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!
- 2 and 1/2 quart saucepan (8-inch diameter), with tight-fitting lid
- about 3 tbsp olive, safflower or grapeseed oil, or clarified butter
- about 1/4 cup popcorn kernels
- sea salt
- 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.
- 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.)
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.)
Year round. You generally see farmer’s market poppping corn in late fall and through the winter.