Spiced Kettle Corn, Four Ways


By Andrew Janjigian


I’ve been making the Sichuan version of this popcorn mix for years now, ever since I developed it with my friend, the Vietnamese and Asian cuisine maven Andrea Nguyen. I give bags of it to friends for holiday or birthday gifts, or bring it to parties, where it is a sure-fire hit, the sort of addictive treat that is difficult to stop eating once you’ve started. (I usually make the spice blend in bulk batches, so that when it comes time to make some for a special occasion, I also have enough on hand to eat myself, while I’m doing the cooking.) 

This is a kettle corn, meaning popcorn cooked with sugar in the pot, which coats the exploded kernels with a hint of caramelized sugar. But because of the relatively small amount of sugar, and the savory-zesty spice “dust” it gets coated with after popping, it’s not really a sweet snack—the sugar serves here more as glue for the spice blend and as one of the four backbones of its flavor. The other three backbones are nutritional yeast (‘nooch,’ to the initiated) and MSG, or monosodium glutamate, along with salt, the backbone of flavor backbones. 

Nooch and MSG both give the blend a deep savoriness that is the primary source of its “okay-just-one-more-handful-why-not” character. They each get their flavor-boosting power from glutamate, one of the key molecules behind umami, the “fifth taste” of savoriness (after salty, sweet, bitter, and sour). And while they both contain glutamate, they work better in tandem than individually (and the nutritional yeast also serves as a carrier to distribute the spice blend more evenly over the popcorn).

You might be tempted to leave out the MSG because you think it is bad for your health or prone to triggering headaches, neither of which is true. MSG is a natural, but purified version of a compound that is found in so many of the foods we love—tomatoes, soy sauce, aged cheeses like Parmesan and Pecorino, anchovies, fish sauce, and more. Which means that if you enjoy those foods, you also enjoy MSG, even if you think you are afraid of it. The popcorn will still be good if you leave it out, but I promise you it will be loads better if you overcome your fear and include it. You can find MSG in most Asian grocery stores or online—most places stock Aji-no-moto brand—or look for Ac'cent Seasoning in just about any grocery store spice aisle. Nutritional yeast is available in most supermarkets.

While I—and everyone who’s had it—loves the Sichuan version, I’ve long wanted to extend the core blend to other flavor profiles, and was happy to pair with Curio and their amazing spices to do so.

Sichuan Spiced Kettle Corn

The Sichuan blend remains as I originally formulated it, except I have substituted Maras Chile Pepper, a fruity, medium-hot chile, for the Korean chile flakes I normally use, since both have a similar flavor profile and kick. Sichuan Pepper Berries give the popcorn a citrusy zest and its signature electric, numbing buzz, and Spanish Sweet Paprika ups the chile flavor without adding heat.

Cacio e Pepe Spiced Kettle Corn

I used Curio’s wonderful collection of black peppers to create a “Cacio e Pepe” dust, inspired by the classic black-pepper-and-Pecorino-Romano Italian pasta dish. I tested both Madagascar and Kampot black peppers here, and both were wonderful, but any one of the many black pepper Curio sells will work, and the popcorn can serve as a useful context to compare the surprisingly diverse flavor profiles of one black pepper variety to another.

Spicy Za'atar Spiced Kettle Corn

The “Spicy Za’atar” version is a nod to my own Middle Eastern heritage, with a combination of Maras Chile Pepper and Canaan Za’atar, an aromatic blend of wild thyme (also known as za’atar) and toasted sesame seeds from Palestine. It’s an unusual flavor profile for popcorn, but delicious nonetheless. (I’ve given a range for the chile pepper amount, to let you decide how much kick you want the popcorn to have.)

Barbecue Spiced Kettle Corn

Finally, I created a “Barbecue” blend that is a near-perfect clone of Lay’s-style barbecue potato chips, but in popcorn form, containing Spanish Smoked Paprika, Spanish Sweet Paprika, Garlic and Onion Powders, and Cayenne Pepper. (If you want to go all-in on the heat, you can ditch the cayenne and use Massachusetts-grown Smoked Hot Paprika in place of the sweet.)

Whether you make these popcorns for your upcoming Super Bowl party or some other occasion, I can assure you that they’ll make for a super bowl of tasty snacking, one you are likely to return to again and again.



Spiced Kettle Corn, Four Ways 

Sichuan, Cacio e Pepe, Spicy Za’atar, and Barbecue

Makes about 4 servings

The spice blend goes on after popping the corn; don’t be tempted to add it to the pot, or it will burn. Be sure to work fast when adding the blend to the popcorn, since the sugar glaze loses its stickiness quickly as it cools. If some of the blend refuses to stick, drizzle the popcorn with 1/2 teaspoon of neutral oil at a time and toss to combine. You can also make this popcorn in a rotary popcorn popper like a Whirly-Pop (I do), but the sugar will coat the pot and season future batches of popcorn unless you wash it out between uses. (I have two, one that I use just for kettle corn.) Don’t double this recipe in one go, as the bigger the batch, the harder it is to get the blend to adhere; do as I do instead and make multiple batches in succession.


Sichuan Dust 
3 tablespoons (16g) nutritional yeast
1 tablespoon (10g) sweet paprika
1 teaspoon (6g) fine sea salt
2 teaspoons (5g) Maras pepper
2 teaspoons (4g) Sichuan peppercorn
3/4 teaspoon (4g) MSG

Cacio e Pepe Dust
3 tablespoons (16g) nutritional yeast
1/4 cup (15g) finely-grated Pecorino Romano cheese 
2 ½ teaspoons (7g) black peppercorns
1 teaspoon fine (6g) sea salt
3/4 teaspoon (4g) MSG

Spicy Za'atar Dust
3 tablespoons (16g) nutritional yeast
14g (2 tablespoons) za’atar
1 to 3 teaspoons (3g to 9g) Maras pepper
3/4 teaspoon fine (4g) sea salt
3/4 teaspoon (4g) MSG

Barbecue Dust
3 tablespoons (16g) nutritional yeast
1 tablespoon (10g) smoked paprika
2 teaspoons (7g) sweet paprika
1 teaspoon (3.5g) garlic powder or granulated garlic
½ teaspoon (1.5g) onion powder
pinch (0.5g) cayenne pepper
1 teaspoon (6g) fine sea salt
3/4 teaspoon (4g) MSG

1/2 cup (120ml) high-heat neutral oil (such as canola)
1/3 cup popcorn
1/4 cup (50g) granulated sugar


Spice Dusts (take your pick): Place all of the ingredients in the bowl of an electric spice grinder or blender and process until finely ground, about 30 seconds, shaking the spice grinder or stopping the blender and shaking the bowl to move things around as needed. (Take care not to overprocess the cacio e pepe version or it can turn to a paste.)

Popcorn: Sprinkle about half of the spice blend onto a rimmed baking sheet or roasting pan and reserve the remainder. Set the pan near the stove.

Place the oil and 3 popcorn kernels in a heavy 3 to 6-quart pot. Cover and heat over medium-high heat. Have the remaining popcorn and sugar nearby.

Once all 3 kernels pop, lift the lid and pour in the popcorn and sugar. Cover and vigorously shake the pot to distribute. Set the pot over the burner. When the popcorn starts popping again (about 1 minute), shake the pan from side to side to promote even cooking, then return the pan to the burner. Repeat every 5 seconds or so until the popping mostly subsides, then remove the pot from the heat. 

Working swiftly, but carefully, remove the lid, then pour the popcorn onto the baking sheet in an even layer and sprinkle the remaining spices over it.

Starting with a silicone spatula or metal spoon, quickly stir the popcorn to coat it with the spice blend (once it begins to cool, you can also use your hands). Continue to stir until the spice blend is fully incorporated, 2 to 3 minutes. Transfer to a bowl and enjoy (or move it to an airtight container, where it will keep for up to 3 days). 




ANDREW JANJIGIAN (aka @wordloaf) is a baking teacher, recipe developer, writer, and photographer from Cambridge, MA. Before this, he spent 11 years as a test cook at Cook’s Illustrated magazine. His IACP-award nominated bread baking newsletter can be found at wordloaf.substack.com. You can find things like past and upcoming workshops, t-shirts and sourdough starters for sale, and links to his recipes and articles on his website. Enjoy 10% off on our spices with his code "WORDLOAF" at checkout!



1 comment

  • s: May 13, 2023


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