Get a free REAL FOOD INGREDIENT GUIDE with clear 'buy this, NOT that' advice in every food category:

leaky quiz-2

Better Than Garrett’s Caramel Corn and More About Christmas Baking & Adapting Recipes

Every so often someone will ask about a good caramel corn recipe. While I don’t recommend that you make it often, if you’re going to make it, here’s a little bit better version. Most recipes you see are made with corn syrup and some say to use the microwave, or even worse, they call for microwave popcorn, sick. That stuff is full of chemicals. You don’t want that in your body or your kid’s bodies!

It’s sad but true, our teen has a sweet tooth like his Mom, and when he’s motivated, he can do anything. Well, one day Kal was motivated to make some caramel corn, so he looked online and only saw recipes with corn syrup, and he knew we don’t have that here. “What if I used maple syrup instead, Mom?” I told him to give it a shot.

Garrett’s caramel corn in Chicago is dreamy, but not as dreamy as this recipe Kal came up. Oprah said Garrett’s was her favorite, but she hasn’t tried this.

It’s easy, too. The only pain is all of the dishes you dirty in the process.


Preheat oven to 300*.

A note about adapting recipes for other Christmas treats:
A reader, Heather, emailed recently asking about adapting recipes for Christmas treats and making them a little better. (Too much sugar is bad, anyway you slice it, but ohhhhh how I love it.) I suggested she do what we did above, and replace any corn syrup in recipes with real maple syrup. Warning: I’ve only tried it with a couple recipes, let me know how it works for you.

Another ingredient I see in a lot of sweets recipes is “sweetened condensed milk” – I don’t even know what that is. So if I find a recipe with that in it, I’ll just keep looking and find a similar one without it. (I did this when looking for a pumpkin dessert to take to Thanksgiving, and didn’t have trouble finding an alternative.) UPDATE: the comments are full of great info about this!

Have you adapted recipes to use better ingredients? Let us know what you did!

Or if you have a favorite Christmas treat recipe that you’re wondering how to adapt, comment and all of us can try to help.

photo by hellosputnik


  1. We were in Chicago this summer and went to Garrett’s to get some caramel-cheese popcorn for a friend. Okay, first of all, we drove around for nearly an hour looking for it and then looking for a parking spot. Then hubby stood in line which was out the door and down the sidewalk for about 1/2 an hour. It was good stuff, though. I’ll have to try your recipe.

  2. Oh, I was going to ask…do you really not know what sweetened condensed milk is, or do you mean you don’t know what’s in it? I’m sure it’s not something you want to add to your pantry, but, I’m sorry to say, it’s good. And makes good desserts. You can get organic.

  3. Hi Holly,

    Garretts has a caramel AND cheese popcorn? Ewww, I'd rather have those separate…but maybe I'm odd? You don't suppose?

    Yeah, I just don't know what's IN sweetened condensed milk, just milk & sugar I guess? But milk in a CAN, with sugar…just doesn't sound right.


    • I live just outside of chicago and have never heard of a cheese and caramel popcorn so, I’m certain it’s a mixture of cheese popcorn and caramel popcorn. It’s what most people get from Garrett’s. It’s the sweet and salty that does great things in your mouth. People often drive from all around and stand in hour long lines at the 10 locations across Chicago. Best popcorn ever- but very pricey. Can’t wait to try this recipe.

  4. Hey Kel–

    I have a couple of cans of Organic Sweetened Condensed Milks from Trader Joe’s when I was able to go there. Has two ingredients: organic milk and organic cane sugar.

    I have some recipes that call for this product, so instead of trying to figure out exactly what would make that consistency (since it’s a little thick), I just figured I’d buy organic. :)

    If you come up with a dandy substitute, please let us know! :)

    –Julie L.

  5. Really? Only two ingredients? Guess that’s not so bad. I wonder if we couldn’t just substitute with milk and sugar, though?


  6. hey Kel!
    I always make Almond Roca & now that I really understand how yucky corn syrup is…I need to find a substitute…STAT!!
    I know you're iffy about agave, but I think that would make more sense than maple…(flavor wise)…any ideas? Anyone? Bueller?

  7. I have a wonderful Caramel Corn recipe which is from a children’s home in western Maryland where I used to work. They have a natural foods/vegetarian diet.

    20 cups popped popcorn
    3/4 cup honey OR maple syrup
    6 tablespoons butter
    1/2 teaspoon vanilla
    1/4 teaspoon baking soda
    1/4 teaspoon salt
    1 cup unsalted peanuts or 1/2 cup raw sunflower seeds (optional)

    Remove unpopped kernels from popped corn and put in a very large mixing bowl. Combine honey or maple syrup and butter in a 1 1/2-quart saucepan. Cook and stir over moderate heat until butter melts and mixture boils. Boil, without stirring, for 5 minutes. Remove from heat. Stir in vanilla, baking soda and salt. Pour over popcorn and gently stir to coat popcorn. Spread popcorn mixture on two baking sheets. Sprinkle with peanuts and/or seeds, if desired. Bake at 300 degrees for 20 minutes; stirring every 6 to 8 minutes. Remove corn to a large bowl; cool.

  8. Kelly, I thought the same thing about caramel/cheese popcorn, but it was actually pretty good. It was just the two kinds together in the bag. Although I did prefer plain caramel.
    Sweetened condensed milk is milk with the water removed (plus sugar); it’s very thick, so I don’t know if you could just substitute. You can make your own, but the recipes I saw call for powdered milk. 😛

  9. Found this substitute that does not have powdered milk in it. Have not tried it yet.

    To substitute for 14 oz. can of sweetened condensed milk, use 1 large can of evaporated milk and 1 1/3 to 1 1/2 cups sugar. Cook on stovetop for 12 minutes.

  10. Erin, I have no idea what Almond Roca is or what’s in it, but you’d be surprised at how you don’t taste the maple in recipes, especially if you’re not using a stronger maple syrup (grade B). But I like maple flavor, so maybe I just don’t notice it.

    Anonymous, that looks like a great recipe, too!

    Holly, I’m a plain caramel girl, too. :)

    Vicki, dumb question: but what is evaporated milk? If I ever knew this, I forgot.


  11. Evaporated milk comes in a can and has had 60% of the water removed from it. It is shelf stable.

    Oh, and in the post above with the caramel corn recipe in it, I’m “anonymous” – I goofed when I was leaving my comment – so if there are any questions or problems with the recipe, you know my name!

  12. Thank you for this recipe for caramel corn. Also, for Erin, you would really like a recipe I got off of Marilyn at Urban Homemaker’s blog. She posted it December of 2007 and I tried it. It’s easy, quick, delicious. No corn syrup, however it does have regular sugar in it. The amount of butter in it counters the sugar reaction :) That’s my justification. Last year I was able to give part of the toffee to family for gifts. They loved it too. Here is the link.

  13. Hi Julie,

    It’s funny you say that, I just received that Toffee recipe again in Marilyn’s email (she promotes it as a nice homemade gift, and I agree!) and I was thinking about trying it – it looks SO good! But I decided to try and be good for a change…


  14. Well, if it turns out you need a last minute gift for some one, think of making marilyn’s toffee. It makes a splendid gift, especially in these trying times we are in.

  15. Here is my sister-in-law’s recipe for Carmel Popcorn.
    1/2 cup packed brown sugar
    1/2 cup butter
    Bring to a boil. Boil exactly one minute, till frothy gold in color.
    Pour over popcorn.

  16. I love carmel corn!!!! I don’t have most of the ingredients but my shopping day is Monday, so I will be picking them up! Seriously I am almost drooling on the keyboard!

  17. Hi Toni,

    Yeah, if I hadn’t just pigged out on a batch of it, then it would probably still sound good to me, too! :)

  18. I ditched the microwave popcorn about 6 months ago… and we haven’t had ANY popcorn since. I need this recipe!

  19. Kelly, besides the Ghirardeli white chips, Trader Joe’s brand also does not have partially hydrogenated anything (and a lot cheaper, too!!!)
    Sue E.

  20. Sweetened Condensed milk is pretty easy to make, but it takes a lot of time. There is a recipe here:

    Or you can also use a substitute, like what can be found here:,183,151170-244199,00.html
    I’d sub out the brown sugar for sucanat, again, and for the flour use freshly milled wheat (soft white wheat should work) or a gluten free flour.

  21. Kelly,
    I was just clicking around and saw this. I came across this recipe for a sweetened condensed milk using stevia. I have seen other homemade recipes for sweetened condensed milk. They all use powdered milk, butter or margarine, and the proportion is about 2 cups of powdered milk to 2 cups of sugar–that’s a lot of sugar!!! I haven’t tried using this in anything, and I don’t know if I will because I don’t like the powdered milk, but if someone has a favorite recipe using sweetened condensed milk, they might want to give this a try!

  22. Last thanksgiving we had a dairy allergic, no refined sugars friend over. Due to my personal allergies (which often restricts what I can eat) and a desire to do something nice for a friend, I modified my pumpkin pie recipe to use coconut milk for the regular milk, and maple syrup for the sugar (although not as much as the recipe called for) It turned out amazing! Even better, EVERYONE at the table was able to enjoy and be thankful for the WHOLE meal!

  23. I’ve altered many a holiday recipe over the past 3 years! It’d be so much easier if I had sprouted flour but really, that’s the most difficult part for me. Pies- I just make the crispy nut crust from NT. I use rapadura, honey and maple in the place of regular sugar (except with lefse but I at least use organic cane sugar :)). Anything that comes in a can can be made just fine, if not, better from scratch. Cranberry sauce? EASY and delish just cooking down whole cranberries with some rapadura. You can even get fancy and add citrus, zest, raisins and crispy nuts. Sweet potatoes? Canned doesn’t hold a candle to fresh so that’s a no brainer. And the more recently popular green bean casserole- it doesn’t take much to make a mushroom gravy with only a handful of fresh ingredients that you are familiar with and can pronounce. Depending on where in the world you are, fresh or frozen green beans, and get this- homemade shoestring onions for on top. THE BEST green bean casserole you’ll ever have. Stuffing, that’s a toughy because that was a favorite growing up. I could probably make it the way I always have but subbing SD bread BUT now we enjoy making it with wild rice.
    I just don’t make things like spritz anymore. I found recipes for cookies that could easily be adapted to our ingredients and jsut went with that. New traditions ;).

  24. Hi Kelly,

    I just made a batch of caramel corn and it was soooo good, instead of the brown sugar I just substituted Sucanat I also added an1/8 teaspoon of aluminum free baking soda and it tasted exactly the way I remember when my parents made it when I was a kid only they used the corn syrup and brown sugar. Well, actually I think mine was better. Next time I make this I plan to add in some crispy cashews, YUM!

  25. Hi Kelly,

    Well, I’m not sure, my parents recipe called for it, so I added it in. When you add it the mixture gets a lot more frothy and seems to expand, maybe it makes it coat easier, or keeps it more pliable? That’s just a guess though.


  26. The baking soda acts like a catalyst for the other ingredients in the caramel corn. It binds all the ingredients. It really makes caramel caramely gooey. When you add more heat to it, then it allows it to harden. Voilà, caramel corn.

  27. Hey! found your delish caramel corn recipe online thanks to Google :) SO glad to find a recipe without corn syrup. we just pulled the first batch out of the oven and it turned out fabulous. THANK YOU!

  28. how about a non-dairy version??? my mouth is watering.
    and what about honey instead of maple syrup?

    my in laws always have caramel corn with drizzled chocolate for christmas …. make homemade chocolate to drizzle over this recipe and THAT’S an even yummier treat!

  29. sensitive to coconut oil. I have spectra vegetable shortening … made from palm oil … maybe I’ll try that! I will let you know!

  30. Hi. Just wondering what I may have done wrong. Followed your recipe with log cabin all natual syrup (uses brown rice syrup and no high fructose or corn syrup) and the recipe turned out great….then tried with grade A, and later, grade b maple syrup, and both times it came out dry and grainy. Not at all caramel-like. Hoping you can help me trouble shoot this since I would really like to use all maple syrup. Thanks!

    • Hmm, we always use real maple syrup and it comes out good. I wonder if yours had just been boiled down more so there was less water content left in it… Just guessing. Maybe try more butter next time?

Leave a Reply