i really wanted to make caramel popcorn for hallowe'en and my friend mike said his mother's recipe was the best. we called her and she gave us the recipe, assuring us it was "easy -- you just bring it to a boil, cook it to soft-ball, and pour it over the popcorn." i had a hunch that what might be easy for a woman who has been making candy for twenty years might prove impossible for a beginner like me.
four batches of soggy popcorn later, i'm stymied. i think what happened was that i didn't cook the caramel long enough or at a high enough temperature. well, here are the ingredients and a short narrative of what happened:
1/2 c. butter
1 lb. brown sugar
1 c. light corn syrup
1 c. evaporated milk
1 t. vanilla
i brought it to a boil at med/high heat, without stirring, then reduced the heat and boiled it, but the soft ball never formed. mike's mom said it should cook only for about five minutes, so after ten minutes and no balls, soft or otherwise, i dumped the stuff on the popcorn. it was soggy and clumpy, and there were milk solids at the bottom of the pan. the caramel never hardened up and was decidedly unsmooth. it soaked into the popcorn. drat!
anyone know what i did wrong?
It sounds like you didn't get it to high enough a temperature. I'd get a thermometer at a kitchen supply store and use that to make sure the caramel gets to a high enough temperature rather than trying to figure out what the soft ball stage is. Also, you ned to stir it.
I don't want to sound insulting, but do you know what the "soft ball stage" is? It sounds to me like you were waiting for the bubbling mixture to form a ball (like a ball of dough when made in a food processor). The soft ball stage is a description in candymaking. When a caramel reaches the right temperature it will form a "soft ball." To see the soft ball, you take a metal spoon and scoop up 1/4 to 1/2 a tsp and drop the caramel into a glass of cold water. The resulting ball of caramel should be "soft" (like a kraft caramel) as opposed to "hard" or "hard crack" (lollipops).
The other responder's suggestion of getting a candy thermometer (which can also be used to monitor oil temperature when frying) is also a good idea. According to mine, here are some temperatures to keep in mind:
150 F Scalded Milk
235 F Soft Ball
245 F Firm Ball
260 F Hard Ball
280 F Soft Crack
305 F Hard Crack
360 F Deep Frying
Better luck next time!
re: Rachel Perlow
in theory i know all about the soft- and hard-ball stages etc., but this was really the first time i've used a recipe that required me to put that theoretical knowledge into practice. i usually avoid such recipes. i had the cold water by the pot but whenever i dropped the stuff in there it would dissolve. i think that means it just wasn't cooked at a high enough temperature; i think the length of cooking might have been ok, just the temp was wrong. although i did make four batches at varying temps and nothing worked. i will not rest until i get it right!
By the way, my limited experience with this sort of stuff (using a candy thermometer, of course) is that it takes longer than you might think to get the temperature above 212. It seems to plateau and you think somethings wrong, then all of a sudden it starts rising fairly rapidly.
re: Rachel Perlow
hey wait a minute -- scoop it up with a metal spoon? i was using a wooden spoon, my candymaking friend milla having told me never to use metal spoons when making caramel. maybe i wasn't dropping enough of the caramel mixture into the water.
rachel, thank you for your tips! both you and rjka. i think i'm gradually getting a picture of what i need to do differently.
I was just being real specific when I said a metal spoon. You don't want to leave a metal spoon in the pot because it'll get hot, which is why most use a wooden spoon. With my rep on this site, some wise*ss would make a comment about using a plastic spoon and it melting! :> If your mixture was bubbling, even if on a low heat, it should rise in temperature as the water is evaporated. Definitely use a thermometer to monitor the rise in temp next time.