I spent part of the day making caramel corn. I do it around Christmas occasionally. I do it because it is a fun gift to give to people at the office. It increases our dental insurance premiums.
Here’s what I learned today about recipes. I’m applying it to caramel corn. I think they apply to lots of other recipes we give people.
1. Design recipes for the ignorant, not the expert. Recipes are written for people who use them all the time. People who use recipes often don’t cook all the time.
2. List the ingredients in the order used. A recipe lists what goes in and then describes how you put the stuff in. When the order of the first part is different than the order of the second part, it is confusing.
3. Use real-world measurements. The recipe I used called for a cup of butter. Butter and margarine don’t come in cups (except for “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter”). They come in sticks. So write the recipe for a stick of butter.
4. Use real-world tools. The recipe called for me to put the coated popcorn into a greased pan to bake it. But it didn’t tell me what that meant, greased. Did the writer want me to smear lard on the pan? Couldn’t the writer have said, “spray the pan with a thin coat of non-stick cooking spray”? (Which is what I did).
5. Warn people about dangers. With this recipe, you boil sugar. When you do that, if you let it get too hot, the mixture will burn and taste bad. Liquid sugar burns and sticks to the skin.
6. Tell people about the cool stuff. When you add baking soda and vanilla to the molten sugar mass, the combined liquid starts to foam. It turns into tan shaving cream or the meringue on the top of lemon meringue pie. It is such a cool transformation. I’d show you a picture, but you only get about 5 seconds to watch before you pour it on the popcorn.
7. Tell people what the acceptable variance on measurements is. For example, because the recipe said 1 cup of butter rather than 2 sticks of butter, I used one stick of margarine. It worked better than versions of this recipe have ever worked for me. Apparently, it’s a cup of butter, plus or minus half a cup.
8. Don’t criticize unless you can do better. Here’s my version. What’s missing? What doesn’t work?
To make this you will need popcorn, butter or margarine, brown sugar, corn syrup, salt, vanilla extract, and baking soda (not powder). It will also help to have non-stick cooking spray. You will also need an oven, measuring spoons, a measuring cup, a wooden spoon, a large metal container, a pan and a timer of some sort.
1. Find a container that is metal and big enough to hold 6 quarts of popcorn. It can be a big bowl, a foil baking pan, or even, in a pinch, a couple of cookie sheets.
2. Spray your container with a light coat of non-stick cooking spray. If you use too much, the caramel corn will be oily.
3. Make popcorn. You’ll need about 6 quarts, which is 24 cups, which is about two bowls in a Back to Basics PC17589 Electric Stir-Crazy Popcorn Popper. Put it in your container.
4. Turn the oven on to about 200 degrees (25 degrees either way won’t make much difference).
5. On the counter, gather 1 stick of butter or margarine, 2 cups of brown sugar (light or dark), 1/2 cup of corn syrup (Karo is the most common brand. It comes in light or dark. Use either. Generic works, too) and 1 teaspoon of salt. (By the way, a cup is a technical term not just a mug. A teaspoon is also a technical term, not a plain spoon). Those are the first ingredients. You’ll also need to have 1 teaspoon of vanilla extract and 1/2 teaspoon of baking soda ready.
6. Take a pan that will hold all of those ingredients and put in on one of the burners of the stove.
7. Turn the heat to low.
8. Put the butter in the pan and watch it melt. When it is almost all melted, dump the 2 cups of brown sugar in. Dump the 1 teaspoon of salt in. Dump the 1/2 cup of corn syrup in. (add all three of these within about 30 seconds).
9. Turn the heat to medium (about 5) and start stirring with a wooden spoon (Could use a plastic or silicon cooking spoon. Don’t use metal. It gets hot)
10. As you stir, the mixture will start to bubble around the edges (boiling). When it starts to bubble/boil, turn on a timer for 5 minutes, set the spoon down, and rest.
11. After 5 minutes, move the pan to a burner that isn’t hot. Within about 10 seconds, pour 1 teaspoon of vanilla extract and then 1/2 teaspoon of baking soda into the goo. Start stirring. It will turn from a molten mass (like lava) into brown shaving cream. Keep stirring until it is all the same color.
12. Pour this foamy mixture over the popcorn in the metal container, spreading it as much as possible. Now grab the spoon and stir the popcorn/foam mixture. You won’t get it even, but do the best you can.
13. Put the container in the oven. Set a timer for 10 minutes. When the timer sounds, pull the pan out and stir it again. (Some caramel may end up on the bottom of the container. Make sure you spoon it back on top). Put the pan back in the oven and set the timer for 10 minutes again. When it sounds, pull the container out and stir it again. Put the container back in and set the timer for 10 minutes again. When it sounds, pull the container out, stir it one more time and then let the caramel corn cool.
14. Wash the dishes. It helps to fill the pans with hot water and about a soup spoon of dish soap and let them soak. It dissolves the caramel.
I love it! Does make you wonder why other recipes aren’t written this way.
I think I’d add a warning at point 10 – do not be tempted to stick your finger in the caramel mix
Otherwise this looks like a follow-able recipe, thanks!
Insightful as always. Maybe i’d be a decent cook if recipes were writen like this.
joanna- and now you know what caramel corn is, operationally!
Phil – maybe we need to try translating them!
Very good. I would list the ingredients in a list, with quantities – it’s much easier to make sure you have everything.
You might also note that 6 quarts is a gallon and a half. (How many bags of microwaved popcorn is that?)
Not sure how well cookie sheets would hold all that unless you built foil walls for them.
The recipe looks like it would halve nicely, if you don’t want to make that much.
corrie – wonderful ideas. Thank you. I’ll get it revised. And make it a
page, per Chris Brogan’s
This is a GREAT recipe, but let me share with you a way to speed it up and clean it up with ease…forget the oven, pan and soaking pots.(And forgEt having to build foil walls or cleaning up caramel in your oven….)
Mix the butter,sugar,corn syrup & salt mixture as directed but you can melt it all in the MicroWave. After it is all melted add the vanilla and baking soda. Stir till foamy. Put air-popped popcorn in a full size brown paper GROCERY BAG! Pour the ‘caramel’ mixture over the corn, fold BAG shut 2-3 times, give the bag a shake and place in MicroWaveOven ! Cook on HIGH for 1:30 MIN, remove and shake bag(with top closed)return to MCW and repeat at least 2 more times
CAUTION: bag will become HOT where butter/syrup mixture settles,. shake, turn and open with care.
Pour into shallow pan or bowl, it cools fast and crunchy.
Oh–EZ clean up: one MCW proof glass bowl(w/handle-works best) 1 wooden spoon(can stay in mix bowl in MCW while cooking syrup) and one brown paper bag—just throw that away.
Let me know what you think!!!
p.s.–add Spanish peanuts in with foamy mix for variation.