Even better! Read this, then see the update. I solve the butter distribution problem by cooking in clarified butter.
The very idea of a recipe for popcorn may seem preposterous but there’s popcorn — and then there’s popcorn! It’s not just gourmet popcorn snobbery. Try this once and your microwave and hot-air popcorn days will be over.
Wave Goodbye to the Microwave
Let’s start with the worst. Disassemble an unpopped bag of microwave popcorn and you will discover popcorn kernels embedded in what looks like a bar of plastic, hard and waxy.
That is your popcorn oil. Hydrogenated palm oil, saturated fat. Best for shelf life, but it’s like eating candles, and not so good for your arteries, either.
What looks like orange soap is concentrated food chemistry intended to imply butter. I’m not against chemicals in food but butter flavor just does not taste like butter.
Microwave popcorn tastes fatty (and not in a good way) and tongue-numbingly salty, with little corn flavor. Some are better than others, but you won't find excellence in these bags.
Who doesn’t love the novelty of Jiffy Pop’s mushrooming foil pan? It really is cool. But slice open that pan and there’s that orange brick of super-saturated, flavorized, shelf-stable fat.
The Taste of Air
The hot-air popper’s big advantage is that it’s as low-fat and low-salt as you want it to be. It's unadulterated corn and while that sounds pure, it can’t be gourmet because the hot air dries the corn. By itself, it lacks the supporting players a flavorful pop demands.
Which brings us back to popcorn as it must be: kernels sizzled in oil and augmented with butter and salt. You knew that was where we were headed, but there are still critical considerations that separate the excellent from the merely good.
You can use various stovetop gear. The Whirley Pop, a pot with a crank that stirs the corn as it cooks, looks like a good gadget and I have seen favorable reviews, but I favor the more traditional countertop appliance, the electric hot oil popper, mainly because it’s foolproof.
Most countertop electric poppers will do fine. My favorite is the somewhat hard-to-find (but available at Amazon) West Bend Stir Crazy which has one critical technological edge: rotating arms to stir the kernels as they heat. (There are newer models now -- but read the reviews. The model 82386 is probably what I would get once the one I have expires.)
Stirring means the kernels can't burn and the heating element can be hotter, so you can pop a much large batch (6 quarts) in much less time, with very few unpopped kernels. You can also use less oil than a non-stirring popper would allow.
In addition to the popper, you need two massive bowls (you can use large pots) and a big spoon.
Any brand of popcorn will work well, as long as it's fresh. The "gourmet" varieties (Orville Redenbacher, for instance) pop up bigger. For an interesting and different taste, try the exotic varieties such as the blue, black, or red. They lose their colors when they pop (darn) but most of these make a smaller, chewier kernel than the puffy white or yellow kernels we’re used to. You can find a variety of corns in many groceries now. I now use Bob's Red Mill. As with all their products, it's good quality and not expensive.
Also worth trying if you want to play is Whirley Pop Amish Country popcorn from popcornpopper.com. My favorites are their Baby White, which is tender and flavorful, and their Blue, which is a bit more toothsome and a tad sweeter. They have a variety bag which mixes the colors but I find it weird to have non-uniform popcorn.
Any vegetable oil will do. Canola, peanut, and corn oil have high smoke points and are lower in saturated fats.
Use a fine salt such as popcorn salt or fine sea salt. This is pretty important since fine salt sticks to the corn instead of bouncing its way to the bottom of the bowl. Go easy on the salt, even if it tastes bland at first. Once you get used to a lighter salting, you will enjoy more corn taste. But you have to use some — our taste buds are half asleep without a salt perk.
And finally: Butter. It's not low fat, but butter makes popcorn great.
Plain buttered popcorn is fabulous in its simplicity and the perfect blend of butter and corn, steamy and crunchy, with just enough salt to make it sing. But you can add some variety with seasonings. Some of my favorites:
- Garlic salt
- Grated cheese
- Herb blends such as Old Bay or Lawry’s — use a light touch.
- Ground ancho chili pepper
- Curry powder
- Penzey’s (penzeys.com) Fox Point seasoning. I also like their Sandwich Sprinkle or Crouton Seasoning, but use these lightly.
- Very finely grated Parmesan-Reggiano — the really good stuff — is fantastic. I really like to use this and Penzey’s Fox Point together.
When using a seasoning, remember that many contain salt already.
I saw a suggestion to make kettle corn at home by adding 1/3 cup sugar to a full batch of popcorn and oil right before the first kernel pops. I tried it once and it was mediocre. Let me know if you have a better method that does not require you buy a 300-gallon kettle and a jet engine. (Not that I would not want an excuse to buy a jet engine.)
You know how to make popcorn, of course. But there are a few refinements. Most important are amounts and the fine technique of evenly distributing the butter.
Here’s my recipe. I give ranges for the amounts so you can decide whether you want to pretend you’re on a diet or you want a big butter blast. It’s your popcorn.
Makes 6 quarts: Adjust amounts if your popper makes less.
2-3 tablespoons canola or corn oil
3/4-1 cup of popcorn or 1-1/4 to 1-1/2 c small-kernel popcorn
Fine salt to taste
2-4 tablespoons fresh unsalted butter
Popcorn popper, preferably a Stir Crazy
Two very big bowls or pots, preferably the same diameter so you can clap them together and shake the contents without sacrificing too much to the dog
The butter is the biggest trick. I have two methods. One is to melt the butter in the microwave and drizzle it into the popcorn bit by bit as you transfer the corn into your bowl.
The way I use now is to melt half the butter in each of the big bowls and just before introducing the corn, tilting the bowl to coat the bowl. Keep everything warm and work fast so the butter does not harden and stick to the bowl.
A neater method is to use the holes in the Stir Crazy top. You're supposed to put the butter up there and let the popping heat melt it but that doesn't work. What does work is to pour the melted butter in there after popping is underway. Seems to work but I am still experimenting.
The one thing you never want to do is dump the butter and salt in and them mix. It makes even distribution impossible and is generally artless.
- Put popcorn and oil in the popper and plug it in. The instructions all say to heat the oil until a test kernel pops but I just dump it all in at the start — I see no difference.
- Alton Brown says to add the salt to the oil and corn before popping -- hmm, good idea. I need to try that.
- Put the butter in the bowls and place in microwave. Set microwave for 1 minute and start.
- When popping slows to about once every two seconds, turn off popper and pour popcorn into bowl in small batches, a cup or so at a time, salting lightly and mixing as you add each portion.
- Clap the two big bowls together and shake to make sure everything is well mixed.
- Serve while still warm, you can clean up later.
Serve with napkins — and get this, it's important — give everyone a soup spoon. It's geeky, I know, but once you eat popcorn with a spoon, you'll be hooked.