Caramel has a moody, temperamental personality — sweet as sugar, but capable of turning on you in an instant with seemingly little provocation.
It does not wait for customers to decide, nor does it quietly sit back until the end of a transaction. When the buzzer sounds on the cooker indicating that the caramel has reached 285 degrees there is only one option, and that is to dedicate myself fully to the addition of a couple final ingredients, adding popcorn, and stirring the small batch of caramel before it all sticks together into a giant ten gallon caramel popcorn ball.
A granule of sugar, over-mixing, or uncooperative clumps of sea salt can turn caramel from a glossy, shiny confection into a dull grainy heap of chewy, brown sugar crystals. Candy making, or in this case caramel popcorn making, involves a significant amount of chemistry. It’s not necessary to to be a chemist, although it might help, but it is necessary to devote yourself to caramel completely when it demands attention. Anything less, and you can expect a garbage bag full of expensive butter, sugar and vanilla.
All my recipes were tested in my kitchen over the last few years, usually a gallon at a time in a small saucepan on the stove. At Popped! my recipes have expanded to fill a 10 gallon mixer. At first everything seemed just fine. The recipes were doubled, tripled and quadrupled with little effect.
When I bought my equipment for the shop I didn’t go through a salesperson or company representative who demonstrated how to use it. By the time I was ready to open the doors to Popped! I had already invested so much money that it was important that I start earning a return as soon as possible. As a result, there was only about a week to try out recipes, test ingredients and learn how to use the assorted poppers and kettles.
Going off a surprisingly brief owner’s manual, I was able to produce my caramel popcorn without incident for a couple weeks before things got a little strange.
At first it looked like the caramel was crystallizing, perhaps from over-stirring. I changed my technique and stirred less. Still I was finding inconsistent results.
I thought maybe it was the sea salt clumping together. The 17-pound buckets of Italian sea salt are from a different supplier than the salt I had been using at home. I tweaked the ratio of sea salt to all-purpose salt and felt that I had solved my caramel woes.
Not quite. Maybe the sodium bicarbonate? It didn’t seem possible that these ingredients should alter the caramel at all, especially since I had been using them for years without difficult at home. Usually the caramel was fine, but every now and then, with increasing frequency, I had an uncooperative caramel mass that was not glossy and shiny but matte — and kind of chewy. I was beginning to obsess, dreaming about popcorn recipes, talking to the mixer, chiding pans of dull caramel popcorn for it’s rebelliousness.
Finally I thought I had the answer. It had to be the brown sugar. I now buy it in 50 pound sacks not tidy, two pound grocery store bags, and the last sack had an off-smell, like burnt sugar, not at all like the subtle aroma of molasses. As luck would have it, during my opening week the brown sugar distributor had suffered a break down in quality control and now I was suffering the same ill effects. Not to worry, I never served the offending brown sugar to customers. (My ever increasing obsession over caramel popcorn would never allow me to sell something sub par.)
I returned about 150 pounds of brown sugar to the distributor, switched suppliers, and was still uncertain every batch of caramel would turn out consistently shiny and crisp. Watching a recipe that you’ve based an entire business around fail to work was driving me mad. I was having longer and longer conversations with the kettle, hoping it would say something, anything to shed some light on why caramel had turned on me.
Then two weeks into starting my business I found my answer. Maybe you already solved it. The kettle thermostat was not calibrated correctly. My caramel had not betrayed me — the kettle had!
I’ve never re-calibrated anything before in my life. In fact, I try not to use the term “calibrate” after having failed so many high school chemistry pop quizzes. Here I was in the dark, after the shop had closed, standing on a stool, wielding a two-foot long metal thermometer reaching into a pot of bubbling syrup in a last ditch effort to cure my caramel.
I read and reread the little owner’s manual hoping that I wouldn’t break the mixer altogether. Using the short end of a quarter teaspoon measuring spoon (of course, I didn’t have a screwdriver) I removed the plate and adjusted the thermostat until the buzzer sounded at exactly 285 degrees.
Success! Both surgeon and patient recovered. The next batch of caramel had returned to all it’s shiny, glossy crispiness and I had my business back. What a relief!
I still treat my caramel popcorn delicately. Turning my back on waiting customers to stir and gently mix each batch of caramel — apologizing for the wait, but thrilled to see another batch of caramel emerge from the kettle shiny and crispy. Sweet!
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