The Popcorn Post

I love popcorn. By itself, it’s a simple, healthy food. As a platform or vehicle for other flavors—a “texture food”, my new Skills instructor might call it—it has no peer.

I told a friend of mine I’d send her some popcorn ideas for something going on with her kids’ school. Besides being a big popcorn fan since even before I had braces, I’ve been reading up on the stuff lately as part of a class assignment. I knew I’d someday write a long essay or post about popcorn. Today is that day.

There are a few things that are incomplete below. Details I should take the time to research. Experiments I should conduct. But time is finite, so I’ll start with what I have. I fully expect to revisit parts of what follows. I will update this post or follow-up separately as appropriate.

I’m certain to find punctuation, style, and grammar errors. I won’t announce those unless the changes are significant.

All that said, we’re trying to write a book around here, so please give me your honest feedback in the comments. I think moderation is turned on, but I promise not to block anything for pointing out how I’m a crappy writer.

History and Nutrition

History and nutrition information is all over the web, and I’m not going to repeat all the detail you can get with Google’s help. I’ll summarize.

Popcorn has been eaten by human beings in the New World for at least 5000 years.

It’s a high fiber, low fat, whole grain food. It’s also a pretty good source of Iron and vitamins B1 and B2 (thiamine and riboflavin).

We know that our distant ancestors subsisted pretty comfortably on a diet of (pop(able)?)corn and beans. Supplemented, of course, with roots, nuts, and berries; insects, grubs, and occasional game.

It’s simply good, real food.

What It Is and Why It Pops

Popcorn is a tautological grain: Popcorn is corn that pops.

A popcorn kernel is from one of several strains of the same Zea mays corn that the #2 dent stuff comes from. The biggest difference between a popcorn kernel and one from another strain is the popcorn’s particularly tough hull.

All grains contain water moisture. Producers of the popcorn we buy use a few tricks of storage timing and humidity control to maximize the internal moisture. It wouldn’t surprise me if they also optimized hull strength or brittleness.

So when you cook popcorn, the water moisture gets much hotter than water’s boiling point. It really wants to turn into steam. But it can’t, because the hull holds it in. Eventually, the steam gets hot enough, the pressure builds enough, that the hull bursts. As the steam escapes, it gelatinizes the starch—it cooks and swells it up—explosively. Pop!

The Evil Doppelgangers

If you are eating something that might as well be potato chips, it might as well be potato chips. Anything healthful in the popcorn itself is thoroughly countered by artificial cheese flavor or “one or more of” things. If it’s available in a sealed bag on the potato chip aisle, it might as well be potato chips.

Movie theater popcorn is poison. It’s made with the wrong fats, artificial flavorings, and too much salt. And don’t get me started on the “buttery” topping. Far too much of exactly the stuff to avoid. I usually buy the Large so I can get a free refill for home.

Packaged microwave popcorn is evil. ‘Nuff said.

What to Buy

The best popcorn I’ve found so far is the organic stuff generally available in bulk from your local health food store. I’ve seen it with rainbow colored hulls or just looking like plain ol’ popcorn. They seem to pop about the same.

Orville Redenbacher’s corn is the next best, but it’s usually horribly overpriced. Popcorn is just a grain. It’s not expensive to produce. The best price I see on Amazon at this very moment—multiple large containers and free shipping—works out to over $3.50/lb. The organic stuff up the road is no higher than $1.87/lb., and I think it’s closer to $1.25.

In my neck of the woods–Charlotte, North Carolina, USA–the big name store brand kernels in bags by the pound or two are terrible. All of them. Don’t waste your money.

I have a lead on some “gourmet” stuff that claims to be even better than the organic, but I haven’t bought any yet.

How to Pop It

How you’re going to use the popped corn influences the best way to prepare it, but any method works at least pretty well for most purposes.

Air Popping

Air popping produces the purest, nothing-but-corn result. Specialized air poppers are available in relative abundance at reasonable cost online and may be for sale at your local department store. Generally speaking, the machines are easy to use and work well. As with the stovetop method below, once the heat is rolling merrily along, you can get a batch rhythm going to last as long as your kernels hold out.

Air-popped corn is very dry and only delicately flavored. You can eat it that way, but it’s a bit of an acquired taste. On the other hand, the dry puffs have a great affinity for caramel syrup. Or molasses. Mmm, popcorn balls.

I don’t have a recipe other than to tell you to follow the manufacturer’s instructions. For small quantities, though, you can get a nearly identical result out of the microwave. I said packaged microwave popcorn was evil. The following recipe yields a puff as pure as air-popped.

Recipe: Microwave Popcorn

Popcorn pops because of steam. Microwaves excite water molecules. It’s a match made in Heaven. The bad thing about packaged microwave popcorn is the crap wrapped around the food. For a serving or two of a simple (if plain) snack, just pop it in a lunch bag.

Ingredients
  • 1/4 cup popcorn kernels, bulk organic preferred
Equipment
  • microwave oven (duh)
  • brown paper lunch bag
Instructions
  1. Pour popcorn kernels into lunch bag. Fold the top of the bag closed and roll it down most of the way.
  2. Put the bag in the microwave oven and cook on high power for a minute or two. See note.
Notes

Microwave Ovens vary. A lot. Here’s what I would do: Put the popcorn in to cook for three minutes on high power AND STAY RIGHT THERE LISTENING TO IT. Sorry to yell. When the popping slows down so that there’s only one every couple of seconds, it’s done. Brown paper bags and whole grain popcorn are both cheap. If you waste a stack or two of bags and corn on your way to Act II® independence, the world is still a better place.

Stovetop Popping

Stovetop popcorn is one of those things that just kind of makes me glad to be in the kitchen. Smells that conjure Kannapolis Intimidators Opening Day and Capricorn One at the Post Theater, the County Fair and the Boosters’ concession stands.

Popcorn popped on the stove is a little more moist than air-popped. The same lid that lets you corral the popping corn also retains its steam. It’s an interesting cooking environment because of that: The kernels are dry-heat cooked in the oil while the popped kernels are very gently wet-heat steamed in their own moisture in the space between the oil and the lid.

The result is perfect for simple eating, and a fine salt will stick to very(!) fresh stovetop popcorn—say that three times fast after your third martooni—even without butter. The smell of stovetop popcorn cooking permeates the household, and budding prodigals come running for the kitchen.

Grind all your dry flavorings as finely as you can: Tiny particles stick better. Beyond that, anything goes. Butter and salt, of course, and then just black pepper can awaken your imagination. Maybe allspice instead of the pepper for a Jamaican twist. Or olive oil instead of butter, then powdered rosemary. Or powdered oregano, thyme, and garlic.

There are a couple of ways to apply the flavors below. You can butter the corn, then salt it, etc., repeating steps as necessary. Or you can mix your ingredients in with the butter, then add the sauce to the popped corn.

My basic recipe uses only butter, salt, pepper, paprika, the dry ingredients added dry. But I also know that dry cocoa powder on popcorn can make you cough. Trust me. Do what makes sense to you. Next time, don’t do the things that didn’t work.

My friend and classmate, Nacho, gave me my current favorite flavor. He’s a good man I’ll remember forever if only for the gift of cinnamon and cayenne together. I’d tried chocolate with the holy red pepper, but with cinnamon it becomes transcendent. The New World’s Zea mays in bold guise.

Strangely, popping corn is one of those times that clarified butter doesn’t seem to add anything. I use plain ol’ vegetable oil, typically soy, and it’s always good. I know that butter is always better. And I promise that this cook still has smell-dreams of the Popcorn gently Sauteing in Clarified Butter Experiment.

But past the kitchen, no one will likely notice. If you’re enjoying an evening alone, when you’re cooking your best to please only yourself, go ahead and get that wonderful smell into the air. But it’s only for you.

Incidentally, cooking the corn in oil doesn’t add many calories or much fat. I don’t remember the precise details, but I was surprised when I read it. When you think about it, I guess a couple of tablespoons over a few cups of food just doesn’t add up to much. You can check the official government details for yourself if you care to.

Oil Poppers

There are dedicated oil poppers designed to imitate the stovetop approach. They’re generally okay, easy to use, etc. and they do the job(*). But they are single-purpose devices that do not perform quite as well as the real thing. In a crowded kitchen like mine, I just don’t have the space for one.

(*)I suspect I could survive on popcorn if I lived in a dormitory. It’s also not too much of a stretch to imagine using the heating element for grilled cheese sandwiches. Or maybe an ambitious little sauce Choron for organic pork chops poached with apples, onions, and a little juniper or nutmeg in the microwave. But I digress.

Recipe: Stovetop Popcorn

What we’re trying to do here is get the maximum proportion of popped kernels. Into every bowl some unpopped kernels must fall, but good corn popped well shouldn’t have many.

To accomplish this end, we want things under the lid moving quickly. The faster we can get that little bit of moisture inside the kernel from room temperature to about 450°F, the bigger our puffs will be. If we cook low and slow, for example, we’ll end up with something toasted, closer to “parched” corn.

Perhaps interestingly, at least if I have my high-level view of physics down right, the temperature inside the kernel of cooking popcorn actually gets hotter than the oil around it.

In most of our cooking, we’re trying to raise the temperature of the cooked food to something at or lower than its surrounding cooking environment.

A rare steak might be seared at a temperature above 1000°F, finished below 400°F, and served with an internal temperature in the neighborhood of 123°F or so. Another cut might braise at a low 190°F simmer for hours. A loaf of bread is done when its crumb is set and the extra moisture has evaporated: about 200°F, even for that simple Italian loaf you might bake at 400°F or more.

But popcorn is different. Inside that little popcorn kernel is water as gas—steam—that is taking up more space than it was as a liquid. There’s not a whole lot of room inside that tough little hull. When something wants to take up more room than there is available, it causes pressure.

So we have pressure, and we have gas, and that means we have heat. But we’re also adding more heat with the hot oil surrounding the kernel. Heat added to heat shows up as increase in temperature, and thus we more quickly reach an explosive 450°F inside the kernel. It’s also why you can effectively pop corn in Canola. 400°F smoke point, yet no smoky mess.

All of which is what the whole three-kernel stuff below goes back to. By preheating the oil, we minimize the time between heat’s first kiss and our explosive finish. Pop!

Honestly, I’m not completely convinced there’s much of a noticeable difference in the final product, as long as you can get enough heat applied quickly. Popcorn is pretty forgiving about a lot of things, and I’ve always had pretty good results even starting with cold oil. If I had a test lab…

Ingredients
  • Popcorn. As much as you want in batches somewhere between 1/4 and 1/2 cup. The best measure is a single, full layer of kernels at the bottom of your cooking vessel.
  • Oil. To coat. Add a glug, maybe 2 tablespoons. If that’s not enough, add another. A little too much oil is probably a little better than too little, but don’t go nuts. It’s also not too late to add a little if you pour in the kernels and see it’s not enough. After you’ve made a few batches, you’ll know it works within your own kitchen’s nuances.
  • Unsalted butter, melted. As you will. Butter can be used for flavor, glue, or both as you like.
  • Salt, pepper, and paprika, very finely ground. To taste. I like to go beyond pepper-as-seasoning and use heaping tablespoons of very freshly ground black pepper. It’s for times like these I keep an electric coffee grinder dedicated to spices.
Equipment
  • A good-sized, heavy-bottomed sauce pot with a fairly tight-fitting lid. See note on pots.
  • Dry towels, hot mitts, etc. You’ll be holding the lid on the pot mentioned above while you shake it over the heat. Protect yourself appropriately.
  • A mixing bowl big enough for the purpose. See note on bowls.
  • Odds and ends. You’ll need your preferred butter-melting and pouring equipment and whatever utensils you like to use when gently mixing a few quarts of popcorn. That sort of thing.

    You’ll see when you read all the way through the recipe before starting. You always read all the way through the recipe before starting, right?

Special Preparation

In some cases, you’ll only have to do this once. If you’d rather sacrifice quality for ease, you can skip measuring and start with cold oil.

  1. Add a single layer of the popcorn kernels you’re using to the pot you’ll be using.
  2. Empty the pot into a measuring cup of some sort. Find out how much it takes to cover the bottom of the pot.
  3. Record the answer.

I’d actually use my scale. But while it’s not terribly important in this case, be aware that kernel sizes may vary depending on what you’re popping. The same weight measurement may not consistently optimize your batch size from one purchase to the next. Hardly the end of the world.

Instructions
  1. Mise en place. Get your oil, corn, bowls, measuring gadgets, etc. together and set to go. Group things as you plan to use them. Get your butter melting. And don’t wait until you’ve buttered the popped corn to discover you’re out of salt.
  2. Add the oil and three popcorn kernels to the pot. Cover and apply medium high heat. See note on heat.
  3. Wait. Listen for the third kernel to pop. Be patient. Use your hot mitts and shake the pan a little bit if it makes you feel better to do so.
  4. When the third kernel pops, remove the lid and add the rest of the corn—one batch!—and shake to coat the kernels. If you suddenly discover you haven’t used enough oil, you can add some now, but do so quickly. Replace the cover.
  5. Pay attention to the sounds from the pot. Help it along where you should.

    In particular, as the kernels start to pop, you’ll need to hold the cover on and shake the pot. You want to keep all the kernels in the oil and most of the puffs out. When you shake the pot, the small kernels fall to the bottom and the large puffs seem to float to the top. Incidentally, this phenomenon is known as “The Brazil Nut Effect”.

    Pay close attention to your heat. There’s a sweet spot—and sometimes it moves like a wave—between just too much and too little. Totally tubular.

  6. As the popping slows, be ready to empty the pot into your bowl. If you keep the heat going too long, you’ll burn the corn, so be conservative until you find your groove.
  7. Remove the lid and dump the corn into the bowl. Unless you’ve seriously misjudged something, the oil is gone, so you need not fear splashing. You might have a few kernels pop even after they’re in the bowl.
  8. Drizzle melted butter over the top and mix gently.
  9. Sprinkle salt, pepper, and paprika over the top and mix gently.
  10. Repeat buttering and seasoning as desired.
  11. It’s ready to serve. You can hold it warm or simply leave it at room temperature. Ready-to-eat popcorn itself is not a Potentially Hazardous Food (PHF) requiring temperature control for safety. What you put on it might change that, though, so don’t be reckless. If you’re going to store it, let it cool, then keep it airtight.
  12. I have read, but not yet tested—once they’ve smelled it, it’s hard to keep them at bay—that you can take the popcorn you have now, and put it in a hot oven—say, 350°F or more, depending—for a few minutes. It makes sense to me that it would be very good.
Notes

Pots. The one I use at home was “free” from the Cooking Club of America. It’s a 4- or 4 1/2-quart “Dutch oven”-style pot with a thin lid that sits recessed into the top.

You can use a thinner-bottomed pot—a run-of-the-mill Revereware®, for example—but you’ll need to be extra careful to not burn the popcorn. Pretend you’re cooking over gas even if it’s an electric stove: Heat hits instantly, so don’t keep it on one spot long.

If you have the muscle to shake a cast iron dutch oven over an open flame, more power to you.

Bowls. My “Ginormous Ass-Bowl” holds probably 40 quarts, or not quite 4 1/2 toy poodles. It’ll let me mix 5 batches, an amount far greater than most folks would make at once.

If you don’t have a Ginormous or Big Ass-Bowl of your own, you can use a paper grocery bag. Or a plastic one, I guess, but a paper one is nice for also wicking away some of the extra grease. I’ve used a clean trash bag, but the box says not to use those for food, so I can’t really recommend that you do so.

Heat. Once everything is all heated up to where it should be, you should hear a gentle sizzling sound. If what you hear is a rapid fry, you’re probably headed for a burn. Back off. If you don’t hear any goings on, you might only be giving the kernels a nice hot soak. Turn it up.

In most cases, it’s probably easiest to aim hot and then back off to where you want to be. Do be careful, though. Thin-bottomed pots allow easy scorching and thick-bottomed ones keep cooking longer than the heat you’re applying.

Variations

Remember to grind everything to a very fine powder or it won’t stick. Depending on what you’re using, consider mixing it in with the butter first and applying them together. If you’re using air-popped corn, the butter sauce method may be your best bet either way.

When things call for sugar below, you’re better off with very finely ground table sugar than with powdered “10-X” or “confectioners” sugar, which contains cornstarch. Cornstarch is added to prevent caking, which in our case means “sticking to the popcorn”. You can buy “castor sugar” or other pure, extrafine grinds. Or you can save yourself a ton of money and run a quarter cup at a time through your electric spice grinder.

Cinnamon and Cayenne. Omit the paprika and black pepper. Add cinnamon and cayenne to taste. Optionally reduce or omit the salt and add sugar.

Sugar and Spice. Omit the pepper, paprika, and almost all of the salt. Add cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice, and sugar to taste. Optionally add or substitute mace, cloves, cardamom, ginger, galangal, or cayenne.

Snips and Snails (Curry). Consider omitting the paprika and black pepper. Consider substituting ghee (for the butter). Add cumin, coriander, cayenne, fenugreek, turmeric, and other curry spices (cloves, fennel, etc.) to taste. Be careful with the turmeric: It does come with a rather persistent bright yellow color.

Focaccia. Substitute extra virgin olive oil. Eliminate the paprika. Add rosemary and garlic to taste.

Taco. Consider eliminating the paprika. Consider substituting olive oil or lard. Add ancho, chipotle, cumin, garlic, onion, annatto, oregano, and lime zest to taste.

Jamaican. Eliminate the paprika and consider eliminating the black pepper. Add allspice and clove, cayenne, garlic, nutmeg, and other compatible spices to taste.

Etc. If it sounds good, try it. You really have little to lose.

Other Variations

There’s a whole world of candied popcorn I’m not even going to try to touch right now.

I suspect there’s a good way to get a classic cheese sauce onto popcorn, but I haven’t even begun to explore such avenues myself. Nor the questions those travels would raise.

I haven’t yet determined the best way to apply a thin, wet sauce such as soy, Worcestershire, or Tabasco®.

Popped corn is too delicate for a trail mix, but I can’t help but think there are some sort of salad possibilities.

Perhaps related to that exploration, a historical method I have not tried is to eat the popped corn as I might a bowl of Lucky Charms®. Perhaps less clandestinely.

Other Things I’m Still Pondering

My continual joy with food is that there’s always something new to learn. Here are a couple of questions currently at the surface.

The Pot Lid

The pot lid keeps the kernels from escaping and it helps retain the heat so that they get hot quickly. But it also holds in moisture. While that tiny bit of water helps hold seasonings and flavorings to the puff, it also makes it just a little less crisp.

So here are my questions: Is it possible to vent the steam and retain the heat? Would the result be better? I’m not sure if traces of oil or traces of oil and water would better hold the flavoring particles.

Finishing

I recently read a caramel popcorn recipe that called for returning the caramel-coated corn and peanuts to the oven for a while. I included the step as optional in the recipe above because it just makes sense. I haven’t tested it myself.

But a quick turn in the oven drives off that little bit of residual or newly obtained water. The fresh crisping would make it tastier and more robust for storage. I wish I’d thought of it.

Here’s the science: As a cooked starch cools or ages, it shrinks a little bit, expelling moisture. The starch “retrogrades”, and sometimes that’s just what you want.

If you let freshly steamed rice sit on the stove for a few minutes before serving it, magic happens: Sticky rice gets stickier as all those long starchy chains of glucose molecules grab on to each other, a web of tightening and mutual group hugs.

Or, magic happens: Fluffy rice gets fluffier. The few and tenuous connections are mostly broken as the grains withdraw their starches back into themselves, their reluctant socialization tolerated only for the excited heat of cooking.

Another word for retrograding starches is “staling”, and yes, it means just what you think it does. Bread gets dry. Cold, leftover biscuits taste of little other than grease. Shoestring fries become mealy or chewy.

Even stale is sometimes good, though. Stale bread is tremendously better than fresh for such wonders as croutons and French toast, Thanksgiving stuffing, and the humble, versatile breadcrumb. There’s one thing better than oriechiette and your own cheddar-mozzarella Béchamel (“cheese sauce”) Mac-and-Cheese: Homemade crumbs from your own stale bread browned on top.

And staling can be reversed to some extent. Refried fast food fries are more edible than their colder predecessors. Yesterday’s biscuit, toasted next to a slice of country ham under the broiler, ain’t half bad under some of that leftover red-eye gravy, microwave reheated in a coffee cup.

And when you toast that hunk of stale bread on a pretty hot stove with a little bit of oil, the slight gooey, tackiness that makes stale bread so unpleasant changes. It becomes instead firm but brittle. Crisp.

This starch reborn is in some ways more durable than it was before. If you leave a fresh slice of bread out on the counter for an hour, for example, it will start to show signs of age. But a container of croutons will safely and patiently wait on the salad bar for the whole slow 2:00pm – 5:00pm afternoon drag.

But back to popcorn. Odd preferences aside—my Dad has a taste for movie theater popcorn from yesterday’s matinee—staleness in popcorn isn’t a good thing. Putting the seasoned and flavored popcorn back in the oven does a couple of good things.

First, it drives off residual moisture. Sometimes even all of it. Second, it regelatanizes the starches; i.e., it sort of refreshes them. The resulting puffs, cooled, should be light, fresh, and crisp.

If we’re going to put the popcorn back into a heated environment anyway, what other opportunities are there for bringing in flavor and texture? Perhaps we can introduce some nice fluffy whipped egg whites. Maybe sweetened. Maybe flavored. Maybe not.

Egg whites are sticky. Maybe even sticky enough to hold some cool stuff: toasted sesame seeds or fresh thyme leaves; shreds of Parmesan or tiny, tiny pieces of sun-dried tomato; peppercorn salami, toasted almond slivers, and chopped, dried apricots.

Bake until dry, break apart or not, done.

Anyway, things I haven’t tried yet but I figured I’d share. I’d be glad to hear what you have to say in the comments.

Miscellany

Popcorn is not the only grain that will pop. I’ve forgotten most of what they are, but I do remember amaranth. It’s probably available at your local health food store, and it grows wild in parts of the Southeastern U.S.

An amaranth grain is tiny—about the size of a mustard seed—so it’s tricky to work with. When I popped some a few years ago, the first challenge was getting the kernels popped and out of the pan before they burned.

The second challenge was trying to eat a food so light, so ethereal, that the slightest stirring of air in the room would send it flying away in a storm from a bowl or spoon.

Credit Where Due

I don’t remember everywhere I learn everything. For example, I certainly didn’t discover on my own that popcorn held in humidity-controlled conditions for a while pops better. If something looks kinda sketch (as today’s youth are wont to say), call me on it, and I’ll document or correct as appropriate.

For quick access to oil smoke points, I prefer the Good Eats Fan Page: http://www.goodeatsfanpage.com/CollectedInfo/OilSmokePoints.htm. Good stuff!

Trademarks and other such things belong to their respective owners. Hooray tautology!

Kitchen details, as always, are based on personal experience except as otherwise described.

Further Reading

[Warning: Sound] The Popcorn Board has all sorts of information, kids’ activities, and an amazing slow-motion video of popcorn kernels exploding within its Encyclopedia Popcornica.





A version of this essay appeared on Analytical Life on 2010-03-21.