Vintage Popcorn Balls

Vintage Popcorn Balls on The History Kitchen

With Halloween just around the corner and my recent exploration into the history of popcorn, I was tempted to make a vintage popcorn treat. Popcorn balls were a fixture at Halloween parties during the 1950s, a time when treat-or-treaters regularly enjoyed homemade treats rather than packaged store-bought candies. The first recipe for popcorn balls was published in 1861 in E.F. Haskell’s Housekeeper’s Encyclopedia, and by the turn of the century many cookbooks included popcorn ball recipes.

Vintage Popcorn Balls on The History Kitchen

This recipe comes from an absolutely adorable 1940s vintage cookbook called the Children’s Picture Cook Book by Margaret Gossett and Elizabeth Dauber. It’s written for kids in the kitchen, with every recipe and cooking step illustrated. I couldn’t resist sharing the step-by-step pictures for this recipe. They’re too cute!

Vintage Popcorn Balls on The History Kitchen

These popcorn balls were really easy to make (not surprising, since the recipe comes from a children’s cookbook). I’ve given you the old-fashioned stovetop method for popping the corn, but you can feel free to use an air popper or another popping device if you prefer. Make sure you have a candy thermometer on hand, the syrup temperature is very important here. Otherwise it’s a really straightforward recipe. It’s also a fun one, especially at this time of year. The smell totally takes me back to my childhood. Enjoy!

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Popcorn Balls

Adapted from: Children's Picture Cookbook by Margaret Gossett and Elizabeth Dauber


  • ½ cup popcorn kernels
  • 3-4 tbsp oil, choose one with a high smoke point like grapeseed or peanut
  • 2 cups sugar
  • 1 ½ cups water
  • 1/2 cup molasses or corn syrup
  • 1 tsp vinegar
  • 1 tsp vanilla
  • 1/3 tsp salt

You will also need

  • large pot with a lid, very large mixing bowl, heavy saucepot, oven mitt, candy thermometer, rubber spatula, non-stick cooking spray, wax paper or parchment
Total Time: 1 Hour
Servings: 9 popcorn balls
  • Heat oil in a large pot over medium heat. You’ll want to use enough oil to just cover the bottom of the pan, so adjust the amount accordingly.
  • You can test your oil by tossing in a few kernels and covering the pot. Once they pop, you’ll know your oil is hot enough to add in the rest.
  • Vintage Popcorn Balls on The History KitchenAdd the rest of the popcorn in an even layer across the bottom of your pot.
  • Vintage Popcorn Balls on The History KitchenRemove the pot from the heat for 20 seconds to allow all of the kernels to come to the same temperature. Once 20 seconds have passed, return the pot to the heat and cover. Once the kernels are really popping, carefully move the pot back and forth across the burner.
  • When the popping slows down and there are long pauses between pops, remove the popcorn from the heat and immediately transfer to a large bowl. Set aside.
  • Vintage Popcorn Balls on The History KitchenIn a saucepot with a heavy bottom, boil sugar, water and molasses or corn syrup over medium heat, stirring occasionally.
  • Vintage Popcorn Balls on The History KitchenHeat syrup until it reaches 260 degrees F. This should take about 5-7 minutes. The syrup will be extremely hot and sticky so be sure to cover your hand with an oven mitt when you take the temperature.
  • Vintage Popcorn Balls on The History KitchenAdd in vinegar, vanilla and salt. Stir just enough to mix well.
  • Immediately pour syrup over popcorn and turn with a rubber spatula to be sure it is all coated evenly.
  • Vintage Popcorn Balls on The History KitchenAllow the popcorn mixture to cool for a few minutes, then spray your hands lightly with cooking spray and gently shape the popcorn into balls about the size of an apple.
  • Vintage Popcorn Balls on The History KitchenPlace on a sheet tray lined with wax paper or parchment and allow to cool until hardened.
  • Vintage Popcorn Balls on The History KitchenOnce cool, wrap balls in plastic wrap or place in plastic zipper bags to keep them fresh.
  • Vintage Popcorn Balls on The History Kitchen

Comments (26)Post a Comment

  1. Molasses? Now I’m tempted.

    I think I’d just make caramel corn, though, not take it to the shaping stage, but maybe that’s just me. (I find the ball shape in particular kind of hard to manage once it’s time to eat.)

  2. I remember the days when my mom and I would make popcorn balls and decorate our Christmas tree by stringing them on thread, cord, twine or anything we had that was sturdy enough to hold the popcorn balls. I thought our tree was so beautiful back then but that was many, many years ago, but when my niece was a little toddler, she and I would make them together and now that she is grown, married and has a little four year old daughter herself, we all three get together during the holidays and string popcorn balls. We created our own family tradition and I hope to be around many more years to see it passed down at least one more time. This is what the Christmas holidays mean to me, being with family and creating our own traditions…..We also made some just to eat and enjoy :)

  3. When my step-daughter was little (4), we used to make all the decorations on the tree out of edible things: we would make sugar cookies with toothpick holes through the top to string them on the tree with thin ribbon, cranberry garlands, popcorn garlands, candy canes, and little Icy Cup chocolates (which come wrapped to look like tiny Christmas presents) which we hung from the tree with ribbon that was tied around the “present”. All the decorations were edible, and when we got up on Christmas morning, there was a trail of cookie crumbs and Icy Cup wrappers all the way from the tree back to Kassandra’s bedroom…!

    1. Hi Josie! The benefit of using corn syrup is that it will not crystalize. As a sub for corn syrup you can use 1/2 cup of sugar and 1/8 cup of water whisked together on the stovetop till melted into a syrup, or for the molasses you can use 1/2 cup of brown sugar and 1/8 cup of water prepared the same way; however, I’m not entirely sure how well that sub would work in this recipe since I haven’t tried it and I don’t know if it would become sticky enough. It’s worth a shot though!

    1. Hi Jane, I am not a food scientist but from what I gather the vinegar lowers the pH of the candy syrup (makes it more acidic). It is there to help with the texture of the final product.

  4. You read my mind! Every Halloween our babysitters gave us those and my Dad would steal them out of our bag. Two sweet old ladies they were. Not a month goes by I don’t think of them we called them Grandma Park, and Grandma Pack. So one year we said can we have an extra for Dad he takes them every year and we really love them. They busted out laughing gave us an extra for him and the recipe. When my sister got married and moved to Ohio, mom gave the book and that recipe to her. Grrr! I was thinking I’d make the Grandma’s popcorn balls for Dad this Halloween, so thank you, beyond words for the recipe and the memories!

  5. Very good - 4 starsVery good - 4 starsVery good - 4 starsVery good - 4 starsVery good - 4 stars
    Loved them when I was a kid and making them today for the gobblins who come to our door tonight… I am looking for the cook-book, it looks great.

  6. Excellent - 5 starsExcellent - 5 starsExcellent - 5 starsExcellent - 5 starsExcellent - 5 stars
    Ruth is correct, it takes a long time to get the syrup up to temperature, and it won’t firm up if you don’t get it hot enough. It appears there is too much water although I’ve not yet tried it with less.

    1. Thanks for reporting back Woody. Oddly, it did not take us as long to bring it to temperature when testing. Perhaps try heating it over a higher heat level?

  7. made your popcorn ball recipe for the grandkids -just a comment I remember as a child making these with my Gramma we used butter on our hands gives a nice flavor to the product

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