Last time I went to the county fair, there was this guy selling meter-long plastic bags of something he called "kettle corn" but which looked exactly like ordinary popcorn.

I expected that the "kettle corn" lable was just a marketing ploy to make popcorn sound like something special, but I accepted a free sample just to be sure. What I tasted was nothing like popcorn at all. It was sweet. Not saccharine-sweet, like cotton candy, but mildly, pleasantly sweet like honey or some other natural sweetener. Its flavour was much better than popcorn, more subtle; and the sign said it was more healthy, too, with less fat and sodium than regular popcorn (and it sure tasted less greasy and salty).

Anyway, the guy was making it by pouring the corn kernels into a big hot copper kettle, one that looked like it might have made a good tympano in another life, and then scooping the popped stuff off the top. Maybe that's why there were no unpopped kernels. I can't wait for the fair to come to town again just so I can get some more.

Ah, kettle corn. I discovered it myself a couple of years ago at a local sidewalk festival, made in the same way that vegemite described above. Since I'm such a fan of the salty-sweet taste combination, the sublime mix of salt and a crunchy, sweet coating made those feather-light kernels truly outstanding.

A short time ago while browsing the supermarket snack section, I was pleasantly surprised to find that all the major microwave popcorn companies were marketing their own boxes of kettle corn. After sampling most of the different brands, I found I was disappointed by two findings. First, the kettle corn was not as light and crispy as the type at the fair, and worse, had a faint chemical aftertaste due to the preservatives. Second, the packets were rather expensive, costing up to three dollars for a box of three. Not a big deal for occasional kettle corn consumers, but a cost that adds up with someone like me, who enjoys kettle corn several times a month when I rent a movie.

The solution? Homemade kettle corn!

Last December I received a stovetop popcorn popper as a Christmas party door prize. It looks like a regular pot with a crank on the lid that mixes the popcorn as it pops. This encouraged me to try to duplicate the kettle corn I had at the fair. After playing around with some ratios, I came up with the recipe shown below. This is much cheaper than those microwave bags, and consistently turns out light, fluffy kernels coated in a tasty salty-sweet glaze.

Note, this recipe will only work in a stovetop popper, not one of those air popper contraptions. Sorry!

You will need:

  • 3-5 tablespoons oil (vegetable oil is cheapest, but I have used both peanut and corn oil with identically good results)
  • 1/2 cup popcorn
  • 1/4 cup white sugar
  • salt to taste

First, pour the oil in the popper, tilting the pot to coat the bottom. Place over medium heat and wait until the oil is hot.

My trick for telling when the oil is hot: Put one or two popcorn kernels in the pot, leaving the lid off, while the oil is heating up. Wait patiently until those kernels pop. This is an indicator that the oil is hot for popping.

Place the popcorn and sugar into the popper at the same time (put that lid back on!). Immediately start turning the crack to move the kernels around the pot. This is the most important part, as it keeps both the popcorn and the sugar from burning. If the popcorn burns, toss it and start another batch. No one deserves to eat burnt popcorn.

Keep turning for several minutes until most of the popcorn has popped and additional pops are several seconds apart. Pour the popcorn into a large bowl. The popcorn may be sticky from the sugar coating, but it will harden into a nice, crisp glaze as it cools. Sprinkle salt over the popcorn, turning the kernels to coat. Remember, an adequate salt to sweet ratio is key here, so be sure you add enough salt!

This makes enough to get two people through a movie, but YMMV.

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