How To Make: Popcorn Balls

Molasses Popcorn Balls

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Welcome back to Tenacious Genealogy! Growing up as a kid, one of my favorite songs was ‘Popcorn Popping‘.  A tune composed by Georgia W. Bello and sung by LDS children around the world for decades. (It’s so common that until I researched it for this post, I didn’t know that it is technically owned and copyrighted by the LDS church.) Either way, it was the first thing that came to mind when I was looking up the recipe that I’ll be showing off today: Popcorn Balls.

Popcorn Balls have been around for much longer than the song (obviously). Hugely popular at the turn of the 20th century (when this cookbook was published), the treat itself had been around for years prior to that and continues to ‘pop up’ (pun intended) as a Halloween treat in some locales to this day.

This particular recipe uses a sweetener that would have been commonplace to cooks and families in the 19th and early 20th centuries – molasses. Nowadays, the recipe is a little more… corny: Corn syrup is used instead of molasses so that the end treat has a lighter appearance.  But if you look up recipes for ‘old-fashioned popcorn balls’ online, you’ll see a darker colored popcorn ball (that uses molasses) than the popcorn balls that use corn syrup. So for many people, popcorn balls made with molasses is a time-honored tradition that brings with it a certain nostalgia. (Usually around Halloween.) If you are interested in checking out a couple other popcorn ball recipes (or the history of popcorn balls in general), click here and here for two other cool posts I’ve found. 

With that in mind, onto our recipe!

Cookbook: Things Mother Used to Make: A Collection of Old Time Recipes, Some Nearly One Hundred Years Old and Never Published Before
Author: Lydia Maria Gurney

Published: 1914

Original recipe

1 cupful of Molasses

Piece of butter, half the size of an Egg*

Boil together until it strings and then stir in a pinch of soda. Put this over a quart dish full of popped corn. When cool enough to handle squeeze into balls the size of an orange.

*Check out this post on this measurement.

My translation of the recipe

1 cup of Molasses
1/8 cup of butter
Pinch of baking soda

4 cups of plain popped popcorn

  1. Boil together the molasses, butter and baking soda in a rolling boil, constantly stirring to make sure it doesn’t burn.
  2. Meanwhile, pop at least 4 cups of plain (or lightly salted) popcorn. Put the popcorn aside in a glass dish or bowl.
  3. Once the molasses mixture is at a  rolling boil ( and is fairly thinned out), take it off the stove and pour it over the popcorn.
  4. Stir the molasses mixture into the popcorn until all the popcorn is coated with the mixture.
  5. Let it sit until it is cool enough to handle. (Roughly 15-30 minutes.)
  6. Grease your hands up with cooking spray or oil and scoop up enough popcorn to fill the palm of your hand.
  7. Squeeze and mold the popcorn into balls roughly the size of an orange.

Depending on the size of the balls, the recipe makes 10-12 servings.

Popcorn Balls Redux

So this ended up being a fairly simple recipe and surprisingly delicious. It is pretty scalable, so you could make a fairly large batch if you wanted. The popcorn balls also stayed fresh and chewy for 3 or 4 days, so you could easily make these ahead for an event or party.

First, the ingredients:

Nothing too complicated – You can find everything this recipe requires in your local grocery store. Microwavable popcorn (half a bag was 4 cups popped) works, as does popcorn popped over a stove or in a popcorn machine. I also realized that while this recipe calls for a ‘quart dish full of popped corn’ and a quart is equal to four cups, you could easily use more popcorn if you didn’t want the final product to be as sticky or have as strong a flavor. When I make this recipe in the future, I’ll probably double the amount of popcorn and see how that affects the final result.

Bringing molasses to a rolling boil… try to say that 10 times fast.


Boiling the molasses was probably the hardest part – not because of any physical difficulty, but rather from the vague wording in the original recipe – ‘boil together until it strings‘ isn’t a phrase commonly heard or used nowadays and Google failed me when I searched for what it could mean (other than the obvious). From working with this recipe, I would say the molasses needs to be hot enough to almost be liquid.

Once the molasses is boiling and liquid enough, pour it onto the popcorn you prepared earlier. I used four (4) cups of popcorn (or a quart) as the recipe dictates. However, I almost felt that the ratio of molasses to popcorn was off balance. So I will probably add more popcorn in the future. (I’ve also noticed that other recipes will add ingredients such as sugar or vinegar to offset the strong molasses taste – that might be another avenue to explore.)

Stir the molasses into the popcorn until everything is coated. Then let the mixture sit until it is cool enough to handle. For me, this was about 15-30 minutes. Then grab a handful of popcorn and mold it into a ball.  Make sure that your hands are greased up so that the molasses mixture doesn’t stick to your hands. Place the popcorn balls onto a Silpat mat or other non-stick surface (like wax paper) and let the balls sit for a little bit until they are more solid (usually room temperature). Then enjoy!


The finished result. Not terribly fancy, but delicious.


So the final product doesn’t look too much like the pictures you see on food blogs. I ended up making my popcorn balls slightly smaller than an orange due to the amount of popcorn I used. But they were still delicious. My husband – who is famous for his picky palate in our home – enjoyed them. As did my co-workers when I brought them to work the next day. So I’m calling this a win. While I plan on tweaking the recipe in the future, it was still fun to make. This could definitely be used as an easy hands-on history lesson for kids about what treats their ancestors may have eaten in the past.

Comments? Questions?

Feel free to put your comments or questions in the box below. If you’ve created your own popcorn ball masterpieces, feel free to share those too! In the meantime, stay tenacious! And if you like what you’ve been seeing here on Tenacious Genealogy – please subscribe to our email list. Not only will you stay up to date with the latest blog posts, but you’ll also get access to freebies such as ’10 Tips for Starting Your Genealogy’ and other fun ‘subscriber only’ items!


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