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The Vine: December 23, 2011

Submitted by on December 23, 2011 – 10:21 AM45 Comments

I have a culinary question for the readers. My diet is probably around 25% popcorn. I'm shoving fistfuls of it in my mouth for dinner at least three times a week. I make it on the stove — microwave popcorn tastes weird to me, and air poppers make it too dry — but I always have trouble getting it to pop right. I've found that it tastes best if it starts popping within a second or two of hitting the pan, so I try to get the pot super hot before pouring in the kernels. Unfortunately, the line between not hot enough and grease fire/scorched kernels is French-model thin. I usually only manage to get it perfect once every 10 times or so.

I've Googled for tips, but everything I can find just recommends heating the pot over medium heat and shaking it constantly once you add the kernels. The shaking thing definitely helps get all of them popped, but it doesn't really get them to pop more quickly.

So…does anyone have a secret technique for popping corn just right every time? Less oil, more oil? Certain type of pot that distributes heat better? Is there some special way to shake it that only experienced popcorn pros know? Does white corn do better than yellow? Seasoning suggestions are certainly also welcome. I usually just do salt or nutritional yeast.

Thanks,

Popping in Portland

Dear Pop,

Two words: bay seasoning. But that's all I've got. Readers?

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45 Comments »

  • Kate says:

    Put oil in pot, over medium heat. Put one kernnel in the pot. When it pops, add the rest! Shake as normal so they don't stick to the bottom and burn. That's what I do and am happy with the results.

    Also, the lady is RIGHT about bay seasoning. Also, lemon pepper. FOR. REAL.

  • Katxena says:

    I have, love, and recommend the Whirley Pop stove-top popper (not affiliated, just a happy customer). I follow the directions very carefully each time, and end up with amazing popcorn. As for the oil, their instructions say to heat the stove to medium-high (for gas, just turn it on, for electric, turn it on and let it heat up), then put the pan filled with oil and popcorn on the heat. You aren't supposed to heat up the pan with the oil in it because it is aluminum and heats super-fast.

    So, that's my long-winded way of saying — buy a Whirley Pop. And if you don't, maybe try using an aluminum pan?

  • Katherine says:

    Same issues regarding heat so no help there, but if you like a little kick fry up some jalapenos in the oil prior to adding the popcorn. I usually remove the peppers before adding the kernels as I'm afraid they would burn. Also a little grated parmesan sprinkled once it's done is tasty and keeps it somewhat healthy.

  • Brad says:

    Place 3 unpopped kernels in the cold oil when you start. Cover the pot and heat it. Listen for them to pop. When all 3 have popped, it's hot enough. Dump in the rest of the popcorn and start popping. (And shake, as per the suggestions you've already read).

    Sometimes you might accidentally put in a dud, so you have to use your judgement when you hear 2 pops and then nothing for a bit. But this technique gets us perfectly popped popcorn 90% of the time.

  • Kristina says:

    Well, you don't say how much oil you use, so I can't say whether more/less oil is needed, but here's what I do : put a few unpopped kernels into the pan while it's heating (on med-high). When the pan is hot enough, these few kernels pop. I take it off the heat for 20 seconds or so, remove the lid carefully, then add my 1/2 cup or whatever of popcorn and return to heat, shaking etc. this has worked 80-90% of the time, though my sample size is admittedly smaller than yours.

  • rab01 says:

    I used to have the perfect popcorn pot – it had gone through one or two popcorn fires that left a black surface on the bottom even after cleaning. It made perfect popcorn until someone who shall remain nameless did me the "favor" of cleaning it with steel wool. sigh

    Do you heat the pot before putting in the oil? heating the pot first gives you more leeway in finding the sweet spot between hot enough and smoke-point. Also, what oil do you use? Some oils have lower smoke points than others.

  • Kristina says:

    Oh, and we have had better luck with white corn, but that might be due to the age of the yellow corn we had in our pantry for 6 years before trying it out.
    I like a salt/sugar mixture for seasoning.

  • Marv in DC says:

    This may be lame, but you may want to check out "americas test kitchen" website. I been pretty happy with the way they break down recipes to get them right.

  • Jennifer M. says:

    I want to second the suggestion of the Whirley Pop. I love mine. I find the cranking of the arm to be less tiring than the shaking of a regular pan. Also, per the instructions I just wipe it down rather than scrub it clean so over time I use less oil as the pot has seasoned. Either way, I believe the key is constant motion.

  • Janice says:

    I don't know if this is in the tips you've seen or not, but what my dad used to do was to put one or two sacrificial popcorn kernels into the oil before he started to heat up the pan. That way, once the trigger kernels popped, you knew the oil was the right heat to pop the whole batch, and it was time to dump-and-shake.

    We also had "the popcorn pan", which was a super-cheap, lightweight aluminum pot with deep sides. I think it was more for the shape and general holding capacity more than anything, but it did heat quickly.

    The awful part was when, as a kid, I could smell and hear him popping popcorn for himself and my mom about 10 minutes after I'd been put to bed. RAGE!

  • tuliptoe says:

    I also recommend the couple of kernels method of knowing when your oil is hot.
    I make mine with olive oil and YMMV but ever since I started my husband goes NUTS eating it. It is really really good. I never measure my oil but I use enough to cover the bottom of the pan and then a little more. Add some kosher salt to this and it is so good.
    Because of this we are trying some experiments like bacon fat and DUCK fat. OMG. They are both unbelievably good but super easy to burn so be careful.
    With regular oil popped I like Parmesan cheese & bacon salt. I am also in the bag for bay seasoning and a salt/sugar mix lightly sprinkled.
    I'm glad I'm not the only one who regularly eats popcorn. :D

  • Ann says:

    Whirley Pop FTW. It's a space investment that I can't justify in my small city apartment, but if you're a serious pop corn eater, it may be worth it.

  • Rokey says:

    Try using infused olive oils – garlic or basil. Delicious!

  • Morgan says:

    Try canola oil. I've tried various oils, and it heats the most evenly and tastes the best. Also has a high smoking point than corn or olive or grapeseed.

    I also add three kernels and wait for them to pop before removing them and adding the rest. Make sure the pot itself has a very flat bottom if using an induction stove.

  • Morgan says:

    Ooh, also: keep the corn in the freezer. Stays fresher longer and the thermoshock when the kernels hit the oil doesn't hurt.

  • Erin says:

    No help on the oil, because I make mine in a brown paper bag in the microwave, but for seasoning I lose fresh grated Parmesan and chili powder.

  • A.L. says:

    Truffle oil and a little sea salt!

  • steph* says:

    I also love stove-top popcorn, and just learned how to do it myself this year (I know). This is what I was taught:

    1) Put the oil in the pot, add kernels, and heat on medium
    2) Wait until the kernels are toasted brown (with a couple of shakes in there for even coverage, but it's not really necessary)
    3) As soon as the first one pops, crank the heat to high. Give lots of shakes at this stage, so the first ones don't burn on the bottom.

    I use a big pasta pot, so all the kernels fit on the bottom, and just regular vegetable oil, nothing special. The trick is the slow roasting (as it were) of the kernels, and then the sudden increase of heat. Once you get to high, all the kernels pop within a minute or so. Pretty much perfect popcorn. As for seasoning, I'm a butter-and-salt girl, but have heard good things about paprika and/or chili powder. Good luck!

  • Robin in Philly says:

    I'm devoted to my air popper, so I can't speak to stovetop methods, but if you're looking for seasoning ideas (and possibly recipes), I recommend the popcorn cookbook 'Popcorn,' by Patrick Evans Hylton:

    http://www.amazon.com/Popcorn-Patrick-Evans-Hylton/dp/1570615799/

    Not only are there cooking tips, there are some great seasoning blends (sweet AND savory), plus an entire chapter devoted to cooking with popcorn. (Yes, popcorn-crusted porkchops exist!)

    Personally, when I'm not using my Jane's Crazy Mixed-Up Salt seasoning (and all the butter I can melt!), I go for a spritz of lime juice and dusting of chili powder. Also, I often do a light coating of olive oil cooking spray in order to encourage seasonings to stick to the popcorn instead of the bottom of the bowl.

    (Aaaand, now I want popcorn. Stupid pregnancy cravings.)

  • JessS says:

    I spray mine very lightly with a baking spray, preferably butter flavored, then sprinkle parmesan cheese and a little bit of soy sauce on it. I used to have a boyfriend who made the most amazing topping, I think it had the nutritional yeast someone mentioned along with soy sauce, but we broke up without my getting the details. For 20 years I've been mourning it. But mine is a pretty good substitute. (And since it has the added advantage of grossing out my kids and husband, I get to eat it all myself.)

    And can I just say that I miss the days of popcorn for dinner. Now I actually have to cook dinner every night :(

  • Debineezer says:

    So, my husband is an addict. Here's the recipe we got somewhere (maybe Betty Crocker)?

    2 parts popcorn to one part oil.
    Put it all in the pan and put on not QUITE highest heat.
    When it starts to pop, take it off the heat for 30 seconds.
    Resume the popping.
    Put into a bowl and add the butter or seasoning. Stir or shake.

    We never get burned popcorn and it's always great.

  • Lynched says:

    The corn-popping method I use was inherited from my dad, and results in perfect popcorn that is never burnt.

    The kernels are in from the start with half as much oil. When the first kernel pops, take the pot off and wait for one minute. Put the pot back on the heat and let them pop, shaking every thirty seconds or so so that the bottom pieces don't burn. Take off when the popping stops.

    We've never been quite sure why you take the pot off for that minute, but it works every time.

  • Elizabeth says:

    We love the Whirley Pop.

  • Jen S 1.0 says:

    I don't even particularly like popcorn and I am CRAVING it now!

  • Nic says:

    I use enough oil to cover the pan and then some. Also, do you keep the lid on tight or crack it? We always kept ours kind of tilted to let steam off–makes for a crunchier popcorn and I've never once burned it. Our seasoning of choice is Ranch powder-add some butter and then shake some ranch on. A little goes a long way so start small!

  • doriette says:

    Do you by any chance have a wok? They're WONDERFUL for stovetop popping. The angle of the sides encourages the unpopped kernels to fall to the bottom, and the popped kernels just rise to the top.

  • mel says:

    They still make the seventies-style "Stir-Crazy" electric popcorn popper, and it still makes crazy-good popcorn. (uses oil, stirs the kernels automatically) If you eat as much as you say, definitely worth the investment in money and space. I bought one for my husband last year, and I started eating popcorn again after 20 years–it's so good!

  • Matt says:

    I use this recipe and it has never failed.

    http://simplyrecipes.com/recipes/perfect_popcorn/

  • Danielle says:

    I had popcorn other people made in a Whirley Pop and it was good. I'd probably get one if I had more space. My dad always used a large (very well seasoned) cast iron pan and lots of shaking. Seasonings… I'm a devoted butter/salt/nutritional yeast person. Sometimes I add a dash of garlic powder to that. It's awesome to see that someone else uses nutritional yeast on popcorn! We used to smuggle baggies of it into the movie theater to add to popcorn there. I also love it on pasta; try that if you haven't.

  • Bea says:

    I don't have any popcorn advice, but I'm going to try some of these recipes. (I just went and made microwave popcorn because this post gave me a craving!)

  • Bev says:

    Lawry's Seasoned salt; cast iron frying pan, with loose lid.

  • Laura says:

    I second the wok and nth putting some kernels in as test poppers to see when the oil is hot enough. I find that using a deep pot, as opposed to a flatter one (a pot vs. a chef's pan, for example) makes for less burned popcorn and a better pop. But I also think that it's hard to get them all to pop – fresher is probably better.

  • Katie says:

    I love popcorn. We have had two Whirley Pops and they made some great 'corn. But they both broke after just a few months. The gear mechanism is plastic and breaks easily. We found another brand that has all metal parts and we we are going on three years with it. It is called Back-to-Basics and I don't know why it is $65 on Amazon. I'm pretty sure we got it at Target for around $25.
    Our favorite popping medium is coconut oil. Only use a little bit – about a teaspoon for 2/3 cup of kernels. We've found that too much oil makes the popcorn chewy.
    I like white popcorn, but the only type that I've been consistently disappointed with is the yellow popping corn they recently started selling at Trader Joes. It just doesn't get fluffy.
    Clarified butter is our topping of choice and it pairs nicely with a cold glass of Pinot Grigio.

  • Alanna says:

    I LIVE for popcorn and would love to eat it for dinner several times a week if my husband was up for it.

    Anyway, Alton Brown converted me to his method and everyone I've fed this to has totally loved it.

    Preheat burner at medium-high heat (I have an electric stove so skip this if you have gas.)

    - 1 large stainless steel mixing bowl (that you won't really want to use for anything else)
    - 3 tbsp peanut oil
    - several generous pinches of a fine sea salt
    - 1/2 cup of pop corn

    Cover the bowl with tinfoil and puncture with holes (I use a skewer.) Put bowl on preheated burner and give a couple shakes as you hear the oil sizzle (Alton used tongs but that's overkill, just use pot holders.) Turn heat down to medium once you hear the first kernel pop and shake, baby shake until the popping slows down.

    Remove from burner, let sit for a couple seconds to finish popping and then carefully remove foil. Tongs are helpful here but not necessary. Sprinkle more salt if you're a salt hog like me and proceed to devour messily!

    I can't believe I'm in the middle of a 2-day road trip home for Christmas and can't go make this right now.

  • Margot says:

    Fellow popcorn addict here. I use a Stir-Crazy machine (with canola oil) and love it. Very few duds and no burning. I tend to just buy whatever supermarket brand of kernels I can find. For seasonings, I rotate among Lawry's Garlic Salt, Lawry's Seasoned Salt (red lid), Jane's Krazy Mixed-Up Salt, and Old Bay. And obscene amounts of butter to make the seasoning stick (melted in the microwave while Stir-Crazy is popping and then drizzled over the batch). It is barely 8am here in SF, my husband and kids are asleep, my inlaws are here, and I am going to go make some right now. Damn, that's love.

  • Erin W says:

    Another lover of popcorn for dinner right here, and although I will sometimes cut corners by making it microwave (Pop Secret Homestyle is delish) I also love to make it on the stove. I put just enough vegetable oil to coat the bottom of the pan and put in one kernel (white corn is my favorite). When it pops, I pour in the rest, usually too much, and then I finish the batch for breakfast. I don't generally go for seasoning other than a little melted butter drizzled over top.

  • Clarified says:

    Clarified butter isn't just a topping–you can use it as the base. My favorite method is about 2 tbs clarified butter over med-high (closer to med than high) heat to 1/4 c popcorn. When kernels start popping, add a hefty pinch of smoked paprika for extra deliciousness.

    Also, when I make mac and cheese from a box, I use about 1/2 the packet of cheese powder and add real cheese and butter. That leaves a nice amount of the powder to save for popcorn.

  • These suggestions are awesome.

    I actually have a Whirley Pop that someone gave me as a gift a few years back. It never ocurred to me that it might actually work. It just seemed too As Seen On TV to be true.

    As for the test kernel(s)…I've tried that, but when I open the pot to pour in the rest of the kernels, a lot of the heat rushes out and it takes another 3 minutes to get popping. Is there a good way to avoid this?

    Is bay seasoning like…Old Bay? The stuff you put on crabs? That's all I can find when I Google it.

  • Bo says:

    I second the Whirly Pop reco. Best Christmas gift ever (about 20 years ago).

    My dad would say that cooking in lard or bacon grease makes it better. But he's on cholesterol meds now, so….

  • Meredith says:

    I'm a popcorn-as-a-meal kind of woman as well, so here's what I do. I take a medium sized aluminum pot and put in enough oil to lightly coat the bottom. Then I cover the bottom with one layer of popcorn. This yields a full but not over-popped finished product. Medium heat, keep moving, until popping stops. Voila! I like salt & pepper popcorn best, but if I want it spicy, I add cayenne, nutmeg, & chili powder. I use Orville Redenbacher yellow popcorn becauseI find white dry and store brand not as fluffy. We should really have etter diets. Enjoy!

  • Another Sarah J says:

    another whirley pop lover here. my sister got one as a white elephant/gag gift and shocked us all when it worked as advertised.

    also…that same sister used to work for Kraft and said that the cheese in the 'popcorn seasoning' shakers is the same powder that's in the blue box mac & cheese packet.

  • Leigh says:

    "As for the test kernel(s)…I've tried that, but when I open the pot to pour in the rest of the kernels, a lot of the heat rushes out and it takes another 3 minutes to get popping. Is there a good way to avoid this?"

    I don't get how that has to do with test kernels. If you're preheating the pot/oil normally and then putting in the popcorn, don't you let out the heat anyhow? Or are you trying to get it TOO hot to compensate for the heat let out, so the kernels would burn?

    I don't know…I have never thought of the speed of the pop as a factor in how good it is, just whether I get maximum percentage popped without burning. For that, we do the "remove from heat for one minute after the first pop" thing too. My corn comes out delicious, and I haven't burned a pot in YEARS.

    Going to have to try some of these seasoning recs, though. YUM!

  • p jane says:

    It's just not popcorn without garlic in our house. Theatre popcorn always tastes like it's missing something…

    We use a Stir-Crazy with canola oil, popcorn oil or bacon drippings, then season with garlic powder and Lawry's Seasoned salt ("red salt"). Depending on who seasons, there may also be Old Bay, curry powder, chili powder, ramen seasoning/MSG, parm, ranch powder, cayenne, "surprise flavours", etc., added to the mix. We also have an almost-empty gallon jug of Act II "Buttery Popping and Topping Oil"–it doesn't impress me for popping, but a 1/4 cup heated and drizzled over popped corn adds flavour and seems to preserve the "crisp" of the corn instead of kinda melting it like butter tends to do.

  • Laura says:

    Wow, most people here use WAY more oil than I do. I use 1Tbsp oil and 1/2 c kernels. I prefer yellow kernels. I heat the oil (uncovered) over medium-high heat with 2 kernels in it. Once the kernels pop, I add the rest and stir until it's mostly popped, then take it off the heat but keep shaking. I have an old-school popper with a stirring lid – probably similar to the whirley pop things, but more than 40 years old :)

  • serendipity says:

    Somebody recommended canola oil earlier in the comments.

    Coincidentally that was the subject of the final question in a Jeopardy episode last week. Something about creating a product from rapeseed, what was it called… turns out the word "canola" is made up: CANadian Oil Low Acid.

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