Anything worth doing is worth doing well. - English proverb
I’m often kidded for eschewing “smart phones”, driving decades-old cars, and the like; though I’m not averse to new technology, neither am I involved in the typical mad dash to embrace it simply because it is new. I tend to react to new ways of doing things with the same skepticism I apply to everything else: I ask, is there really anything wrong with the way I’m doing it now? Does this new approach somehow substantially improve upon it? Does it save time, cost less, give better results, etc? Is the new solution actually inferior to the old in any way? And if the advantages outweigh the disadvantages, does the degree of improvement justify whatever trouble or expense is involved in the switch itself? Sometimes, my decision is in favor of change, which is why I embraced Twitter, now make extensive use of embedded video and bought my DVD burner when they were still rather pricey. But other times I conclude that there is insufficient reason for change, or even that the “new and improved” method is anything but; this is why I still make popcorn the old-fashioned way.
My younger readers may not remember a time when popcorn was made in a pot rather than a microwave oven, but this innovation was actually fairly recent (dating to 1989). Since I had already perfected my popping technique about 5 years before that I was, as you might expect, in no great rush to try out this “improvement” (especially since I didn’t even own a microwave oven until 1991). I can’t tell you exactly when I first tried it, but I suspect it was when someone made a bag in the library break room; I can, however, tell you that I was wholly unimpressed with it. Though it smelled just as delicious as regular popcorn, it suffered from the same problem as air-popped corn: the absence of oil in the popping process resulted in dry flakes to which salt would not adhere, thus producing a product roughly as appetizing as Styrofoam. And though the industry rapidly solved that problem with artificial butter and flavor coatings, the last batch I tasted (perhaps three years ago) was still noticeably inferior to proper popcorn, and the plethora of unpopped kernels invariably left behind offend my Scottishness. Furthermore, I’ve always been at a loss to understand why anybody with access to a stove would bother with it; microwave popcorn takes just as long to prepare, and it’s dramatically more expensive.
But a couple of weeks ago, I saw news of concerns that the chemical diacetyl, which is used in microwave popcorn’s butter flavoring, could be much more toxic than previously believed, and though I’m not one to encourage food panics I thought that those readers who are concerned, or who just want to eat real popcorn at home again, might appreciate Maggie’s very own method of preparing perfect popcorn.
What You’ll Need
First, get a bag of cheap popping corn from the grocery store. Don’t waste your money on “gourmet” popping corn; once you get the hang of it you’ll find that even the cheapest generic corn produces exactly the same big, fluffy flakes with very few unpopped kernels. Next, the oil: I usually use a mixture of vegetable oil and bacon grease, but I honestly think you can use soybean oil, rapeseed (canola) oil or whatever other liquid oil (not shortening or butter) you have handy without materially altering the results. You’ll also need butter or margarine; modern “spreads” which are less than 50% fat actually work best, but if you want to use butter or high-fat margarine I’ll tell you how below. You’ll also need a standard-sized brown paper grocery bag, and table salt plus whatever other seasonings you fancy (you can even use seasoned salt or a spice mixture).
The pot is the most critical component of the process. Choose a light two-quart saucepan; I find aluminum works best, but a thin-walled steel pot should do just as well. Do not use a heavy iron or steel pot; it will heat too slowly for this purpose, and its weight will make the vigorous shaking necessary for popping too difficult (and probably damage your burner in the process). Repeated use over high heat will destroy Teflon, so you might select an old pot whose coating has fallen apart. The lid should fit snugly, but not lock on; a too-loose lid may come off while you’re shaking the pot, but a locked one will not allow room for expansion. Once you find a pot that works perfectly, hold onto it; I’ve been using the same one for about 25 years.
1) Place the pot on the largest available burner and add 3 tablespoons (45 ml) of oil; measure out 1/3 cup (80 ml) of popping corn, open the paper bag and place it nearby on the counter or floor. Finally, place the pot lid upside down within reach, and put a heaping tablespoon (roughly 20 ml) of margarine in it; if using butter or full-fat margarine use half as much and put a scant tablespoon of water (about 10 ml) in the lid as well.
2) Turn the burner to high heat, and pick up one popcorn kernel. When the oil starts to smoke, throw the kernel into it and wait. When it pops, add the rest of the popping corn and then turn the lid over onto the pot; the margarine or butter and water will fall into the hissing oil when you do so. If the oil starts to smoke a lot more before the test kernel pops, proceed as if it had popped because you may have inadvertently chosen a bad kernel. Proper oil temperature is very important; the water (or water component of the margarine) helps to moderate it so most of the corn reaches popping temperature at the same time (rather than over a long stretch of time as microwave popcorn does).
3) As soon as the lid is on, start shaking the pot vigorously back and forth; the idea is to heat the kernels evenly and keep the popped corn from sticking to the pot. You don’t need to look like you’re trying to erode the burner with friction, but don’t be too prissy with it either. After a little while (roughly a minute, maybe less) you’ll start to hear popping; if you’ve done everything right it will all pop pretty quickly after that point, and you may find the popped corn actually lifts the lid off of the pot! Don’t worry if that happens; it means you’ve done everything perfectly.
4) Once the popping slows down turn off the heat, but keep shaking the pot until the popping stops; then, dump the popcorn into the brown paper bag. If you’re making more than one batch, do so; you want to be finished popping before moving on to the next step. A standard paper bag can comfortably fit two batches, but you can make it work for three.
5) Salt the popcorn, then roll the top of the bag down some and hold it tightly. Shake the bag to distribute the salt, turning it upside down and sideways to get good coverage. Taste the popcorn, repeating the salting and shaking process if necessary, then add whatever other spices you like and shake again. If you’re using seasoned salt, this is all one step. Once you’re satisfied, cut the top off of the bag and serve the popcorn from the bottom half.
6) Don’t be discouraged if it isn’t perfect the first time; popping corn is so incredibly cheap you can try again without much waste. The most common problems result from oil temperature: if the popcorn burns you need to shake more or use more water/margarine, but if the corn pops slowly or the finished flakes are small, hard and not puffy, it means you used too much water or margarine. Also, don’t be afraid to experiment with flavors; we like to use Tony Chachere’s or pepper and garlic, but I use all sorts of different things (even grated parmesan cheese). Enjoy!