Ultimate Guide to Kettle Corn

  • Author: Sue Dorrens
  • Published: August 4, 2022
  • Time to read: 6 min.
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Kettle corn is the drool-worthy, salty/sweet deliciousness we know and love for a great snack session (and sometimes dinner), movie night, or just because.

Right?

Wouldn’t it be nice to know what makes it unique? Maybe why we crave it so much?

This ultimate guide to kettle corn digs into the nitty gritty of all things kettle corn to satisfy your curiosity and your inner snack aficionado.

What is Kettle Corn?

Kettle corn is a luscious marriage of sweet and salty. It’s defined by the addition of sugar to the usual salt and oil coated onto the kernels before they’re popped. This addition creates a caramelized texture – a crust – in the finished product that’s both sweet and savory.

That’s not all…

Kettle corn is basically a combination of all the things that make an excellent snack food: a flavor that hits up multiple taste profiles (sweet and salty), a killer texture, and just enough positive nutrition to make it not naughty (more on that later).

What is the Difference Between Kettle Corn and Popcorn?

There are two basic differences between kettle corn and popcorn: how each is cooked, and the basic flavor profile of each. While they’re both delicious, drool-worthy snacks and movie sustenance, they are actually quite different.

How Each is Cooked

While both kettle corn and popcorn are cooked by heating dry corn kernels over heat, that’s where the similarities end. Making regular popcorn is more of a hands-off method, whereas kettle corn (at least traditionally) requires a little more work.

So, how do you cook them?

Popcorn typically has seasonings and some type of fat (butter or oil) added after the kernels have been popped. You can certainly add these items before cooking, such as with microwave popcorn (already added in the bag), but that would be the exception, not the rule.

Kettle corn demands seasoning before the kernels are popped, at least if you want to get that signature ‘crust’ and caramelized sugar flavor. If you add the seasonings at the end, it might taste okay, but it won’t taste quite right.

Different Flavor Profiles

The basic flavor profile of popcorn is savory. It’s buttery, it’s salty. Sometimes a cheese powder or maybe an herb blend shakes things up, but for the most part, it’s usually a savory type of snack.

And kettle corn?

With kettle corn, the basic flavor profile is sweet. Again, you can switch things up with different types of sugar: cane sugar, coconut sugar, maple sugar or date sugar. You could even use honey or maple syrup since the sweetener is cooked into the kernels as they pop, but the basic idea is that of a sweet treat-style snack.

What’s So Special About Kettle Corn?

kettle corn being made

Kettle corn is special because of the unique flavor and texture it takes on thanks to its unique cooking style. When you cook popcorn with sugar, the kernels become both sweet and salty. The sugar melts as they cook, creating a pleasant crust on each tender piece.

There’s more though…

The traditional cooking process is unique and involves cooking it in an iron kettle, although you can certainly use a more modern receptacle such as a deep pot or a Dutch oven. Either way, be sure to stir often to avoid burning (burnt sugar is not the flavor profile you’re going for here).

Is Kettle Corn Still Popcorn?

Yes, kettle corn is still popcorn. In fact, kettle corn is a specific type of popcorn, not something different. They both have the same base nutritional value, are both eaten in the same settings, and are made pretty similarly.

With that said, the terminology is important. If you’re looking for a sweet snack with a crusty, round kernel, you’re craving kettle corn, not popcorn. And if your mouth is watering for some buttery, salty goodness, then you’ll want to look for popcorn, not kettle corn.

Is Kettle Corn Healthier Than Popcorn?

Kettle corn is not healthier than popcorn.

It is often thought of as being healthier and pretty close in terms of nutritional value. That being said, kettle corn has added sugar, whereas popcorn does not. Kettle corn also typically contains the same amount of both oil and salt as popcorn, so there isn’t any benefit there.

However…

Kettle corn is hardly considered an unhealthy food. While it may not be healthier than popcorn, the amount of added sugar is typically pretty minimal. As long as your diet isn’t chock full of sugar around every corner, you don’t really need to avoid it.

Why Does Kettle Corn Taste Sweet?

Kettle corn tastes sweet thanks to the sugary coating placed on the kernels before the popping process. Combined with oil and salt, this creates a caramelized effect that feels like a crust on the popped kernels. It tastes sweet but also salty from the salt, which creates such a wonderful flavor combination.

Is Kettle Corn the Same as Caramel Popcorn?

While kettle corn is similar to caramel popcorn or simply caramel corn, the two snacks aren’t identical.

Here are the two key differences:

  1. When crafting kettle corn, salt, sugar, and oil are added before the kernels are popped. This creates its signature sweet/savory crust. Caramel corn is coated after cooking.
  2. Kettle corn uses plain granulated sugar (along with salt) to create its crust. Caramel corn also utilizes sugar, but the sugar is caramelized into a sauce separately before it is added.

What Kind of Popcorn is Used for Kettle Corn?

Kettle corn is typically made from regular popping corn, just the same as popcorn. The difference is really in the cooking process and the addition of sugar. The base ingredient, though, is the same.

That being said, it can vary.

Some popcorn purists claim that popcorn should use a butterfly kernel while kettle corn should be made with a mushroom kernel. Butterfly kernels have an irregular shape with ‘arms’ that look like a butterfly. These kernels tend to produce fluffier, softer popcorn that pairs well with the buttery, salty flavoring of traditional popcorn.

So, what the heck are mushroom kernels?

Mushroom kernels are mostly round, creating a tender, more chewy end product that works well with the sweet flavor profile of kettle corn. Its round shape also lends itself well to a thorough coating of sugary ‘crust’ that forms during the cooking process.

Why Is It Called Kettle Corn?

Traditionally, kettle corn was made using cast iron kettles. This cooking method actually dates all the way back to the 18th century. While it can be made with a variety of modern pots and pans (or specialty contraptions), the name remains as a reminder of its delicious origins.

Is Kettle Corn Healthy for You?

Kettle corn (and popcorn) is a healthy snack. Yes, it has added sugar, salt, and oil/butter. But it also contains high amounts of the following nutrients:

  • Fiber
  • Whole grains
  • Antioxidants
  • Niacin
  • Folate
  • Vitamins B6, A, E, and K

As mentioned above, if your diet already contains a high amount of unhealthy fats, sodium, and/or sugar or other empty calories, then consuming kettle corn shouldn’t be a regular habit for you. It can, however, be a pretty tasty treat every once in a while.

Kettle corn can be a delicious part of a balanced diet or a naughty ‘cheat’ snack, depending on how you look at it and taking into consideration what other foods you consume. It’s delectable, not terribly difficult to make, and carries a certain allure that puts it on a pedestal in comparison to other boring, everyday snacks.

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