Popcorn is everywhere. Most of us have grown up eating this ubiquitous snack. Movie theaters universally have popcorn stands, and by prohibiting outside food, they manage to convince millions of people every day to pay upwards of $20.00 per pound of the crunchy, salty stuff that their profits are made of.
I happen to be a huge popcorn fan. That is to say, I am huge, and I am also a tremendous fan of good popcorn. Unfortunately, the good stuff is becoming harder and harder to find. Have you looked into the back room of your local movie theater in the last few years? You’ll find gigantic, six-foot plastic bags of pre-popped corn. They just re-heat it and serve it, and make the fairly good assumption that most people won’t know the difference.
Years ago, I became weary of searching out the few movie houses that still popped their own corn the old-fashioned way, and paying usuriously high prices for it. Nobody made “real” popcorn anymore, and it was getting me down. I decided that if I wanted real corn, it was up to me to make it myself. It took a while, but after a year or two of research and practice I discovered I could make popcorn better than any old-fashioned movie house could have served me, and do it for a reasonable price. Having become not just a popcorn expert but also a serious popcorn snob, it seems appropriate that I share what I’ve learned so that perfect popcorn knowledge, just like all the world’s best software, can be free.
What Popcorn Is Not
First and foremost, you must shake yourself free of the notion that those puffed treats made in a microwave oven have any relationship at all to popcorn. Popcorn was invented long before radio, and true popcorn is not made with radio waves for the same reason that news, weather, and sports are not received on popcorn kettles. Microwave energy heats water. This will cause kernels to pop, but once they’ve popped they continue to be bombarded with RF energy, steaming the pieces of puffed corn from within and destroying their texture. The resulting mess is chewy, tough, and unworthy. If that’s palatable to you then by all means enjoy it, but let’s not kid ourselves by calling it popcorn.
Popcorn is not made with hot air, either, for the same reason that legislation is not made with popcorn kettles. Hot air popping robs popcorn of ALL of its moisture, leaving it brittle, slightly scorched, and incredibly dry. Since there’s no oil used in the process, the popcorn is starving for moisture and is actually hygroscopic, soaking up moisture from the air and from your mouth as you eat it. It actually sticks to your tongue — it’s like eating one of those “DO NOT EAT” silica gel packets from an electronics package. If that turns you on, eat away, but again, let’s not sully the good name of a good snack by calling this rubbish “popcorn.”
Popcorn does not come in pre-popped bags. There’s a reason that those products use clever, different names, like “Smartfood.” The manufacturer knows it’s not real popcorn. They’re being honest — isn’t that refreshing? Popcorn tastes best when eaten just minutes after it’s popped, before it’s had a chance to absorb moisture from the air and become chewy and stale, and while it’s still slightly warm. There’s no way to preserve that just-popped magic in a bag that’s sat on the shelf for a week or more.
Popcorn is not healthy. If you can eat a bowl of popcorn without feeling at least mildly guilty, you’re doing it wrong. Popcorn is pure carbohydrate, has a very high glycemic index, is loaded with the worst kind of fat you can possibly eat, and is also uproariously high in sodium due to the salt we use to flavor it. For the health-conscious, this simply means that a harm reduction strategy needs to be employed: don’t eat popcorn every day. A bowl of the good stuff once every week or two is infinitely preferable to a bowl of microwave-irradiated sponges daily, for me. If you pop yourself right into your first heart attack, consider this my disclaimer: I accept no responsibility for any ill effects you may experience through the use of my popcorn knowledge. Eat at your own risk.
What Popcorn Is
Popcorn is one of several species of very specialized corn, roasted in oil at a high temperature until it pops.
Popcorn is a natural product. It’s removed from the plant, cleaned, carefully dried, and packaged for sale without the use of any additives or preservatives.
Popcorn is a treat. It’s not a staple of our daily diet, and it’s not meant to replace real food. Like any so-called “junk” food, it needs to be taken in moderation. I don’t eat popcorn as often as I’d like to, and for me, that makes every bowl of fresh popcorn an occasion worth some serious time and attention to detail.
What Goes Into Perfect Popcorn
High quality ingredients and the proper equipment are the key to perfect popcorn. You’ll need some skill and experience, too, but nobody can make good popcorn from bad ingredients. It’s all important.
There are literally dozens of species of popcorn. The only thing that they all have in common is that they are cultvated expressly for popping. Many popcorn growers have developed their own unique hybrid popcorn strains which they guard as closely as nuclear secrets. Most famous among these growers was a fellow from Indiana named Orville Redenbacher. Yes, he really did exist, that really was him in the television advertisements, and yes, he and his partner developed the strain known today as Orville Redenbacher’s Gourmet Popping Corn. Redenbacher had been working on developing the ideal popping corn since high school.
(A bit of popcorn trivia: Orville Redenbacher almost always wore a bow tie when he appeared in public or in his advertisements. The bow tie was almost always some shade of red. This is in homage to the original name of the strain of popcorn he and his partner developed. Before a marketing company decided it should carry the Redenbacher name, it was called RedBow Popcorn: Red for Orville Redenbacher, and Bow for Charlie Bowman, the man you’ve never heard of.)
The stuff you will find at your local grocer, packaged in clear plastic bags, is called bulk popcorn. It’s guaranteed to be fairly low-grade stuff. It’ll pop, all right, but the popped volume will be low, the kernels are likely to be mushroom-shaped and chewy, and you’ll find a lot of “old maids” (unpopped kernels) in your bowl. Bulk popcorn is a blend of species and harvests, and will never be very good or very bad. It’s consistently mediocre. Bulk popcorn is to premium popcorn what blended Scotch Whisky is to a good single-malt.
There’s no sure way to evaluate the quality of popcorn by examining the kernels. Therefore, more so than in the buying of any other food product, you must judge popcorn by the grower’s reputation. Orville Redenbacher’s corn is of a very high quality, and properly prepared, it has a nice, fluffy texture with a high percentage of “butterfly” kernels. It comes in a sealed bottle and is thus easily stored. It’s also pretty expensive when compared with bulk popcorn, and it’s the only widely available high-end popcorn. Pop Weaver popcorn, almost as widely carried, is also very good, and slightly less expensive for similar quality and quantity.
I’m going to tell you a secret now. It’s one of the key factors that makes the popcorn at my house the very best, and I’m going to give it away so that you too can share this knowledge with others. I know where the world’s finest popcorn is grown.
It comes from a place called Murray, Kentucky. Every fall in that small farming community, the Ellis family harvests a strain of popcorn that has been their family’s legacy for more than half a century. For generations this family has brought us the perfect popcorn by supervising every aspect of its production, from planting to delivery. Their product bears, and richly deserves, the name, “Blue Ribbon Popcorn.”
This is not an advertisement — I do not work for Ellis, and I’ve not been compensated by them — but I am an enthusiastic, loyal customer and would love for this fine family to have your business if you are so inclined. Their web site allows ordering, albeit in somewhat large quantities. For smaller quantities, they can direct you to a local dealer or online distributor. They are the friendliest people you will ever talk with, and proud of what they do.
Ellis Blue Ribbon Popcorn Company
101 East Poplar Street
Murray, KY 42071
Toll Free: (800) 654-3358
Fax: (270) 753-7002
UPDATE: Ellis is out of business, sadly. But there’s hope. See this post.
I tend to buy popcorn in large quantities. It’s less expensive that way, and if stored properly, popcorn has a wonderfully long shelf life. If it’s stored at moderate to low temperatures in a tightly sealed container, it will be almost as fresh after a year of storage as it was when it was first shipped. Stored in open air, it’ll be flat and useless after a month or two. My last order from Ellis was about 8 pounds of popcorn, and I still have two or three pounds left after nearly a year. I made some two nights ago and it was still quite fresh and good. I store my popcorn in ziploc bags, sealed tightly after squeezing out as much air as possible.
Oil for popping popcorn needs to have some very specific properties. It needs to be able to withstand temperatures in excess of 500 degrees (Fahrenheit) without smoking, breaking down, or catching fire. It needs to have either no flavor or a flavor that complements the corn’s taste. It must be thin enough at high temperature to evenly coat the kernels as they pop, but firm enough at room temperature that it doesn’t make a gooey mess when you’re eating. You health-conscious people have already seen where I’m going with this, haven’t you? Popcorn is best when popped in saturated fat.
After countless experiments with various types of oil, I have once again found what I think to be one of the key ingredients of perfect popcorn, and I’m going to share it with you. Of all the oils I’ve used, coconut oil makes the very best corn.
You can use pure, raw coconut oil if you like. It comes in jars, it looks disgustingly like lard, but it works. However, popcorn, in addition to having a nice, savory, salty taste, is even better with butter. Real butter is a pain to handle and even more difficult to use in popping without creating a burned mess. A company called LouAna has the answer in the form of a product called Coco-Pop.
Coco-Pop comes in square sticks, wrapped in waxed paper, just the way butter is often packaged. The wrappers are helpfully marked at tablespoon intervals so that you can slice off just the right amount for the perfect batch of popcorn. The bars contain pure coconut oil, natural butter flavoring, and a small amount of a natural yellow dye called annatto — the same dye used to turn cheddar cheese yellow. Using this oil results in cleanly popped, well coated popcorn with a rich, yellow color that makes a nostalgic guy like me grin, and the corn tastes buttery and wonderful. Coco-Pop is what the popcorn professionals use, and with good reason. It’s the best.
Unfortunately, it’s not easy to find. Coco-Pop is a product primarily sold to concessions, because there’s little to no consumer demand for it. You’ll have to hunt around a bit. Ellis Popcorn will sell it to you, at a slight and reasonable markup, but you may be able to find a local source as well. A company called Capital City Supply in Atlanta, for example, was willing to sell me small quantities on a walk-in basis when I told them I was a popcorn nut. They’re accustomed to selling things by the case, but they were willing to accommodate one eccentric customer. You may have similar luck.
If you’re unable to find Coco-Pop anywhere, seek out pure coconut oil. It’ll still have excellent popping properties, but you’ll have to drizzle on real melted butter after popping. Hints on that later.
Popcorn is salty. Oh, sure, you can have your caramel corn and your Cracker Jack and your popcorn balls at the holiday times, but when we’re talking about real, traditional popcorn, it’s got salt on it. Making popcorn at home as a kid always frustrated me, because the one thing I could never get right was the salt. I’d sprinkle on granulated table salt, shake the bowl, sprinkle on a little more … and I’d still eat bland popcorn and find all the salt waiting for me in a pile at the bottom of the bowl. I didn’t know it at the time, but it was hopeless from the start. I was using the wrong salt.
Popcorn salt is different from table salt. Popcorn salt is very finely ground and is in the form of a fine powder, rather than the large granules of table salt. The small particles are stickier and cling to the oil on the surface of the kernels, ending up in your mouth rather than at the bottom of the bowl with the old maids. This fine salt is now sold in grocery stores under the name “popcorn salt,” and it comes in flavored and unflavored varieties. The pure salt is white, and the flavored products generally have a yellow (annatto) color. If you are using Coco-Pop to pop your corn, you’re already getting a dose of butter flavor, so flavored salt is somewhat less important, but if you’re using natural coconut oil, you might want the extra flavor shot from the salt.
I love buttery flavor, so I always use a flavored salt. Not surprisingly, the salt I choose turns out to be the one most professional popcorn producers and vendors use. It’s called Flavacol, and it’s sold by a company that’s been in the popcorn business for many decades: Gold Medal Products. Flavacol comes in a quart carton of the sort in which you’re accustomed to buying milk, and at about two bucks a carton (which will literally last for months or years), it’s a bargain. It’s a fine salt that sifts easily, clings perfectly to the popcorn kernels, and has a slightly buttery flavor that is the perfect partner for Coco-Pop’s savory flavor notes. A Google search for the word “Flavacol” will probably turn up a dozen places that’ll sell it to you online; it’s also commonly carried at warehouse stores like Sam’s Club.
The finest ingredients will turn to garbage if the wrong equipment or technique is used to do the actual popping. There are three critical areas we need to address: heating, agitation, and steam control.
To pop big, beautiful, fluffy kernels, popcorn has to be heated evenly and at the right rate. To understand this, we need to think about how popcorn pops.
A popcorn kernel consists of a hard, moisture-impervious shell filled with starch. In its natural form, the starch is hard, dense, and solid, and it contains a small amount of water which generally resides near the center of the kernel. The moisture does not evaporate over time because the shell is, for all practical purposes, hermetically sealed.
When we heat a popcorn kernel, the temperature inside rises. As we pass the boiling point of water, the moisture inside turns to steam and expands. At first, it begins to saturate the starch inside the kernel, softening and eventually gelatinizing it into a more pliable substance and “cooking” it slightly. Pressure builds inside the shell and continues to build to well over 100 pounds per square inch! Eventually, the shell can no longer withstand the pressure, and it fails catastrophically. The steam, now released from any confinement, expands in a huge (for its scale) explosion, escaping from the starch and expanding it as it goes. What’s left behind is a puff formed by the foamed, then cooled starch.
If we heat the kernel unevenly, we’ll burn one side of the shell. The shell will lose strength, and the kernel will burst prematurely or not at all, resulting in either an old maid or a small “dud” kernel.
If we heat the kernel too slowly, the shell will spend too much time under pressure, and either a defect in the shell will leak away the moisture, or the starch inside will overcook. Dud kernels are the usual result here, too.
If we heat the kernel too rapidly, it will rupture its shell before the starch gelatinizes. It will merely break into fragments without really expanding at all, or sometimes will simply turn inside out.
The ideal popping heat will bring the corn evenly to popping temperature in two to three minutes. Since all poppers are different, experimentation is really the only way to find this ideal setting.
Another important consideration is what happens when we’re done popping. When popping slows, we want to very quickly remove all heat so that the kernels in contact with the bottom of the popper don’t scorch. If we use a pot with a heavy metal bottom, it’s not going to be easy to cool it down quickly. Thin, highly heat-conductive metals are better.
Heat itself isn’t enough. As we saw above, we can’t heat just one side of the kernel. We’ve got to keep the kernels moving so that they’ll heat evenly on all sides and not burn or scorch.
Some poppers have an agitation device built in. The “Stir-Crazy” popper from West Bend has a rotating wire that keeps the kernels rolling around until they pop. If you’re popping in an old-fashioned flat-bottomed kettle, you can shake the pan. However you do it, keep ’em moving until they pop.
As each kernel of popcorn pops, it releases a burst of steam. What happens to that steam next is really important. It needs to go away, and quickly! If the steam becomes trapped in the popper with the freshly-popped corn, it will steam the popped kernels and make them tough and chewy. Never, ever pop popcorn in a tightly covered popper of any kind. Make sure it’s well vented so that steam can move freely past the corn and out the top, where it will do no harm.
As it turns out, I have found the ideal home popcorn popper, and it’s not high-tech at all. In fact, it’s inexpensive, simple, and human-powered. I’m talking about the Whirley-Pop, made by Wabash Valley Farms and available everywhere (even on Amazon.com) for about twenty bucks.
The Whirley-Pop has a kettle made of aluminum, and a lid with hinged metal doors for adding ingredients and dumping the popped corn. Attached to the lid is a hand-cranked gear mechanism that drives an agitating wire at the bottom of the kettle. The heat source is your range-top or stove-top. The lid is well vented for excellent steam removal. It is without a doubt the best inexpensive industrial design I’ve ever seen, and it makes perfect popcorn.
The aforementioned West Bend “Stir Crazy” popper works well and would be my second choice if I didn’t have a Whirley-Pop. It has a motorized agitator and contains its own electric heat source, but it costs twice as much and doesn’t work half as well, so I’ll be doing my own cranking, thank you.
How Is It Done?
We’re down to the actual procedure now. I’ll explain each step as we go along, and that can take a little time, so give this a thorough reading before you start. Once the popping starts, things happen pretty fast. I’m going to assume you’re using the Whirley-Pop and my preferred supplies, but these instructions should be easily adaptable to any decent equipment and materials.
First, start with a popper free of any hulls or old kernels. It is NOT necessary to completely wash and dry your popper after every use; some actually say there’s an advantage to keeping the pot “seasoned” with a small amount of oil between uses and washing it sparingly. Coconut oil does not go rancid easily and will be fine under most conditions.
Have a large bowl ready to receive the popcorn. When the time comes to dump it, there’s no time for a search. Also have your oil and salt ready.
Add 3 tablespoons of oil to the popper. If you’re using Coco-Pop, just slice an exact cube from the end of the stick — exactly as long as the stick is wide.
Fill a 1/2 cup measuring cup with popcorn kernels until they’re level with the top of the cup. Don’t forget to re-seal your popcorn container.
To the cup with the popcorn, add 1 level teaspoon of popcorn salt or Flavacol.
Place three popcorn kernels in the oil in the popper and close the lid. Apply heat. On an electric range, you will want between 3/4 and full heat. On a gas burner, a medium-high flame will do nicely. There is no need to agitate at this time.
Wait until you hear the first of the three kernels pop. When that happens, immediately dump the cup of popcorn and salt into the popper, shake to even it out, close the lid, and begin cranking. My target is usually about 40 to 50 RPM. On a gas flame, agitate more quickly, since there’s a tendency for hot spots to form on the kettle’s bottom. At this stage, you are also using the agitation to mix the finely powdered salt with the popcorn and oil.
When you hear the first pop, continue agitating, giving a quick side to side shaking motion every few seconds to keep the kernels evened out on the bottom.
When popping becomes so fast you can no longer count the pops, keep agitating, but at the same time, raise the kettle slighly off the heat source — 1/2 inch is often plenty. This maintains the temperature in the kettle but doesn’t let it keep increasing, to avoid scorching popped kernels.
The crank will get harder to turn under the weight of the popped corn. As it does, slow your cranking a bit. Within a few moments, the popping will slow. When you can count to three between pops, immediately open the lid and dump the popcorn quickly into the waiting bowl. Don’t burn yourself — the kettle will be very steamy and the popcorn quite hot.
You probably will not need to add salt unless you are a real salt fiend, but if you’re going to do so, do it NOW while the corn is still warm and moist from the steam in the kettle. The salt will stick perfectly now. Shake or toss the popcorn as you salt it for even coverage.
If you desire real melted butter, put about a quarter of a stick into a microwave-safe coffee mug and heat it on the defrost cycle of your microwave oven for about two minutes. The defrost cycle heats intermittently — it will melt the butter slowly and won’t burn it. By the time it’s liquified, the corn will have cooled slightly and will be ready to receive the butter. Drizzle it sparingly over the popcorn, toss the corn to distribute, and repeat until you’re happy with the butter coverage.
With any luck at all, you now have before you a large bowl of perfect popcorn. Add a friend, a good movie, and a comfy couch, and you’ve got the makings of a fine evening.
Enjoy. If you’re also a popcorn nut and would like to share any of your own secret (or not-so-secret) tips, I’d love to hear them!