Kettle Corn vs Popcorn: What Is the Difference?

By Jerrica Mah

Kettle corn vs popcorn: what is the difference in taste, cooking process, nutritional value, and more…

If you’ve never eaten kettle corn before, you’d be in for a sweet surprise. Unlike regular popcorn, kettle corn is better classified as a sweet treat instead of a salty snack. While it does have a hint of salt flavor, its added sugar is the star of the show.

The differences go beyond flavor profile, however. So, in this article, we’re going to take a closer look at the differences between kettle popcorn and traditional popcorn. 

By the end, you’ll be able to share some fun facts on movie nights with your fellow popcorn lovers as you enjoy your perfect snack!

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A (Super) Brief History of Kettle Corn

globe and popcorn

Kettle corn’s history is a bit fuzzy, with varying stories of origin. However, most accounts state that kettle corn dates back to Europe in the 17th or 18th century. The popcorn was sweetened with sugar or honey and cooked in a cast iron kettle, hence the name kettle corn. 

It is then believed to have been introduced to the United States in the 18th century, as it’s apparently referenced in the diaries of Dutch settlers in Pennsylvania. Regardless of its origins, its popularity surged in America. It became one of the most popular snacks at fairs, carnivals, flea markets, and other events, and it still is today.

The Different Types of Popcorn Kernels

three types of popcorn kernels

Did you know that you can’t just pop any old corn kernel? You can’t, for instance, put corn on the cob in a kettle and expect tasty popcorn to burst forth.

Popcorn kernels are a specific corn variety that burst open and puff when exposed to high temperatures. Popcorn comes in two basic shapes: butterfly and mushroom. 

Butterfly popcorn is what you see most often as microwave popcorn and movie theater popcorn. It has a light, crispy texture, and irregular shape with large bumps. It breaks easily, which gives it a nice light crunch.

Mushroom kernels, on the other hand, are used most often for kettle corn and specialty-flavored popcorn (like cheddar). Its large round shape and rough surface make it ideal for specialty flavors to cling to. It is also sturdier, which means it can withstand the stirring that specialty popcorns require.

How Much Water Is in Popcorn?

In addition to the type of kernel, did you know that the water content in popcorn is very important? The best poppable kernels of popcorn contain about 14% of water. That amount of moisture produces a perfectly fluffy popped kernel that pops at the perfect time. 

That means it doesn’t pop too early or too late, resulting in burnt or unpopped kernels, respectively. It saves you from having to get rid of that burnt popcorn smell!

Cooking Methods of Popcorn vs Kettle Corn

skillet with oil and popcorn kernels, a microwave, and a movie theater popcorn machine

Technically speaking, kettle corn is a type of popcorn. It is, after all, popped corn kernels. As we just learned, the specific type of popcorn kernels are different for kettle corn vs popcorn. However, both types of kernel essentially produce the same neutral flavor if nothing is added to them. 

Thus, the differences between kettle corn and popcorn go far beyond the type of kernel. The significant difference in flavor comes from how the popcorn is cooked and what it’s flavored with. 

Traditional popcorn is cooked with oil and flavored with salt. The popcorn machine at movie theaters uses oil (typically coconut oil) and steam to make the kernels pop. Then movie lovers typically add butter-flavored oil and salt.

Microwave popcorn typically has the butter-flavored oil and salt built right in. The interior of the microwave popcorn bag is coated with the flavor, which rubs off onto the popcorn as it pops. That’s also why you’re supposed to shake the bag before opening it. To get all that yummy flavor off the sides!

Kettle corn is almost always cooked in an oiled pot or kettle over a live flame or direct heat. Unlike traditional popcorn, kettle corn is flavored with sugar. It does contain oil and a hint of salt, but sugar is what gives its unique flavor.

The kettle corn kernels, oil, sugar, and salt are cooked together in a cast iron kettle or a Dutch oven. It requires constant stirring to distribute the sweet coating and to ensure the sugar doesn’t burn. 

Can You Buy Microwavable Kettle Corn?

You can buy microwavable kettle corn at grocery stores. You pop the bags in the microwave just like regular microwave popcorn and get the sweet flavor of kettle corn. However, it’s not the same texture and crunchiness as traditional kettle corn from a street fair, because microwave kettle corn uses butterfly kernels instead of mushroom kernels.

What’s the Difference Between Kettle Corn and Caramel Corn?

Though both are known for their sweet flavor, caramel corn has a richer flavor and texture. Caramel corn is most often candy-coated after the kernels are popped, whereas kettle corn is coasted as it cooks. It is typically made with brown sugar rather than white, and does not include salt like kettle corn.

Cracker Jack is the most well-known brand of caramel popcorn. Mixed with caramel-coated peanuts, Cracker Jacks are a staple snack at baseball stadiums, even starring in the Take Me Out to the Ball Game song.

FUN FACT: Take Me Out to the Ball Game is the 3rd most recognized song in America after Happy Birthday and The Star Spangled Banner.

Kettle Corn vs Popcorn: Nutritional Value

box of kettle corn and box of popcorn

Popcorn by itself has health benefits as a good source of fiber and antioxidants. It has fewer calories than most snack foods and is highly satiable, meaning you feel fuller when you eat it. It can be a very healthy snack, but it can easily leap into unhealthy territory with added ingredients.

So then, which is healthier: popcorn or kettle corn? The answer is a bit tricky because of the different flavors of popcorn. Air-popped popcorn that’s salt added is certainly the healthiest option (assuming you don’t add too much salt). But comparing nutritional value becomes more difficult with oil-popped popcorn.

Traditional oil or butter popcorn typically has a higher fat content than kettle corn (which is also oil-popped). However, kettle corn has a higher sugar content. So, you have to choose your lesser of two evils. 

The only way to have a definitive answer is to compare the nutritional facts of the popcorn brands you enjoy. Or you can opt for healthy-portioned options like Pop Secret 100 Calorie Kettle Corn, Pop Secret 100 Calorie Butter Popcorn, or Skinny Pop.

You may also want to check out the Best Vegan Microwave Popcorn Brands & Flavors!

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