October 24, 2021


With Halloween approaching, I saw this recipe for popcorn balls in the heritage cookbook and immediately knew I had to make it.

Maybe popcorn balls aren't a common Halloween thing, but every year when my dad took my younger brother and I trick-or-treating, my mom would remind us before we left to ask at a particular house a couple of streets over if they had any popcorn balls. My mom loved the popcorn balls and it was something she only got to have once a year.

Nathan and me, Halloween 1988

As a young kid, I didn't understand what the big deal was--after all, there were pounds of candy to be eaten!--but the couple of times I had a homemade popcorn ball as an adult, I got it. They are SO good!

I had no idea that they have just as much (if not more) sugar than candy. You all know how much I love sweets, but even I was shocked at the sugar content in this recipe. But hey, maybe make them once a year for Halloween...? I would actually choose these over candy any day.

They are nothing like store-bought popcorn balls--those ones are very dry and crunchy. These are softer and a little gooey. It reminds me of the difference between homemade Rice Krispies Treats and store-bought ones--the store-bought ones don't hold a candle to homemade!

This particular recipe is not the recipe of the woman who made the popcorn balls every Halloween, but instead comes from Virginia DeRoest. Virginia is actually the one behind the compilation of the three Rockwood, Michigan Area Historical Society heritage cookbooks that I have. There were five members on the cookbook committee, but from 1990 to 2002, Virginia collected, compiled, and copied recipes for the books.

In 2002, while working on the final book, Virginia suffered a stroke. Sadly, she passed away in late December that year at age 77. I'm so grateful for her hard work on these books--this recipe series has launched a big interest in my own heritage as well as learning about the various citizens of Rockwood, the quaint two-square-mile town where I spent the first 15 years of my life.

As always, my rule for making these heritage recipes is that I can't change anything. Here, I write out the recipe exactly as written in the cookbook and when preparing/cooking/baking, I don't make any substitutions or modifications. If the recipe was special enough for the person to submit it, I want to taste it exactly how they made it. Make sure to read my notes after the recipe for clarifications/interpretations. (The printer-friendly version is rewritten by me with my notes included.)

Here is a printer-friendly version of the recipe!

Popcorn Balls

2 cups sugar
2 cups syrup
1 T. vinegar
1 tsp. vanilla
1 tsp. soda
1 T. hot water
3/4 c. popcorn, popped

Boil sugar, syrup, and vinegar until it spins a thread. Then add soda, vanilla and hot water. Pour mixture over popcorn and shape into balls.

My Notes:

For the syrup, I used light corn syrup. I looked at a few other recipes online and that's what they used, so I'm assuming that's what Virginia was referring to.

I'm sure people know this, but the popcorn measures 3/4 cup BEFORE being popped.

To avoid adding anything to the kernels while popping, I used an air popper. If you don't have an air popper, here is a post from Amy's Healthy Baking that describes how to air pop the kernels in a non-stick pot on the stove. (Basically, you heat the--non-stick!--pot, covered with the lid, over med-high for two minutes. Then you know it's ready. Reduce the heat to medium-low, add the kernels, and replace the lid. Shake the pot almost constantly until there are at least three seconds between pops. Remove from heat and immediately pour into a large bowl.)

Tip: This didn't occur to me until I was cooking the syrup, but I realized that the unpopped kernels in the bowl would end up getting mixed in--and I definitely didn't want them in there, causing me to break a tooth while eating a popcorn ball! So, I shook the bowl of popcorn, allowing the unpopped kernels to fall to the bottom. Then I gently scooped all the popcorn out by hand and put it into a different bowl, making sure to leave the unpopped kernels. Then I dumped those in the trash before putting all the popcorn back in the big mixing bowl.

I had to do some research into the "spins a thread" part. I knew this was a term in candy-making, but making candy has always intimidated me because of this part. Here is what I learned:

The "spins a thread" stage (called the "thread stage") occurs when the syrup has reached 223 F-235 F. It is highly recommended to use a candy thermometer, but if you don't have one, you can test it by  dropping a spoonful of the syrup into very cold water. If it forms thin threads like a spiderweb, it is at the thread stage. If it remains liquid, it needs to cook longer. If it forms a ball, it's been cooked too long. 

The thread stage is the lowest temperature stage of candy-making. It needs to be a thick syrup for this recipe. I didn't have a candy thermometer, but I used a laser thermometer that I've found to be pretty accurate for other recipes (like making jam or even just boiling water).

This is what the syrup looked like while it was cooking:

Once it reaches the correct temperature, you add the baking soda mixture and it will immediately get fizzy (the vinegar and baking soda reacting). This is how it looked before pouring it into the popcorn:

After pouring the syrup into the popcorn, it will be WAY too hot to form the popcorn balls (ask me how I know). Just keep stirring it until it cools enough to handle.

Tip: The popcorn will be super sticky when trying to form balls, so I sprayed my hands with cooking spray after forming every two balls.

I lined a baking sheet with wax paper and then after forming the popcorn balls, I just put them on the wax paper to finish cooling. If they don't stick together well, they need to cool more.

A couple of changes I would make for next time:

1) Add salt. When I saw that there was no salt in this recipe, I was surprised--the salty popcorn and sweet candy go so well together! Next time, I'd probably add 1/4-1/2 tsp. salt.

2) I would pop at least 1 full cup of kernels rather than 3/4 cup. There was still quite a bit of syrup left in the bowl after forming the popcorn balls, and a few of the balls toward the end were a little too gooey--I love the gooey ones, but if they are TOO gooey, they don't hold together well.

3) I would make smaller balls--probably golfball size. The ones I made were about as big as my fist (I got 16 of them total) but they were super rich and I think a smaller one would have been just as satisfying!


  1. Those popcorn balls look really good and bring back some fond Halloween memories! Back in the early '70s, our next door neighbors made popcorn balls to hand out to trick-or-treaters.

  2. This brings back great memories of my grandmother making popcorn balls at Christmas, food coloring then red or green. Delish!

  3. I totally remember getting one or two popcorn balls in my candy bucket every year and immediately throwing them out. Why on earth would I want popcorn when there's chocolate available?! ;) But now as an adult I would love to try one! I haven't seen one in ages though!

  4. Hubs next door neighbor the whole time he was growing up made these and gave them out at Halloween to the kids she knew (none to strangers). Up until just a few years ago (she's quite elderly now), she would still make them and he'd make a point to go visit her near Halloween to get one (shameless right? LOL )


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