Perfect Homemade Popcorn: The Quest
I’ve spent the last few weeks on a quest for perfect homemade popcorn. I know that’s ridiculous, but as justification, let me just say that I’m writing this during COVID-19 stay-at-home requirements. We’re ALL on a quest for something we hadn’t shown any interest in…Before.
I’ve learned a lot, and I want to share. Mostly because it helps justify the amount of time and money I’ve put into this research, both written and taste-test-based. It all started because I’d read that it was easy and cheap to microwave regular popcorn, rather than buying the pre-packaged, individual serving microwave stuff. You just put regular popcorn in a paper bag—no oil—roll the end of the bag closed, and microwave till popped.
So I tried it. And yes, you can get popped corn that way. But repeated tests proved it’s likely to either burn, or to leave about a third of the kernels unpopped. Hence, my quest. I’ll spare you all the steps I went through, but trust me, there were many. I’m going to share just the important stuff—the Holy Grail points of making superior popcorn at home. I’ll put actual instructions toward the bottom, if you want to skip the whys and wherefores.
- Don’t buy the microwave stuff, because there’s a lot of stuff in there that you aren’t bargaining for. If you do buy it, don’t read the ingredients.
- Don’t expect any popcorn made in the microwave to be comment-worthy.
- The corn matters. Good stuff is better than cheap stuff. Fresh stuff is better than old stuff. Specialty and gourmet popping corn definitely tastes different. It’s subtle, but it often has more flavor. There are blue ones, red ones, purple ones, hull-less ones….
- Oil matters. It has to have a high smoke point, so don’t use olive oil, as tempting as that may sound. While regular vegetable oil will do, coconut oil comes highly recommended. I have to confess that I haven’t tried it, because I got stuck on the idea of:
- Ghee. Which is clarified and slightly toasty butter. It’s usually made from unsalted butter, and is lactose-free. Obviously, if you cook something in butter, it tastes like butter. And yes, it works.
- The shape of the pan matters. Wider at the top than at the bottom is best. A wok, for example, or something like this. Why? Because as the kernels pop, they will move up the side of the pan, rather than sitting in the bottom to burn. If you don’t have one, then just follow the rest of the suggestions, and things will work out alright.
- Pan lids matter. If you have a lid that completely covers the pan, the popcorn will retain and reabsorb the steam that’s created in popping, and steam makes popcorn tough and chewy, rather than light and crisp. You have to be able to vent a lot of steam without allowing popcorn to fly all over the place as it pops. Try to find a lid that will sit off-center or tipped without falling off or in.
- Proportions matter. You want half as much oil as unpopped corn. (You can use a little extra oil if you’re using ghee and like your popcorn to taste buttery.) So if you’re using a half cup of corn, use a quarter cup of oil. (That amount will make enough popcorn for three or four people, BTW.) Also, don’t try to cut back the amount of oil. I know it seems like a really good idea to use less oil. I certainly thought so. But not having enough oil in the pan can make your popcorn tough when it should be delicate.
- Temperature matters. On an electric stove, turn the heat up to the highest setting. On a gas stove, make the flame about the same size as the bottom of your pan.
- Timing matters. The oil needs to be hot before you put in the corn. You test that by dropping three kernels into the pot before you turn the heat on under the pan. When they pop, you add the rest of the popcorn. Here’s the secret trick, and it’s important: Immediately take the pan off the heat! Let the popcorn kernels sit in the hot oil off the burner for 30 seconds. This gets all the kernels to the same starting temperature, so they will all pop at the same time. You won’t have some burning while others haven’t even started popping.
- Agitation matters. If you have a sloped pan (either a wok or a pan specially made for popping corn, like this one), you can ignore this step and just leave the pan alone during cooking. For any pan with straight sides, you have to move the pan back and forth or around on the burner while it’s cooking, to keep the corn from burning on the bottom.
- Timing matters, again. When you hear the popping corn noises stop or slow to almost nothing, get that pan off the heat!
- What you do with the cooked popcorn matters. Pour it out of that pan and into a large bowl with sloping sides as quickly as you possibly can. This keeps the popcorn from staying stacked together and allows it to release the steam. Again, allowing the popcorn to breath prevents it from becoming tough.
- Seasoning matters. While there are many fun options for seasoning popcorn, which you can research elsewhere, the most common and, to me, necessary seasoning is salt. Table salt is too coarse and won’t stick to the popcorn. You will want to either buy popcorn salt (Flavacol is my recommendation because for unknown reasons, it’s really tasty), or make your own by putting table salt into a blender or coffee/spice grinder and whirling it around till it gets almost powdery. I add my salt to the pan when I put in the popcorn, which then distributes the saltiness to the kernels as they pop, but you can also sprinkle it on after it’s in the serving bowl.
- Timing matters, yet again. If you let the popcorn sit a few minutes after you pour it into the bowl (yes, I know it’s really, really hard to do that), more of the steam will dissipate. The popcorn will be way lighter and crunchier if you wait.
Crazy, right? So many seemingly ridiculous details! It’s just popcorn….
But it can be the best in your neighborhood. Bragworthy, even. That’s something to strive for, no matter how pedestrian the food.
Here’s the step-by-step how-to:
- Measure out your good quality popcorn and oil or ghee. Half as much oil as popcorn. (Tip: 1/3 cup popcorn will provide two generous servings. Another tip, for the oil: Half of 1/3 cup is 2 ½ tablespoons.)
- Heat the oil and 3 kernels of popcorn over high heat in a pan with the lid on. Watch or listen closely.
- When the 3 kernels have popped, add the rest of the unpopped corn and the popcorn salt to the pan, and remove the pan from the heat for 30 seconds.
- Put the pan back on the heat and the lid back on the pan, but keep the lid off center, to leave a vent for the steam. Move the pan rapidly back and forth across the burner till the popping stops. (No need to move the pan if you’re using a wok or popcorn pan.)
- Immediately take the pan off the heat and pour the popped corn into a large bowl with wide, sloping sides.
- Let the popcorn sit and release its steam for 2-3 minutes before you serve it. This waiting time is also a chance to stir in extra salt or any other seasonings you want to try.
This may not sound revelatory, but it does represent hours and hours of research and testing. I love the taste and texture of popcorn made with these guidelines. The only problem with it is that it’s hard to stop eating. I have high hopes for your results, and I hope you will leave me a note if you find methods that are even better. I love to benefit from someone else’s research. Happy popping!