Stovetop Popcorn

Despite my other addictions, popcorn is my one true love, my desert island item, my No. 1 favorite food. (I’m so very sorry bacon… better luck next year).  I make popcorn nearly every day, always on the stovetop, always with oil or butter (Fat is Food, people – don’t be a hater). It may actually approach the level of a physical addiction, if such a thing is possible. When I am Were I ever to stomp around the house crankily (not that this ever happens, purely hypothetically you understand), acting all out of sorts, Tai will ask me “Honey, have you had any popcorn today?”  (My theory is that I’m actually addicted to the salt, and popcorn is just my vehicle of choice… except when it’s bacon.  Sweet, sweet bacon.)

It may be genetic; my Dad also had a once-a-day popcorn habit, and there are many pictures from my childhood of the two of us, giant popcorn bowl at hand, hanging out on the couch, watching golf, or the Red Sox, or Barney Miller.  So maybe it was learned behavior; a real nature vs. nuture conundrum!  At any rate, since I make popcorn nearly as often as I brush my teeth, I’m always amazed when people tell me they’ve never made popcorn, or even better, say “But how do you make popcorn? Like, you mean, not in the microwave?”  There are a few who have air-pop popcorn makers (which I find come in really handy when you need some packing material) and a few who tell nostalgic tales of Jiffy Pop, but it seems almost no one out there is making real popcorn anymore, which is a shame.  Popcorn is a whole grain that is high in dietary fiber and low in calories and saturated fat. Recent studies suggest that popcorn is also high in polyphenols, the plant-based compounds found in coffee, wine, tea and chocolate that are famous for their cancer fighting ability (making my all-too-often Popcorn and Red Wine dinner a nutritional win-win!).  When cooked in olive oil, popcorn packs even more nutritional punch as anti-oxidants in the olive oil work to lower your LDL cholesterol and keep your cardiovascular system happy and healthy.

When prepared properly, stovetop popcorn takes less time to make than microwave popcorn, does not contain a laundry list of chemicals that you can’t pronounce, can be bought in bulk to vastly reduce packaging (whose brilliant idea was the microwave paper bag, inside plastic shrink wrap, inside a box?), it aids weight loss, digestion, and cardiovascular health and fights cancer!  Did I mention that it is also delicious?  Really, it’s a miracle food. It’s easy to understand why the Mayans worshipped it

Corn grows readily in the Northeast and is usually harvested from July to September.  Local popping corn is a bit more difficult to find than sweet corn on the cob; Madura Farms grows it, and sells at the Gossett Brother’s farm market, however, I really can’t recommend it.  I’ve tried it twice now and have found it very inconsistent; sometimes old, dried-out and full of silks, other times, nearly impossible to pop.  I keep trying, because I want someone to grow reliable, delicious, local organic popcorn, but I have not had much luck.  My friend Christina gifted me with some Rancho Gordo heirloom crimson popcorn for Christmas and I have to say, I’m hooked. It pops up smaller than conventional corn, but brilliantly white, flavorful and tender.  I encourage you to search out local varieties in your hometown and cultivate the popcorn habit – it may just save your life!

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Stovetop Popcorn

EQUIPMENT

  • 2 and 1/2 quart saucepan (8-inch diameter), with tight-fitting lid

INGREDIENTS

  • about 3 tbsp olive, safflower or grapeseed oil, or clarified butter
  • about 1/4 cup popcorn kernels
  • sea salt

METHODS

  1. Pour the oil in the saucepan, add 3 or 4 popcorn kernels and place over medium-high heat. (If using clarified butter that needs to be melted, melt the butter first, then add the popcorn kernels).  Depending on the size of your pan, you may need more or less oil; what you want is for the oil to cover the bottom of the pan with just enough extra to slosh around easily.  When you add the 3 popcorn kernels, the kernel should make a visible dent in the surrounding oil, but the oil should not be covering the kernels, nor even coming up halfway the height of the kernel, or your popcorn will be too greasy.
  2. Place the lid on your pan and listen (or watch) for all 3 kernels to pop.  Do not shake the pan.  Once your ‘tester’ kernels have popped, add the remaining popcorn and give the pan a back-and-forth shake just to settle the kernels and get them coated in oil.  Again, depending on the size of your pan, you may add more or less than a 1/4 cup.  You want the kernels in a single layer only on the bottom of the pan; I usually fill it to a little less than a single layer, so that the kernels have room to move when I shake the pan.  (If you are the measuring type, fill your dry pan with a single layer of popcorn kernels so that all space is filled, then remove 2 tbsp, and measure what remains.  That is your popcorn batch size.)
  3. Refrain from shaking the pan until you hear brisk popping start.  This should happen quite soon, within about 30 seconds of adding the popcorn; if it does not, your heat may not be high enough.  Once popped popcorn has filled the bottom of the pan, start giving the pan some brisk, back-and-forth shakes; the aim here is keep the center of the pan over the heat, so that the not-yet-popped kernels do not cool off, but to keep the popped kernels moving, so that they do not burn.  It’s not necessary to shake constantly, but as the pan fills up with popcorn, you need to shake more vigorously to keep all the popped corn moving. 
  4. Listen carefully for the popping to slow down.  Shake, pause, listen, shake, pause, listen; once it slows to about 1 pop/second, turn off the heat and quickly transfer the popcorn to a large bowl.  The whole popping process, from the first flurry of popping to the last kernel, should take about 1 minute.  Add salt and toss popcorn in the bowl to distribute salt evenly.  Enjoy!

Yields about 10 cups popcorn.

TIPS

  1. If you are ending up with a lot of unpopped kernels in your popcorn, trying add fewer kernels to your pan. You may not be leaving enough ‘room’ for the kernels to heat up and explode, or your popped corn fills the saucepan before you have a chance to get all the kernels popped.  Another trick is to place the kernels in the fridge. Popcorn pops because the water & oil inside the kernel heats up and explodes; if the corn is old or dehydrated, no water = no popping.  A spell in the fridge can re-hydrate old popcorn and improve popping effciciency.
  2. If your popcorn keeps burning, try adjusting the heat.  You may be keeping the heat too high whereupon your popped kernels burn before you can get all the rest of the kernels to pop. Or you may be keeping the heat too low; popping takes too long, so the popped kernels have a greater chance of burning before you can finish popping, or the internal steam can escape from the kernel without popping.  On my gas stove, the burner has 7 levels (low, 2-6, and hi) and I keep the popcorn right at 5.
  3. If you are using a local or heirloom variety of popcorn and having a lot of trouble, try switching to a commerical brand.  Master stovetop popping with the commercial brand first, wherein the corn tends to be more uniform in size, shape and water/oil content, and should be easier to pop successfully.  Once you’ve got your technique down, switch back to your local variety and tweak your method until you achieve success.

STORE

Best made fresh. (Well, honestly, I love stale popcorn, and I will eat it the next day, or I will store it away in a Ziploc and munch on it in the car, if it lasts that long. Which is almost never. But I’m weird that way.)

SEASON

Year round. You generally see farmer’s market poppping corn in late fall and through the winter.

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20 comments

  1. Popcorn and red wine. With a side of parmigiano reggiano. Mmm. Do you mean that you don’t like the flavor and texture of popcorn popper popcorn?

    We douse ours in olive oil and salt.

  2. I am the same way about popcorn. It is my staple snack. Although I have to disagree about the air popper popcorn. I adore the texture; you would be right in saying it doesn’t have the same flavor, but I’ve found that a few sprays of olive oil and some truffle salt fixes that riiight up. 😉 (I’ve been doing Weight Watchers, and while I can have oil-popped popcorn, I can have three times as much if it’s air popped)

  3. local kitchen

    Mmmm, reggiano. Or a really super sharp cheddar. Or Tartufo truffled pecorino from Plum Plums. Mmmmmmm. Ahem.

    I will admit it’s been about a million years since I’ve had air-popped popcorn. As I remember, the texture was sort of powdery, much like I would imagine packing peanuts to be. It never made sense to me to air-pop popcorn, then douse it with added fat so that I could enjoy it. I will also admit, I’ve not worried much about my fat/calorie intake; not that I haven’t needed to lose weight at times, just that I always find I’m better off with amping up my calorie burn than I am at cutting back on intake. And, to me, air-popped popcorn that is doused with added oil does taste differently than stovetop popcorn cooked in oil, just like popcorn cooked in oil with added butter is different from popcorn cooked in clarified butter. Subtle, perhaps, but different. But hey – whatever works for you. Air-popped popcorn is still ‘real’ food, and in my book, that’s a vast leap ahead of what most people are eating these days.

  4. becca

    I also will note if your popcorn has a chewier texture it may be that all of the moisture is being kept in the pot. If you let it vent slightly, it will be released and be lighter and more “crisp”. I love stove top popcorn, I just dislike the pieces stuck in my teeth.

  5. I loooove popcorn and have never had it any other way than on the stove. (Well, that’s a lie, I’ve tried air-popped, but at someone else’s house. What a popcorn snob!) I love the memories you have of it; mine are of my mom shaking the cast iron pan and watching the blue sparks fly, hearing the pop slowly die. So, have you tried to grow your own popcorn? I was thinking of trying this summer…along with a million other things I don’t have room for!

  6. Taino

    It’s all true: the hypothetical stomping, the change in demeanor, the popping ritual… I used to HATE popcorn (long story), but Kaela has introduced it to me again. Now, I actually like it again. Just, not more than air. Or bacon.

  7. popcorn is my favorite snack. sometimes i watch a movies just for an excuse to chow on a copious amount of popcorn in one sitting.

    my favorite way to season it is with homemade ghee and homemade curry powder.

    yum!

  8. Great post! I grew up on the boring, bag-o-chemical popcorn, but have switched to stovetop in the past few years (since I kicked my microwave to the curb.)

    We’ve never used that much oil or butter, though, and excellent, fluffy popped corn happens every time. I wonder if the skillet weight has anything to do with reaching popping temps?

    Or, just like with bread baking, there’s a million different ways to make the same thing 🙂 We season with sea salt and nutritional yeast for extra yum!

  9. Yum yum. I too love popcorn (though you have me beat hands down for the quantity/frequency!). I remember first starting to use the bulk kernels in college/grad school with my apartment-mate – we put them in a brown bag and used the microwave though.
    Now, I’ve just found a local source for popcorn, and even though its hard for me to get, I am converted into the stovetop method. I do mine without the butter though – I don’t know what’s going on in there with and without. Some things remain a mystery. I agree with you though, commercial popcorn seems to pop more easily on the stovetop.
    Seasoning – paprika, cinnamon, even basil/oregano/rosemary on there (separately of couse!) One can go totally wild and creative.

  10. local kitchen

    I see I’m preaching to the choir here at Local Kitchen. 🙂

    I think there can be vast differences in the popping methods depending on your popcorn variety & source and method. I find if I use less oil, it doesn’t pop as efficiently; I’ve never tried it on a stovetop with no oil at all – could be an interesting experiment, but I’m sure, for flavor, I would want to add butter or olive oil so it seems besides the point (for me).

    Mangochild, where did you source your local popcorn? I know there is a farm in New Jersey that grows it, but I’ve never seen it around… and there is Madura Farms, but as I said, I’ve had little luck with their popcorn, sadly.

    I have not tried to grow my own, although I was sorely tempted last year. All of my gardening happens in containers, as I live in a tree-filled yard, the only decent sun happens on the deck. I just didn’t think corn would do well in containers.. but who knows? Maybe I’ll give it a try.

  11. Although I am totally a member of the choir, I did want to say that it was fun and informative reading about how healthful my favorite snack is. I had a vague idea that it was better for me than potato chips . . .

    My only memory of stove-top popcorn was once when I made it on a gas stove during a long blackout when I was little (so exciting, right?) and then accidentally put the hot pan on the counter-top and burned a big dark circle there that made my mother very angry.

  12. I love stale popcorn too! I thought I was the only one (besides erik, who loves it too).
    I’m excited to try this recipe – I have an air-popper that I use to avoid microwave popcorn…but the popper smells like burning anymore, and is older than me, so…think it might need to retire.
    Might try it tonight…mmm…popcorn.

  13. anniemade

    i too, love popcorn. stove top, air popped, i’m not that picky. BUT, i have been lucky to find heirloom popcorn grown here in maine! contact crown of maine organic cooperative for more information. they are awesome. i think last year’s rainy season made the popcorn crop even smaller than usual, but the year before i got lovely red, which was the best i’ve ever had. this year, we got mostly traditional yellow. still delish. hooray for the northeast!

  14. megan

    I can’t believe I found this article. I have popcorn (stove top cooked of course), red wine and cheese(sharp cheddar) everyday! It is an addition I believe. But I am thin and healthy. I try to snack the rest of the day on a varity of healthy snacks to meet my nutritional needs but I wonder (often) if I am causing damage health wise by doing this daily. Any thoughts?

  15. We have a popcorn machine at our house… our little one (3) runs around the house on movie nights chanting popcorn propaganda until the machine fires up and he can hear that tell tale metallic ping from the inside of the kettle.

    I was surprised to learn that since the popping oil we use is made from soybean oil… its cholesterol free… and here I was thinking it was a guilty pleasure. Didn’t know about the polyphenols though… thanks for sharing…

    Our favorite around here is to dust the fresh popped corn with brewer’s (nutritional) flake yeast… and some sea salt…

    The yeast ads a great depth to the popcorn… along with some protein and a healthy dose of vitamin B.

  16. Dawn

    This hits such a nostalgic nerve! I also grew up with a dad who made popcorn every. single. night. I have very clear memories of he and I enjoying popcorn while my mom complained it was too salty! Dad had his favorite electric popper, but we also had a popper that we could use to pop corn in our fireplace. I loved the smokiness! When you pointed out the idea of popping popcorn in bacon grease, I thought that was the most brilliant thing I’d ever heard. Unfortunately, it didn’t exactly live up to my expectations. What did, however, was popping popcorn in grease left over from cooking spicy sausage. Amazing! I think next I’ll be saving the grease from chorizo – orange and spicy popcorn!

  17. Barbara

    I make popcorn like this all the time! I’ve just discovered coconut oil… its much healthier and the popcorn tastes wonderful! -More like movie theeatre popcorn (w/o the butter, of course). My fav snack… Love it!

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