Kettle corn and popcorn—both so delicious, and both very welcome additions to any party or movie-watching event!
But what is the actual difference between popcorn and kettle corn? Despite being two of the most popular snacks around the world, very few people actually know the differences between them, or that there is even a difference in the first place!
So, what are the differences between kettle corn and popcorn? One major difference lies in the varieties of kernels used. Popcorn uses a butterfly kernel while kettle corn uses a mushroom kernel. Kettle corn is also a mainly sweet and salty snack that is prepared by combining kernels, sugar, and salt. Popcorn on the other hand is more savory, usually only seasoned with salt and butter.
In this article, we are going to discuss the many differences between popcorn and kettle corn. We will look at their history, their popularity, how they are made, and the many different ways they are seasoned and flavored.
The History Of Kettle Corn And Popcorn
Corn has been around longer than you might think! It dates back almost 10,000 years and was first domesticated in what is now Mexico. Popcorn specifically has been popped since roughly 4700 BC! Isn’t that crazy!?
Corn is considered to be an ancient grain and has six main varieties which include dent corn, popcorn, flint corn, pod corn, flour corn, and sweet corn.
Both popcorn and kettle corn first became commercialized and extremely popular in the 18th century. Once the popcorn machine was invented in the 1890s, this snacks’ popularity reached new heights!
It has been said that the technology behind popcorn and kettle corn as well as the flavor development has been led by the United States as it was a staple snack during major historical events like World War 2 and the Great Depression.
Today, these snacks are still equally popular in not only the States but many countries around the world. It is sold at your local grocery store, bake sales, and on virtually every corner, and at every major event.
The Different Varieties
First, looking at kernel varieties, popcorn and kettle corn come from different strains of corn. While both have been bred to pop and form a puff, there are still varieties within these.
You have mainly butterfly flakes or mushroom flakes—a flake refers to a popped kernel.
Butterfly flakes (also known as snowflakes) have irregular shapes and many have many protruding “wings”, hence the name. Mushroom flakes are mostly spherical in shape, whether round or oblong.
Butterfly flakes are used to make popcorn because they have a better mouthfeel, are much more tender, and have less noticeable hulls. Mushroom flakes, you guessed it, are used for kettle corn.
They are much harder which is needed for the process of making kettle corn with sugar.
Besides that, popcorn and kettle corn can be found as unpopped kernels, pre-made and packaged, and popcorn can also be found in microwavable flavored bags.
While seemingly very similar, kettle corn and popcorn are prepared in very different ways which naturally yields very different results.
Popcorn can either be air-popped or oil-popped. This basically refers to the heat source that will help heat the kernel, causing it to eventually pop.
To air-pop popcorn kernels, you simply add them to a pot, put them over high heat, and wait for the kernels to pop.
For oil-popping, you add a bit of vegetable oil like sunflower or canola oil, wait for the oil to heat, add the kernels, and listen to them pop.
Naturally, the different methods have a slightly different flavor.
Many people believe that you completely lose the natural popcorn flavor when popping the kernels with oil, but we don’t think it does. Both still have a very distinctive natural popcorn taste.
For popcorn, you can also use a popcorn machine to help pop the kernels. These are usually small household appliances that make small batches at a time. They can be used with oil or simply air (steam).
Then you also get pre-packaged microwave popcorn that has been flavored. These usually go into the microwave on the highest heat for 2-5 minutes.
Lastly, we have movie popcorn machines. These are large industrial appliances that make massive amounts at a time. These machines use a combination of oil and steam to help create fluffy pieces quickly.
Kettle corn on the other hand only has one preparation method. The kernels, sugar, salt, and a bit of oil are added to a cast-iron kettle or a Dutch oven. The cooking vessel is placed over high heat and the kernels will start popping.
You have to continuously stir the kernels to prevent the sugars from burning or caramelizing too much. This is definitely a much more labor-intensive method between the two, but yields completely different results.
You do get kettle corn machines, but not for household purposes or smaller batches.
As we have mentioned before, kettle corn and popcorn have very different flavors due to how they were prepared.
Popcorn is considered to be a savory snack whereas kettle corn is definitely a sweet treat due to the addition of sugar.
If you are cooking either popcorn or kettle corn using some type of oil, its flavor will have an effect on the flavor of the popped kernel.
For example, if you are using strongly flavored oils like coconut oil, grape seed oil, or sesame oil, the popped kernel will have those flavors.
It is best to choose neutral-tasting oils like canola, sunflower, or another type of vegetable oil blend.
Popcorn, being a savory snack, comes in many different flavors. Old fashioned and traditional popcorn can either be salted or butter-flavored.
More modern flavors include salt and vinegar, chives, cheese, chili, or even cinnamon. The specific variety of corn used to make popcorn has a very neutral flavor so is very easily adaptable.
Kettle corn has a very sweet flavor even without sugar. The addition of sugar and a touch of salt help balance out the flavors. Kettle corn has a very unique and distinct flavor that isn’t matched by any other variety of kernels.
Kettle corn can be coated into different flavored caramels to create different types of caramel kettle corn. Some of our favorites include salted caramel kettle corn, orange blossom caramel, and good old toffee kettle corn.
Popcorn has a very fluffy and soft texture due to the butterfly varietal chosen to make it. Kettle corn on the other hand has a much more tender and chewy texture.
Because of how kettle corn is made, it also has a crunchy exterior. And, depending on the amount of sugar or caramel added, you will also have varying consistencies.
The nutrition of kettle corn and popcorn depends almost only on how they are being seasoned or flavored.
If you are making kettle corn and popcorn as is in oil (without the addition of sugar, salt, or other spices) their nutrition is virtually the same.
Plain popped corn is technically made using whole grains. They are filled with fiber and even antioxidants. They are also very low in calories which makes them the perfect snack if you are trying to lose some weight.
If however, you look at the most common and popular ways to make both kettle corn and popcorn, they have slight differences in nutrition.
Kettle corn is often only popped with sugar and salt (no oil). Naturally, sugar contains quite a few calories which will affect the final count. The further addition of salt also affects the sodium level.
Popcorn is made using oil and salt. This naturally makes it less healthy compared to air-popped popcorn.
Only a small bag of oil popped popcorn contains 29 grams of saturated fat which is way over the daily recommended limit!
However, in terms of calories, this type of popcorn still has virtually the same amount compared to kettle corn.
This is because the calories simply come from different sources; for kettle corn, it comes from sugar, and for popcorn, it comes from salt.
Movie theatre popcorn will be the unhealthiest because of the oil they use and the excessive amounts of salt.
Once you have added your toppings or coatings, this is when popcorn and kettle corn get really unhealthy and very high in calories, sodium, or sugar.
What’s The Difference?
So, now that we have discussed every element of both popcorn and kettle corn, let’s look at them side by side.
Starting with the kernel itself, popcorn is made with a butterfly-type popcorn kernel whereas kettle corn is made with more spherically-shaped popped kernels.
These varieties have different characteristics and butterfly popcorn tends to be fluffier, softer, and more delicately flavored.
Popcorn is considered naturally savory while kettle corn is considered to be naturally sweet. This also is affected by how they are made and seasoned with additional ingredients.
Popcorn can be air-popped or oil popped and is always lightly seasoned with salt, or heavily seasoned with another type of salty spice mix.
Kettle corn is made with a combination of sugar and oil which are constantly stirred to prevent the sugar from burning. This creates a very sweet and crunchy popped kernel.
Both these products are generally healthier if made without excessive sugar or salt, and even without oil. Regardless, if they have been made in a traditional way with “normal” ratios they have almost the exact same amount of calories.
Popcorn gets its calories to form the oil it is popped in while kettle corn gets its calories from the sugar.
|Differences Between Popcorn and Kettle Corn||Popcorn||Kettle Corn|
|Kernel Type||Butterfly (also known as Snowflake)||Mushroom|
|Shape||Irregular shape - has many “arms” making it look like a type of butterfly||Mostly spherical|
|Flavor||Savory snack |
Mostly seasoned with salt
Variety of savory and salty spice mixes
|Has sweet characteristics
Sweet and sugary flavors with hints of salt
Sometimes coated with caramel or more sugar
|Texture||Fluffy and soft once popped||Tender and chewy once popped|
|Available Forms||Raw kernels |
Pre-packaged kettle corn
|Preparation Method||Oil popped or air-popped in a pot|
Can be made in a small popcorn machine
Can be made in large movie theatre popcorn machines.
|Kernels, sugar, salt, and sometimes oil are added to a cast iron cooking vessel and popped
Can be made (traditionally) in a cast-iron kettle or a kettle corn machine.
|Popular Flavors||Cheese |
Salt and vinegar
|Nutrition||Healthy if made without oil |
Oil-popped creates a higher calorie count
Seasoned with salty ingredients, increasing the sodium level.
|Healthy if made without sugar
When made with sugar the calorie count increases
Other Interesting Flavors To Try
Because popcorn has such a neutral flavor, people have started experimenting with different flavors and ingredients to create new and interesting flavor profiles.
Some very interesting flavor combinations include brown-butter-lemon, garlic and herb, parmesan-rosemary, and a three-cheese.
If you are looking for herb-based flavors specifically, you can either use virtually any salted herb mix you can find, or make your own. We would recommend using 1 part dried herb for every 2 parts salt.
People have even gone as far as creating fast-food flavored popcorns like margarita pizza popcorn, Kentucky Fried Chicken popcorn, and the famous McDonalds Szechuan flavored popcorn.
Kettle corn on the other hand doesn’t have too much room to play with because it is supposed to be a sweet treat. You can make different flavors of caramel including sea salt, orange, biscotti, almond, and even plain vanilla.
Then you can also use candies like Skittles to melt and color your kettle corn, simultaneously making them sweet.
Now that we’ve gone over all of the differences between kettle corn and popcorn, let’s take a look at a few related questions on the subject!
Why is my popcorn not fluffy?
This happens when your oil isn’t hot enough. Oil-popped kernels are definitely a lot fluffier compared to air-popped.
To make the ultimate fluffy and soft popcorn you first have to completely heat the oil in the pot or pan (or a type of popcorn machine). The kernel needs to build up maximum pressure before it pops.
Can you pop popcorn in an air fryer?
Air fryers have taken the world by storm and now you can even pop your popcorn inside! Simply preheat the air fryer for 5 minutes at roughly 400°F, add your kernels and cook them for 6-8 minutes.
This is a fantastic way to cut out the oil and keep your popcorn fluffy.
How long does kettle corn stay fresh?
If kept under the correct conditions, kettle corn will last anywhere between 1-2 weeks, arguably more if unopened or stored in an airtight container or re-sealable bag.
Keep the bags of kettle corn in a cool place away from high humidity, a heat source, or any direct sunlight.
Does soaking your kernels have any benefits?
The theory is that soaking your popcorn kernels in water for roughly 10 minutes will help add moisture to them. In turn, they will be able to build up more pressure and once they pop, produce fluffier pieces.
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