It's just popcorn, right?
Not to me, it isn't! I sometimes make popcorn the whole meal and I am pretty particular about how it's prepared. Done well, it's both light and hearty, crisp without being dry, and full of the flavor of corn and butter. I serve it with a variety of toppings — herbs, garlic, parmesan cheese, sriracha, so each bowl can be different.
I wrote about popcorn in 2006, detailing my method for perfect popcorn, and explaining why hot air and microwave popcorn are evil. It's still all true, so go read that. Then come back and I'll tell you how to make it even better. Go ahead, I'll wait...
Everything about the 2006 popcorn was perfect except for one thing — the butter. I was struggling to find a way to get more and better butter flavor and to distribute it well. When you add enough butter to taste, there are kernels that are lightly touched and others that were wet with drippy butter. I tried adding the butter a little at a time, drizzling with various tools, and briefly considered a sprayer. I tried adding it to the bowl first, but it solidified there. And throughout, there was inconsistent coverage and greasy fingers.
So why not add the butter to the cooking oil, I thought? Good idea but butter smokes at a temerpature well below the popping temperature and was quite browned by the time the popcorn was done. (Not a bad taste — like a brown butter sauce and popcorn flecked with brown bits — but not the proper popcorn I wanted.)
I knew mixing oil and butter would not work because, contrary to popular belief, oil does not increase the smoking point, it just dilutes the smoking components (and the butter flavor).
A Better Butter
Then I thought of clarified butter.
Butter contains butterfat, milk solids, and 15-20% water. Clarified butter is butterfat alone. You can buy it or make it yourself. I knew that without the milk solids, clarified butter has a much higher smoking point and doesn't brown. What would happen at popcorn temperatures — especially with the very hot Stir Crazy popper I favor?
I put some clarified butter in the popper and fired it up with a few kernels. I watched...and watched. What I was looking for was popping without smoke.
Uh-oh. It's smoking. I was thinking this might not work, when — pop! Interesting. The pop temperature is very close to the smoking temp. I tossed in the rest of the kernels and that immediately dropped the temperature to below smoking.
An Even Better Butter
Clarifing butter isn't too difficult but I wondered, how about ghee? An Indian traditional ingredient, ghee is clarified butter which is "brought to a higher temperatures of around 120 °C (250 °F) once the water had evaporated, allowing the milk solids to brown. This process flavors the ghee, and also produces antioxidants which help protect it longer from rancidity. Because of this, ghee can keep for six to eight months under normal conditions" (Wikipedia).
Advantage: Inexpensive, shelf stable, and very convenient!
Many grocery stores stock ghee, generally in the gourmet or ethnic foods section.
So here it is: Our popcorn upgrade!
Recipe: Proper Popcorn 2.0
Makes 6 quarts: Adjust amounts if your popper makes less.
1 cup of popcorn (I use Bob's Red Mill)
Fine salt to taste
2.5 ounces (by weight)=1/3 cup ghee
Popcorn popper, preferably a Stir Crazy
- Measure the ghee. If you refrigerate your ghee, it's hard to spoon in a cup so meter it into a bowl on a kitchen scale. You can also soften it in the microwave, but that is tricky because ghee has no water and is transparent to microwave energy.
- Put butter in the popper with two kernels of unpopped corn and plug it in.
- The instant the test kernels pop, add the rest of the kernels.
- Alton Brown says to add the salt to the oil and corn before popping -- hmm, good idea. I need to try that.
- When popping slows to about once every two seconds, turn off popper and pour popcorn into the giant bowl, and add salt, a little at a time, stirring between additions.
- 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.