Popcorn balls that even your dentist would eat
September 30, 2009 12:01 PM   Subscribe

Popcorn balls ought to be the perfect seasonal treat, but they are always woefully inedible. I have this perfect popcorn ball in my mind. Can you help me figure out how to make it?

I want a popcorn ball that is sweet, but not too sweet -- think flavors for an adult palate. I also want it to hold together pretty well, but I don't want it to be so hard or chewy that it murders your teeth. I'm all for including ingredients that make them a little more nutritionally satisfying, but a simple recipe that holds up well would probably be the first step.

What are the factors that contribute to hard, chewy popcorn balls that I can hopefully avoid?
posted by hermitosis to Food & Drink (17 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
Standard popcorn balls have a sort of sugar coating which not only cools to be cement but also cracks off into a bunch of different fragments making eating them functionally impossible.

So, to make better popcorn balls, you're better off making them more like rice krispie treats with a binding agent that is more marshmallow and butter and less sugar cement. You can even make the popcorn to be more like kettle corn [i.e. cook it up with sugar in the pan] if you like the sugar flavor. I'd also suggest making them either smaller or flatter so that you can actually put part of them in your mouth without the shrapnel effect.
posted by jessamyn at 12:09 PM on September 30, 2009 [1 favorite]

1 cup karo syrup
1 cup white sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla if you would like
dash salt
and if you really want to go nuts, add a cup of peanut butter

Stir it all until its nice and melted (dont let it boil or it will get hard when cooled) and then add your air-popped corn. Grease your hands so it doesnt stick to bad, then roll into balls (or even just grease a pan, press it in and cut it before it completely sets).

You could add all sorts of stuff to this basic binding besides peanut butter...you could add butterscotch or chocolate chips, cinnamon, dried fruits, Nutella, actual nuts.

posted by Jenny is Crafty at 12:15 PM on September 30, 2009 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Is the ball shape and size a factor? Trying to sink your teeth into a large curved surface is a lot harder than biting into, say, your average Rice Krispie Treat. Would smaller balls that you could eat in a few bites be better?
posted by hermitosis at 12:20 PM on September 30, 2009

Apparently, popcorn bars already exist. Going to the web results will turn up quite a few recipes, which may give you a starting point on the types of popcorn balls you want. I do think smaller balls would be easier to eat.
posted by 6550 at 12:36 PM on September 30, 2009

"Never eat anything bigger than your head"

I would think that anything bigger than an apple would be hard to eat. Try biting an Asian pear for example. Call it 3" maximum.
posted by bonehead at 12:39 PM on September 30, 2009

Would smaller balls that you could eat in a few bites be better?

If you're interested in going down that road, here's a recipe for honey popcorn bites.
posted by Iridic at 12:45 PM on September 30, 2009 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Ha, sorry jessamyn. I was so excited by your marshmallow suggestion that I didn't finish reading your answer before asking about size/shape. There are some really helpful ideas in here already. Hope people will keep offering suggestions...
posted by hermitosis at 12:47 PM on September 30, 2009

I'm seconding the marshmallow suggestion.
posted by luckypozzo at 1:04 PM on September 30, 2009

Haystacks hold together and they have a coating that is pretty easy to bite/chew. Maybe just substitute popcorn instead of chow mein noodles.

If we get to play Alton Brown for a minute - it seems to me that the recipes being cited as 'hard as a rock' are pure sugar, and the softer ones seem to contain some fat. Maybe that is the secret to investigate.
posted by CathyG at 1:31 PM on September 30, 2009 [1 favorite]

If getting the perfect consistency requires more sugar than you'd prefer for sweetening you could offset it by adding salty/savory elements. I kinda want to try some with unsweetened baking cocoa and chili powder now.
posted by contraption at 2:21 PM on September 30, 2009

Seconding the salty/savory elements. I make spiced nuts with karo syrup, honey, vanilla sugar and then a custom salty/spicy bbq chicken rub. They are CRAZY good. You could easily substitute popcorn. It's the corn syrup that keeps balls from turning into glass btw.
posted by Kimberly at 3:15 PM on September 30, 2009

Some people have said that the special ingredient is fat, and in my experience, this is mostly true.

I did some pre-fall popcorn ball testing, and found out that the secret, magic bullet for making popcorn balls something you actually want is butter. Melted butter. Combine/heat it with whatever else you are putting in the popcorn and it lends a thicker, chewier texture while keeping the sugar-rock monsters at bay. Butter works well for both the sweet and salty aspects as well, serving as a background for both sets of flavors.

Of course, so much of food is personal preference...
posted by Phyltre at 4:35 PM on September 30, 2009 [1 favorite]

Karo syrup! Speaking of AB, I was trying to remember the Good Eats method for avoidng unwanted crystallizaton, and that was it, from the fudge episode. Definitely experiment with that, in combination with table sugar, to get a consistency that's right. Even if you consider corn syrup a sin generally, surely it's ok for a corn-based dish.
posted by contraption at 5:46 PM on September 30, 2009

Even if you consider corn syrup a sin generally, surely it's ok for a corn-based dish.

Just an extra plug for Karo -- high fructose corn syrup is not an ingredient in dark Karo syrup (a mixture of corn syrup and molasses).
posted by palliser at 7:36 PM on September 30, 2009

Best answer: We just made some pretty terrific popcorn balls because it is Vermont and we are bored. This is how fauxscot, kellygreen and I did it.

First off, we weren't worried about the sugar factor as much as the tooth-breaking factor, so too-sweet was okay. We printed out this thread and then experimented. What we wound up with turned out delicious.

- cook up a big pot of popcorn. we were out of regular oil so used peanut/olive and it seemed to go fine.
- remove all spare unpopped kernels!
- in a saucepan, mix up 1/2 c each Karo, maple syrup, white sugar & melt.
- add 1/2 stick of butter, 1 tsp vanilla and 1/4 c butterscotch chips
- add marshmallows to taste
- cook to just under boiling
- pour over popcorn, stir, form balls with oiled hands
- put on cookie sheet in the fridge
- wrap in waxed paper

We did not wait for them to really harden up before eating them, so it's possible these don't actually harden up very well at all. Who cares, they are terrific! Pics.
posted by jessamyn at 7:40 PM on September 30, 2009 [9 favorites]

Best answer: So hermitosis is responsible (sort of) for my pancreatic cramps?


Fun was had by all, except the poor beagle...
posted by FauxScot at 7:53 PM on September 30, 2009

Response by poster: Since jessamyn, fauxscot, and kellygreen did all the heavy lifting in figuring out the consistency etc, it was a cinch for me to adapt their concoction to my needs. Here's what I ended up with:

My measurements are for a recipe 2x the size of jess's.

1 cup sugar
1 cup ginger syrup
1 cup agave nectar (the organic store was having a sale!)
1 stick butter
3/4 bag of marshmallows (I got a bag that was pink/white mixed and used mostly pink ones, to add color!)
1/2 cup butterscotch chips
2 tablespoons Riga Black Balsam liqueur

I cooked his down as described above.

Before adding the goop to the popcorn, I threw a handful of sea-salted cashews into the bowl.

After I took the balls out of the fridge, I added a step. Before reshaping each ball, I dusted my hands with cocoa powder. You can barely taste it -- the sugar in the mixture immediately negates the bitterness -- but it takes the tackiness off of the surface, and gives them this really nice "toasted" look.

They're really sweet, but full of flavor. I was wary of the butterscotch but it really brings out the popcorn flavor. I actually ran out of popcorn and upper body strength before I ran out of goop, but it cooled to a beautiful caramel consistency and I'm sure I can do something else fun with it.

I started taking pics but I'm just one man with sticky hands, so I gave up pretty quickly. Final result here.
posted by hermitosis at 2:28 PM on November 24, 2009 [1 favorite]

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