All about Popcorn (including Pop-Corn Balls)

picture of popcorn balls

Have you ever under-popped popcorn in the microwave? I have! It’s disappointing to have it come out half-popped. You can't just put it back in the microwave and go some more either. How annoying having to start all over with a new bag! Even more so if you must make a trip to the store.

Imagine how much more frustrating it would be discovering that you're not going to have any more popcorn until next year because the seeds got mixed up, and what you thought was popcorn isn't popcorn at all! As the expert gardener below explains, only special kinds of corn will pop. Watch while she shows us how good old-fashioned popcorn is supposed to be cooked:

Besides not having the right corn or not knowing how to cook it, sometimes it didn’t get stored long enough or had set around so long that it was too dry to pop. There’s a science to the fascinating process of producing our popcorn today. Listen to this:

POPCORN BALLS were a big treat, most likely to be made at Christmastime, in 19th century households. IF YOU DECIDE TO MAKE SOME OF YOUR OWN, PLEASE DO NOT DO IT WITHOUT ADULT SUPERVISION because you can get burned easily.

Start with 7 quarts of popped popcorn, which must be kept in a 200-degree oven while you make the syrup in a large pot with a good, heat-proof handle. In the pot, combine 1 cup sugar, 1 cup light corn syrup, ¼ cup water, and ¼ t. salt. Cook this over medium heat, stirring frequently, until it comes to a soft-ball stage. NO! This has nothing to do with the softball that you throw—certainly not! “Soft-ball stage” means the temperature is exactly 325 degrees Fahrenheit, which is one reason it’s nice to use a candy thermometer rather than having to guess like in the 19th century when so many popcorn balls had to be eaten with a spoon because the cook decided the syrup was ready earlier than “soft-ball.”

OK—this is getting complicated, isn’t it? Once you get the “soft-ball” (stage, that is), take that pan off the stove and put it on a heat-proof surface while you add 3 tablespoons of butter or margarine, 1 t. vanilla, and—here’s the fun part—your favorite food coloring. If you wish, divide the syrup into several portions so you can color your popcorn balls in several colors. Work quickly, though, because you need to pour your syrup over the popped corn now and work quickly to coat all the corn. This step is best done with your hands, and that’s why it’s tricky. Start with 2-3 kernels, testing it to be sure it’s not hot enough to burn you. Be VERY cautious not to burn your hands.

If you want, make several colors like you might do when dyeing Easter eggs. Then, immediately pour that colored mixture over popcorn.

Quickly shape the sticky popcorn into 3-inch balls, dipping your hands into a bowl of cool water if necessary to prevent sticking.

OK, now here’s the hardest part of all: DO NOT eat these until they have cooled! I know you aren’t going to listen to me on that, but that’s what the instructions say to do. Truth is-- licking your fingers is one of the best parts of all. This recipe makes 20 balls, each about the size of a tennis ball.


Now, if you want to make a modified version, try it with marshmallows. These turn out a lot like “rice crispy” cereal bars. You’ll only need 4 ingredients: 1 tablespoon vegetable oil, ½ cup un-popped popcorn (the old-fashioned kind), 6 tablespoons butter, and 5 cups miniature marshmallows.


1. Grease a 9x13 inch baking dish. Set aside.

2. Add vegetable oil to a 4 quart saucepan, and heat over high heat. When hot, add popping corn. Keep pan moving constantly as the lady in the video above. When corn stops popping, remove from heat.

3. Put popcorn in prepared pan.

4. Meanwhile, melt butter in a medium saucepan over low heat. Stir in marshmallows and cook until melted, stirring constantly. Pour the marshmallow mixture over popcorn and mix with a spoon to coat evenly.

5. Let the mixture cool slightly, 30-60 seconds.

6. As soon as it’s cool enough to handle, smear butter on your hands or spray with non-stick cooking spray.

7. Form into 8 popcorn balls.


To learn much more about the cuisine, culture and conflict in the days of the American Civil War, check out Just Following Orders: Escape from Guerrilla Warfare in 1863