Thursday, April 16, 2015

Culinary School: Caramel Corn

Greetings, class!!

Today we'll be covering something not as healthy as a delicious, fresh-from-the-garden, spinach salad.

I know more than anyone that it's more than natural to have a sweet tooth. We, as animals, have evolved to crave things high in fat and high in sugar, to binge on while in feasting times so we can be okay during famine times....but we're not hunter-gatherers anymore, so there's no famine times. This does not mean you should abstain completely from your natural sweet tooth! Want to be healthy? Do the things yourself: i.e., make your own sweets.

When you make your own sweets, you know what's in it--but more importantly, you know what's not. (i.e. high fructose corn syrup, a ridiculous amount of sodium, red dye #40, etc.) Oddly, making your own caramel corn is simple! And, thanks to Chef Thomas Keller and my copy of Bouchon Bakery, I can show you how to make it.

Caramel Corn

  • 1/2 cup popcorn kernels(I like yellow organic)
  • 3/4 cup white sugar
  • 1/4 cup light corn syrup
  • 1/4 cup water
  • 1 tsp lemon juice
  • 1/2 tsp kosher salt
  • 1.5(3 Tbsp) unsalted butter, NOT MARGARINE
  • 1 tsp baking soda
  • Oil, A/N
You're going to need a neutral oil, such as canola or grapeseed for this application. I prefer grapeseed for just about everything cooking-wise, but it's pricey, so canola is just fine for the average home cook. Find a heavy-bottomed saucepot and some aluminum foil, the heavier the better.

Measure out your ingredients ahead of time, as these steps will all go quickly. Measuring and gathering your ingredients before you start cooking is known as mise en place, which is French for "things in place." This is more than just words to many Chefs, but a lifestyle, a mantra. Maybe you should learn it, too? Organize yourself. Get yourself ready. Set yourself up for success. If you're unfamiliar with a recipe, but familiar with mise en place, you're a step ahead.
Before you start heating anything, prepare a sheet pan lined with either parchment or aluminum foil, sprayed generously with pan-spray/vegaline/whatever food-safe lubricant you prefer. You could even butter it, but the spray is easier.

Plop your oil and 1 Tbsp of the butter into the saucepot with your popcorn kernels. Give it a little toss to coat, then seal up your pot with the foil. Cook over medium-high heat, shaking the pot back and forth constantly. You'll begin to hear pops. Don't freak out! Just lower the heat a little bit to medium, then continue to move the pot back and forth, back and forth, until the popping ceases to just one or two every second or so. Then, remove from the heat and let steam for a few. This way, you can let the last few kernels in the bottom pop safely without the risk of burning your popcorn.

Once your popcorn is all popped, move to a big bowl and wipe out your pan. Add in the sugar, corn syrup, and water, then bring to a boil. Let the sugar caramelize. Swirl it around a few times once it starts to turn that pretty golden-brown color, to distribute that evenly.

The key to caramel is having the confidence to really let it go to that gorgeous brown color. The range of temperature that I prefer is between 320 and 350 degrees F. Once it hits that gorgeous golden-brown color, that nice dark amber, turn off the heat, hit it with the butter and stir. 

Note: Use a wooden spoon to work with caramels! This does not conduct heat, and is very durable...plus, it's easy to clean and won't melt.

Once the butter is melted, add in your baking soda. This will cause the caramel to fizz up like crazy, and thus coat your popcorn evenly. Add in your popcorn a few handfuls at a time, and stir. You'll want to coat it evenly, and thinly. Add more and more as needed, but don't add all of it at once, as you might have too much popcorn for your caramel.

Once your popcorn is thinly and evenly coated, pour out onto your prepared sheet pan, and spread as evenly as you can. If you have latex gloves lying around, you can now take this opportunity to butter your gloved hands up and spread the confections evenly. I also like to sprinkle a little bit of sea salt over the caramel corn while it's still hot, so it sticks...and you get that awesome salty-sweet action going on.

Let this stuff cool. Seriously, if caramel gets on your skin while it's hot, it's like NAPALM.

Note: If you get hot caramel on your skin, DO NOT rinse with cold water. Rinse with warm water and let it run over your skin(I know, it's really going to suck) until the sugar has dissolved. DO NOT put a paper towel or anything over it, because IT WILL STICK. If you do burn yourself seriously, and peel off some skin, don't be afraid to see a doctor. 

Look at you, now! You have a wonderful batch of caramel corn at your disposal! Once it's cool, it'll be crunchy and candy-like, without all of those crazy processed sugars and high amounts of sodium and Goddess-knows-what-else in it! You know exactly what went into this confection, and now you can have caramel corn any time you want. And let me tell you this: 

If you throw a party and have homemade caramel corn in little cellophane baggies as party favors, you'll go down in history as a host(ess) with the most(ess)!

Happy cooking and happy eating. Class dismissed!