register 370 to 380 degrees.)
  8. Take off heat, add butter, salt, and cayenne; stir until fully combined.
  9. Add popped popcorn and stir until well coated. Stir in almonds.
  10. Transfer mixture to prepared baking sheet. Let cool 15 minutes. Break cooled popcorn into pieces of desired size.


Popcorn can be stored in air-tight container at room temperature for up to 5 days - if it lasts that long.


Calories: 3306 cal
Carbohydrates: 454 g
Fat: 165 g
Sodium: 1278 g
Cholesterol: 183 g
Protein: 35 g
Fiber: 27 g

3 thoughts on “Slightly Spicy Caramel Popcorn”

  1. It's so cool that you're a taster for ATK!!! I just made the recipe after seeing it at This wasn't very exciting to us, but the recipe worked well and it's good if you like caramel popcorn. I used the lesser amount of cayenne. I think perhaps I should have doubled it? But it also made me realize that I'm just not that into caramel popcorn, which is not the recipe's fault :) I do love the other savory popcorn recipes from ATK SO much; they have a lot of them and I can't pick a favorite!
  2. The caramel corn recipe I currently use, others I've seen, and the notes I saw at Cook's Illustrated add baking soda at the end to get the caramel to be light and airy. How much baking soda should be added at the end when the butter, salt, and cayenne are added?

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