It was what she didn’t say that caught my attention. I was reading a lovely post on seven spoons about Christmas traditions and family and seasoned popcorn. The recipe called for freshly popped popcorn, and started, “While your popcorn is popping, mix together…” How, I wondered, was that popcorn being popped? I would venture to say that most people know how to make popcorn, one way or another. So what assumptions might a reader make about method, given that brief statement?
I’ve been thinking about popcorn for the last few days now. As is my nature, I’ve turned the subject this way and that, held it up to the light to squint through it, put it away in my pocket only to find myself unconsciously poking and worrying at it like a good luck charm. I’ve randomly asked coworkers for their thoughts, then listened with a furrowed brow and a “hmm…” (they’re used to it, I think). And I popped up a big bowl and ate it all.
When I was a kid, my mother made Jiffy Pop once or twice. Remember that little skillet of popcorn that you shook vigorously over a burner until it puffed up into a magical foil turban? It was terribly exciting, but maybe not too practical for daily use.
We had a regular popcorn maker, but it was a bit of a production to use, and only grown-ups could touch it, as it involved dangerously hot oil. We kids had to stand back and wait for the popcorn to be turned out into a bowl. Looking back, it must have been a royal pain to clean.
Next came the era of hot-air poppers. Our family got one, and because there was no hot oil involved, Sissy and I could operate it. I remember thrill of loading it up, then holding a bowl under the chute while it roared and belched forth streams of popcorn. It was at least as much fun as our Easy-Bake Oven. Unfortunately, the results were fit only for voracious and undiscriminating children, as blasting popcorn with hot air results in something with the approximate texture of foam packing peanuts.
Who needs another one-use kitchen appliance anyway?
And then, microwave popcorn. The singed smell and cardboardy, synthetic flavor are now ubiquitous. I’ve eaten my mindless share of it from bowls passed around by friends during movie parties. But when I stopped to think about what I was eating, my primary reaction was, “Yuck.” I realized I disliked the taste of microwave popcorn. I suspect most of us don’t even question this method of cooking popcorn or how it tastes. It also requires a lot of packaging, and is expensive. A three-serving box of microwave popcorn cost the same as a 30 oz container of actual popcorn kernels–enough for dozens of bowls of popcorn.
I stopped eating microwave popcorn long before we started hearing of the dangers of microwaving in plastic containers, and exchanging plastic water bottles for stainless steel. But now, if I needed it, I’d have another compelling motivation for cooking my own popcorn and avoiding the microwave stuff: perfluorooctanoic acid.
Perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA, is a chemical used in the plastic lining of popcorn bags, and microwaving causes this chemical to vaporize into the popcorn. It accumulates in the body, and has been linked to infertility and cancer. PFOA is being phased out of the manufacture of popcorn bags, but for now…it’s not good news. I’ll take my popcorn without the plastic residue, thank you.
Amongst the simple rituals I treasure, my bedtime snack holds a very important place. Every night I snuggle into bed with a book and a snack–usually cheese, but popcorn makes a regular appearance as well. The comfort of a little something in my tummy is an essential part of settling down and preparing for sleep. So this is a subject close to my heart.
I make my popcorn the old-fashioned way, with a little oil in a heavy bottomed saucepan on the stovetop. From taking the popcorn out of the cupboard to the final dash of salt, this process takes less time than watching a bag of popcorn cook in the microwave. And the results are infinitely better. Hot, crisp, buttery, salty, and oh so satisfying.
Practice makes perfect, they say, and it does take a little practice to get a feel for how quickly your stove gets hot, the thickness of your saucepan, and the right ratio of oil to kernels. But it’s not rocket science. Anyone who can follow basic instructions and pay sustained attention to a task for approximately three minutes can do it.
It’s best to lay out all of your supplies ahead of time until you get good at this. You don’t want to be fumbling for the popcorn while your oil overheats and catches fire.
You’ll need a large saucepan with a lid. Do not try this with a non-stick pan. Not only will you end up with PFOA residue in your popcorn from the Teflon, the pinging of the kernels as they cook will leave little divots in the pan.
Set out the popcorn kernels, canola or vegetable oil, a large bowl, a spoon, the salt shaker, and about a teaspoon of (regular, salted) melted butter.
Place the saucepan on the burner and turn the heat to high. Pour 1-2 tbsp of oil into the pan-you want enough to cover the bottom of the saucepan. Put three kernels in and cover with the lid. This next bit is very important: do not lift the lid until you have heard THREE pops. If you peek in to check the status, you risk putting an eye out with a flying popcorn kernel. If you get impatient, tilt the saucepan back and forth a little to gently slosh things around in there.
As soon as all three kernels have popped, remove the lid and pour in the rest of the kernels. I use about 1/3 to 1/2 cup, but you can adjust this based on how much popcorn you want. Cover the pan again, and hold the lid firmly in place while shaking it very gently to coat all the kernels with oil. Continue to shake the pan lightly from side to side as the popping begins.
Once the popping has started, you can lift the lid just enough for the steam to escape, but not enough to let kernels fly out. Give the pan the occasional up and down shake. The popping should build to a furious crescendo, and then start to subside. When the racket has slowed considerably, turn off the stove and remove the pan from the heat. Shake quickly a few more times to be sure you’re not going to get blasted by an old maid, then pour the popcorn into your bowl.
Now you’ve got a fresh bowl of hot popcorn and plentiful options. Season or sweeten to your heart’s content. A light coating of truffle oil transforms the popcorn into an elegant appetizer.
My topping method is the traditional one: drizzle the popcorn with melted butter and shake on the salt while stirring continuously. Unlike buttery topping at the movies, it doesn’t take much real butter to flavor a whole bowl. A teaspoon should be plenty. Be conservative with the salt at first, and taste before adding more: it is easy to go too far and there’s no going back.
As for what comes next: hustle that warm bowl out to the couch, turn on a movie and snuggle in under a blanket. Or take the popcorn, a large napkin, and your book to bed. Prop up with some pillows and tuck the bowl under your chin. The book goes on raised knees. Purring cat optional.