As tasty as caramel popcorn is, most traditional methods of preparing it require both the stovetop and the oven, taking quite a bit of time and stirring. Sometimes, you just want fresh caramel corn without all the fuss. With the help of the microwave and a simple brown paper bag, you can easily prepare a shortcut version of caramel popcorn that is ready in minutes.
You can prepare the popcorn for your paper bag caramel corn one of two ways. You can go the easy route and pop plain microwave popcorn that will be ready in less than two minutes. However, if you're not a fan of microwave popcorn, you can make your own in a pot on the stove with corn kernels and oil. Cover the bottom of a pot with canola oil, then add enough popcorn to cover the oil in a single layer. Set over high heat and cover the pot. Shake it occasionally as the corn starts to pop. When the popping slows, remove from the heat and pour into a bowl.
To make the caramel, combine corn syrup, butter and brown sugar in a microwave-safe container. For every cup of popcorn that you popped, use 1 cup of brown sugar, 1/4 cup corn syrup and 1/2 cup of butter. Heat the mixture in the microwave for roughly two to three minutes. Stir the mixture and add in about 1/4 teaspoon baking soda and a splash of vanilla extract. Microwave for another minute. Stir to make sure the heat is evenly distributed in the caramel.
Nestle one brown paper bag into another for sturdiness. Pour the popcorn inside of the bag, but leave enough room so that you can easily shake it. Pour a portion of the warm caramel over the popcorn in the bag, then fold the top and shake vigorously for a few seconds. Add a little more and shake again. Repeat with the last of the caramel and give the bag a final good shake. Open the bag and roll down the top. Place the bag in the microwave and heat in two or three 45-second intervals, shaking in between. Spread the hot caramel popcorn on a baking sheet to cool slightly.
You can get creative with the caramel popcorn by adding additional ingredients. Chop up peanuts, pecans, macadamias or other nuts you like and add to the bag of popcorn as you are adding the caramel. You can also add coarse sea salt to the caramel for a salted caramel treat. For a kicked-up caramel popcorn, stir in a 1/4 teaspoon of cayenne pepper for a sweet and spicy flavor. Another idea is to chop up cooked crispy bacon to add to the popcorn after adding in the caramel.