Written by Rebecca Peters-Golden
For a lot of people, kettle corn evokes childhood sleepovers and family movie nights. Well, clearly I must not have had a childhood or something, because I had never even heard of kettle corn until college, when I plunged my hand into a bowl at a party, shoved a handful of popcorn into my face, and was shocked to find that it tasted … sweet. “Dude, something’s wrong with your popcorn,” I said in horror (because, come on, I really wanted my fave salty snack). “It’s kettle corn!” she said, and looked at me like I wasn’t a goddamn American. Like so many of us who are unaware of things I assumed mine was the default position and looked around to garner support. But, um … as you may have already anticipated, everyone knew about kettle corn except me.
Maybe it’s because my dad just really liked salty, buttery microwave popcorn? Maybe it’s because I went to college in Pennsylvania and mentions of kettle corn can be found among the Pennsylvania Dutch as early as 1776, whereas I grew up in Michigan. I really can’t say. What I can say, though, is that after that first handful, I went back for a second, and this time it didn’t taste so funny. The third handful tasted pretty darn good. And after that I was basically hooked. Don’t get me wrong—I knew about sweet popcorn. I knew caramel corn and popcorn coated in chocolate and every other kind of popcorn that came in those huge holiday tins divided into sections of different flavors.
But that combination of sweet and salty? It wasn’t a flavor profile I was familiar with at the time, but let’s just go ahead and call kettle corn the gateway drug, because it’s now my sweet spot of culinary bliss. Caramel corn is great and all, but it’s a face punch of sugar, and I prefer something with a little more subtlety, ya know? Sweet and salty, with the option to add a third flavor? Or a fourth? Yeah, kettle corn is basically the perfect food. It’s ready in minutes, requires no special equipment, and costs mere pennies—is there any question why it’s my absolute favorite snack?
If you like to keep it classic, with just salt and sugar, I salute you. But if you want a concoction that you will be shoving at your face with glee … follow me, friends. My kettle corn is still sweet and salty, but I like to doctor it with my other favorite spice pairing: cinnamon and cayenne pepper. Dream with me, here: salt, sugar, cinnamon, and cayenne. This combination balances salty with sweet and sweet with spicy. Trust me, this is a popcorn that’s as suited to a wine and cheese party or a neighborhood barbeque as it is to your Saturday Netflix marathon.
Naturally, you can tweak this spice blend based on whether you prefer your corn a little saltier, sweeter, or spicier. Follow these ratios here and your flavors will be pretty balanced. Amp up the sugar and cinnamon for something that’s like a kicked up version of cinnamon toast. Use less sugar for a spicier twist on the classic. And, of course, the variations are endless. For chocolate lovers, finish with a dusting of cocoa powder. For something reminiscent of Cracker Jack, pop corn in peanut oil.
Once you find the ratio of spices you like, just use more or less depending on how much corn you’re popping. If you become a super fan like me, someday you might aspire to be where I ended up the morning after my birthday this year, after choosing to make a huge vat of kettle corn instead of birthday cake: lying in bed, a rime of salt, sugar, cinnamon, and cayenne from the overturned bowl sticking to the thin film of white wine on your face, having fallen asleep with your computer on your stomach and Fifty Shades of Grey on the screen for reasons you have no desire to remember. Enjoy! (And, yes, cayenne pepper does come out of sheets in the wash…)
Spicy Cinnamon Kettle Corn
Prep time: 5 minutes
Total time: 10 minutes
Makes 1 large single serving or 2 snack-size servings
- 2 teaspoons granulated sugar
- 1 1/2 teaspoons cinnamon
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
- 1 tablespoon vegetable oil, or enough oil to thinly coat the bottom of your pot
- 1/4 cup popping corn
- 1/4 cup granulated sugar
Make the spice blend: whisk the sugar, cinnamon, salt, and cayenne together and set aside. (Note: once you find the ratio of seasonings you like best, you can make a batch of it and put it in an empty spice jar so you have it ready whenever you crave this corn!)
Get out the enormous bowl from which you will feast and grab two oven mitts.
Heat the oil and 2 kernels of corn in a large covered (3-4 quart) stockpot over medium-high heat until the kernels pop. Any kind of pot with a lid will do, but you want one with handles because you’re going to shake it, and it’s best to use a large pot even if you’re not making a lot of corn because it helps keep the sugar from burning at the bottom.
When the test kernels pop, add the remaining corn and sprinkle evenly with the sugar, swishing and shaking the pot to distribute the sugar evenly. Cover and continue to cook as the kernels start to pop, shaking every few seconds to toss the sugar and kernels and make sure the sugar doesn’t burn. I kind of hover over mine and agitate it constantly. Do not leave the pot over the heat for too long, or your sugar will burn—better to have a few unpopped kernels.
When your corn is popped, put on the oven mitts and dump half the popcorn into bowl right away. Sprinkle the popcorn with about half the spice mixture: you want it to stick to the hot sugar that’s made a thin coating on the kernels. Toss, add the rest of the popcorn, sprinkle the rest of the mixture; toss again. You might end up with a little more spice mixture than you need—don’t feel you have to use every last bit.
IMPORTANT SAFETY NOTE: Be extremely careful because the sugar makes every piece of popcorn molten hot! To avoid burns, you might want to use a large wooden spoon or silicone spatula to toss the kettle corn.
Insert kettle corn directly into face and wait for choirs of sweet and salty angels to sing.