January 19 is a celebration of my favorite food, popcorn. Yes, it’s National Popcorn Day. As I’m sure you can imagine, at least one bowl will be popped in my household before the clock strikes midnight.
As the years have gone by (and I’ve become more careful about striking the right balance between a good snack and health), I’ve become increasingly snobby about my popcorn. For example, I stopped doing pre-packaged microwave popcorn. The dust has been known to cause problems for workers, and it just tastes somewhat artificial. Movie popcorn was a former favorite, but it has around twice the fat and calories of what I can produce in my kitchen. Between that and a good TV, we don’t feel the need to go to the theater as often as we once did.
These days, I have settled on my own popcorn as my personal gold standard. Popcorn is a seemingly simple thing to make: put some kernels and oil in a pot and apply heat. However, I’ve learned a few subtleties that I believe make a tremendous difference:
- The quality of the corn makes a difference.
- Oil choice makes a difference. It should have a high smoke point, and a relatively neutral flavor. While canola and corn do a good job, and olive oil is OK, my oil of choice is peanut oil. It can produce a crisp kernel and what flavor it introduces is pretty good. I’ve experimented with others, such as sesame oil, but while the flavor is welcome in an Asian stir fry, it doesn’t do as well in popcorn.
- This is one of the many situations where knowing your stovetop is important. My old stove would have to be at full blast during the whole cook process. My new stove was both more powerful than the old one, and likely the newness made it work better. Full blast for the full cook time meant that it would pop more violently, causing some of the unpopped kernels to get caught among the popped ones, resulting in more old maids. Now, I keep it at medium heat. However, if the popped corn fills the pan and I have to dump that out before cooking more, I’ll turn the heat up to help it recover from the time off the burner (and give extra heat to the ones that still need to pop).
- Shake the pan as you go to help any kernels that got up in the popped corn to get back down to the pan–again, to prevent old maids.
- Popcorn pops as the result of water expanding inside the kernel. This means a lot of steam will be present. unfortunately, this is the enemy of crispness. To combat that, I use as big and wide a mixing bowl as I have. This exposes more of the corn to air, allowing the steam to escape. If you can resist, give the popcorn a few minutes to rest before eating for this process to take place–I usually take the opportunity to wash the pan.
As I mentioned, I prefer homemade, and typically stovetop. However, I’ve experimented with homemade microwave popcorn. One method is to put some popcorn and oil in a brown paper back, seal it, and nuke it. I’ve had some success with that. Another method is to use a large microwaveable container (such as a large glass measuring cup) with a plate on top. This will contain the corn while allowing steam to escape. Either way, keep an eye on the popcorn to make sure it doesn’t burn.
If you use healthful oils and skip the butter, popcorn can be a delicious, whole-grain snack. If you take the time to learn how to make it yourself, you’ll find it is both better and cheaper than any pre-packaged popcorn you can find at the store or your local movie theater.