There is really only one way to make popcorn. Well, I guess technically that isn’t true. There are, in fact, a bunch of ways to make popcorn.
You can take a pouch out of a cellophane bag, flatten it out and put it in the microwave. That’s a way to get gross tasting popcorn that frequently is scorched or burnt. You can put loose popcorn into a thingamy gig–a thingamy gig is one of those single use tools that you buy on a whim from Bed Bath and Beyond. If you have a big kitchen, it gets stored in the back of an underused cabinet. If you have a small kitchen, you regret buying it. Anyway, this popcorn thingamy gig also goes in the microwave. I think that people use it to avoid using any fat in the making of the popcorn. Creates a taste and texture similar to a styrofoam coffee cup.
Another way to get styrofoam-reminiscent popcorn is to use one of those air popcorn poppers. I don’t know if they still sell them. You used to put a knob of butter in the top of the dome so it would get greasy. Like greasy styrofoam. That’s what McDonald’s quarter pounders with cheese used to come in.
For people with bars in their basements, you know with a cool neon light and dusty bottles of booze because all they ever do is take beer out of the fridge? Yeah, those people. They might buy a small movie-theatre popcorn maker. It’s next to the arcade style pinball machine they got from Brookstone. They can even buy the fake butter for their groovy machine. Mmmm. How about that? They might have that singing mounted fish, too.
Then, there’s jiffy pop. I’ll just leave that one there.
So, to be honest, there may be many ways to make popcorn, but there is only one way that you can make good popcorn. It takes a heavy, 3-quart stainless steel pot, vegetable oil to coat the bottom of the pot and some popcorn kernels. (Here, I can go either white or yellow, both have excellent results. I lean a little toward the white as they seem to have less moisture. But it’s not science. It’s not like I’m Kenji López-Alt).
I used to heat the oil and then add the popcorn kernels after a test pop. But that was stupid. I’d heat up the oil and then dump a third or a half cup of kernels which would immediately drop the temperature. Then I’d have to raise it up again. There was occasional burning, and, more importantly, this was very inefficient.
Now I put the pot on the burner set just above medium heat. I put the oil and the kernels in at the same time. I swirl the popcorn in the oil, to coat it. Also, because I like the swirling sound of the seeds on the steel. There’s a lot to like about making popcorn the right way.
Oh, and I place the lid on the pot. Don’t forget that. I had a pockmark in the middle of my forehead after a tragic popcorn popping incident. Fortunately it was when I was young, and it healed over with no permanent scar.
As the oil and kernels heat, I occassionally swirl it some more. My stove is kind of old, so it might not be heating evenly, and you want the popcorn to heat up together. Uneven heat is a big cause of scorched snack. This is to be avoided at all costs. I have heard that some people “like” burnt popcorn, but frankly, they are wrong. Burnt popcorn stinks and tastes bad. Believe me.
Be patient. Do NOT increase the flame. This is a mistake. I know this. So don’t do it.
After some intermittent undulations, it begins. Always with a single ding. The cymbal of the seed hitting the lid of the pan. It’s the sound of promise, of a beginning. I have sometimes questioned this miracle of corn and heat and opened the lid. My advice is to open away from your face, because after the first pop there may be a lull or there may be a a blitz. If the latter, shut the lid. Like NOW. (See scar above.)
What follows is the staccato pummeling of the kamikaze seeds throwing themselves against the pot. The start lasts about four seconds of single kernels popping before it becomes a cacophony of explosive corn, releasing energy and steam. It’s critical that you vent the lid, just a wee bit, to let out some moisture. You don’t want soggy popcorn. What I usually do is shake the pot–this is a good technique to force the seeds that might have been tossed to the top of the transformed corn back to the bottom of the pot where it has a chance to pop, too. Anyway, when I shake the pot, I let the lid clank around a bit and out comes some vapor.
Once the corn starts to erupt, you can’t walk away. The entire reaction is done in very few minutes, and you need to take it off of the heat the instant it’s done. Like, seriously, when it’s done. Don’t delay. Turn off the heat and pour it into a bowl. Now. (See burnt above.)
Some people add butter to popcorn, but I don’t see this as a big plus-up. It makes it greasy and doesn’t add too much, to me. But if you like butter, go for it. I won’t judge you.
Now I like to add two kind of salt. Regular salt shaker salt for brine and chunky kosher salt for crunch. It’s a bit more art than science. But the science does kick in if you use too much salt. I think it’s biology. Too much salt and your lips turn white. Like a chemical reaction.
But my secret ingredient, the one that I wouldn’t tell the boys no matter how many Friday nights I made popcorn for our weekly dinner and a movie nights and no matter how many times I caught them trying to sneak a peek, is ground black pepper. Not pepper ground from peppercorns. Nope. The already pulverized pepper in the red and white tin. I sprinkle on enough that you never realize it’s actually pepper, but there is some extra warmth in the bowl.
The popcorn is the best when there is some crunch, some sweetness from the corn and some salt. Maybe more than some. The oil provides the crunch and a little bit of flavor. I use a neutral oil.
Popcorn presents first in the air, its distinct smell fills your nostrils. It goes from my 3-quart stainless steel pot into my big stainless steel bowl. I think we call it the popcorn bowl. The bowl is much bigger than the pot, yet the popcorn expands to fill the bowl. More popcorn magic.
My next step, almost always, is to take the bowl into the other room and plop on the couch with a huge glass of water that I rest on the table. The TV is on, and there is, almost always, a movie to watch. It’s best when I put the bowl between me and a companion, and especially wonderful if the movie is funny.
And that’s really the only way to make popcorn.