Monday, November 7, 2011

Making Popcorn Cheap (and Healthy) Again...

 I have to admit, I've never been a big fan of microwave popcorn.  It's not that I'm against microwave cooking or convenience foods.  It's more that I've never felt that the benefits outweighed the drawbacks.  For example:
  • Popcorn made in a pot on the stove is not really any less healthy than microwave bags when you start counting fat and looking at the ingredients list.
  • Popcorn made in a pot on the stove takes about the same time (start-to-finish) as the microwave variety and is nearly as easy.
  • Microwave popcorn always seems to have a chemical aftertaste--even the varieties without artificial butter flavor.
  • Regular bulk popcorn kernels are cheaper by volume.
  • And I swear, it's easier to burn microwave popcorn than the real stuff, even when you follow the directions on the package to the letter.  If you've ever worked in an office and a co-worker burnt a bag, you probably know this and you also know how long the stench sticks around!
Some hardcore health-nuts say an air popper is the tool for the job if you're not going to nuke your popcorn.  Personally, I think it turns out a bland product and it's a uni-tasking appliance, which I just don't have room for in my kitchen.  So out comes the big old fashioned pot and in goes the popcorn--right on the stove.

So how is it done?  I thought you'd never ask!

Homemade Stove-Top Popcorn

A Word on Choosing a Pot...
Probably the most important part of this recipe is choosing the right pot.  You need something with a single saucepan-style handle and a lid with a stay-cool handle on the top, somewhere in the 4 to 5 quart range.  It should be made of metal and be light-weight enough to pick-up and shake.  A heavy bottom is preferable, but your cast-iron cookware or fancy Le Creuset pot would NOT be a good choice here.

1) Pour enough vegetable oil into the pot to coat just the bottom.  If there's more than 1/8-inch of oil, you've put too much.

2) Place exactly THREE popcorn kernels into the oil, cover the pot, and shake it to coat the kernels.  Make sure the remaining kernels are nearby, as well as your largest serving/mixing bowl.

3) Place the covered pot onto the stove and crank the temperature to medium-high.  Periodically shake the pot to toss the kernels until all three of them pop.  This is how you'll know the oil is at the correct temperature.

4) Immediately after the last kernel pops, remove the lid and pour in enough additional kernels to cover the bottom of the pot in one layer.  Quickly replace the lid and shake the kernels to coat in oil.

5) As soon as the new kernels start to pop, shake the pan vigorously every few seconds to make sure the unpopped kernels move to the bottom and the fluffy white ones move up and out of the oil.  This prevents burning.  Continue to shake-and-cook, shake-and-cook, until the popping begins to slow-down.

6) Remove the pan from the hot burner as soon as the popping has slowed significantly but do not wait until it has completely stopped popping.  It's better to end-up with un-popped kernels than to burn your entire batch.

7) Once the popping has subsided, remove the cover and pour the popcorn into the waiting bowl.

8) Using the residual heat from the pan (or the microwave if you're more comfortable), melt 2 to 3 tablespoons of real butter.  After all, if you're going to do the work, you might as well do it up right.  Drizzle the butter over the top of the popcorn and toss with your hands to coat all the popped kernels.  Add salt to taste, tossing again to coat.

9) Consume the entire bowl yourself or share with family if you must.  If you feel the need to pop ahead, it can be stored once cool in zip-top bags and will keep a day or two.


  1. Have you tried DIY microwave popcorn? Toss a couple Tablespoons of kernels into a paper bag with a splash of oil. Fold it over and pop it in the microwave, just like you would the pre-packaged stuff. You still have to watch for burning, but it's a nice alternative.

  2. I actually haven't tried that, though I have seen lots of "recipes" for it. Maybe I'll give it a try just for kicks. They say it works pretty well.

  3. Thanks for sharing your popping method. I've just recently converted to stovetop popping, but I've been dumping all of the corn into cold oil. I will definitely try your three kernel suggestion next time! Also, I just arrived here from Small Measure where I saw your comment about butter toffee - any chance you might share the recipe? Toffee is my absolute favorite of all the sweets.Thank you!

  4. Good luck with the stove popping! I was thrilled once I figured out the three-kernel test to see if the oil is hot enough.

    As for the toffee, the recipe is posted here:

    I used to work at America's Test Kitchen (aka Cook's Illustrated) and the recipe got wildly popular amongst our Bulletin Board users. One year, one of the users sent us a a tin of it (might have been Marilyn herself) and I was hooked. I've been making it ever since.

    Couple of Recommendations: I think it's worth the money to buy pecans instead of walnuts (altho at $10 per pound right now, that's hard to swallow) and it's okay to use less nuts than the recipe calls for. I also omit the almonds because I don't think they really add much texture or flavor and they're pretty expensive when they don't add much.

  5. Not that I *need* that recipe, but I sure am glad to have it!... Thank you! And your popping method works brilliantly well.


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