I like the flavour of popcorn.
Popcorn is really nothing more than corn that's been cooked in a specific way.
In it's barest form (dry), it's a reasonably nutritious low-calorie grain.
In it's most dressed up form (heavily buttered and flavoured) it can be teeth-rottingly decadent
(but still at least vaguely nutritious).
The science of popcorn making (more or less)
As far as I can tell,
the secret to making popcorn is to maximize internal pressure in
the popcorn before it pops. Pressure is provided by the steam from
super-heated water in the cooking kernel. When you have enough pressure
inside of the kernel, it's outer casing gives way, and the kernel explodes
(pops) and all (most) of the super-heated water turns to steam. (for those
of you who paid attention in physics/chemistry class, you'll realize that
this sudden mass transition from liquid to steam also cools the kernel,
which is why it doesn't go on to burn immediately after popping).
To get the perfectly popped kernel, you want a maximal distribution of
heat into the corn before the casing gives way. If the heat is to low,
the steam can leak out slowly, resulting in a less 'light' kernel than
you really want. If the heat is too high (and/or unevenly distributed),
only part of the kernel will be hot enough to pop, giving a partially
executive summary:The 'perfect' temperature and even heating are the
goals of the gourmet popper
A pot and a small pan are needed to make popcorn.
The small pan is to heat
the butter (most (but not all) people put butter/margarine on their popcorn).
The butter pan should be relatively small -- you're only going to be heating
a maximum of 1/4 cup of butter in most cases. I find it really annoying if 2/3
of my butter ends up stuck to the walls of my pan
The pot is the real workhorse here. The diameter of the pan doesn't matter
much as long as it doesn't go way past the edges of the heating element (remember:
even distribution). Height is a bit more important... a single layer of kernels
will (when properly popped) expand to about a 6 inch column of popcorn.
A steel or copper pot is best. We'll be running the burner on high, so aluminum
runs a slight risk of melting (especially if you forget the pot on the burner).
Teflon really doesn't like those kinds of temperatures and Pyrex (glass) is a bit
,too thick -- it absorbs too much heat in the process and what we're we're doing
with the popcorn is getting close to deep frying (which the care instructions
on Pyrex say you should not do -- for safety reasons, I'd guess).
I've had one person suggest a wok. Seems like this would work, but I've never tried it myself.
Oil. Oil in this process is classified as more a tool than an ingredient. the
real purpose of the oil is to help transfer heat more evenly into the kernel.
Unless you get into exotic oils (which I haven't done), it doesn't really add
much to the taste/texture of the popcorn. Corn or Canola oil work fine.
Olive oil might not be able to take the temperatures we are using here
(I've never tried it), and it's strong taste may interfere with the popcorn taste.
One reader swears that grapeseed oil works well, and it's rumored that coconut
adds nicely to the taste.
Start with the butter... Put your butter into the small pan (anywhere from
a heaping table spoon to 1/4 cup depending on your pot size and your
decadence quotient for tonight). Set this stove on low or medium-low heat and let
the butter melt while you cook the popcorn. If you're using non-standard
flavourings, you may want to add that to the mix as well (depends
on the flavouring).
Next, pour enough oil into the pot to form a thin layer on the bottom.
Add 3 or 4 'sacrificial' kernels, turn the heat on high, and wait. When
the first kernels start popping, add the real payload -- about enough to
cover the bottom of the pot. Put on the lid. Turn the heat down slightly (on a
10-notch dial, I'll turn it down to 8 or 9) and shake the pan every few
seconds. After about 1/2 minute or so, you should have a pretty continuous
popping coming from the pan. At this point, you should be shaking the pan most of the time. My standard is 3 seconds shaking 1 second resting on the burner
(to collect heat). The popping should build to a furious crescendo and then subside.
here... This produces a good bit of steam.. Keep your fingers away from the lid).
When you haven't heard the popcorn pop for more than a second or two, it's
time to stop. Take the pot away from the stove. At this point the pot is
very hot I don't suggest putting it down on anything other than
metal and/or ceramic pot holders. If it's a thick-bottomed pot, it's quite
capable of burning wood. Keep shaking the pot for a while, or you'll
risk burning the popcorn. At this point, I often use a wet cloth to
cool the pot down (Safety note 2).
Another option is to pour the popcorn into a big bowl.
I used to think that pasta (i.e. spaghetti and macaroni) was
only served with cheese sauce or tomato sauce.
This continued until one day when I was invited to a real
A sort of gastronomic epiphany occurred when I realized that
pasta is simply an excuse for the pasta sauce, and the sauces
Popcorn suffers a similar gastronomic fate. Most people only
know of buttered popcorn. This is almost a travesty.
Hot buttered popcorn
The tried and true method. For me the trick is getting the
butter evenly distributed on the popcorn. I usually pour the first
half of the butter on the popcorn (giving special attention to the outer
parts), give the pot a good shake and
then distribute the rest and shake it again.
At this point, I'll usually sprinkle on the salt and shake
one last time.
note This is where a tall pot comes in handy. If your pot is full to the
brim with popcorn, there's no room to shake the popcorn in.
- Pepper. Yep. That's right... pepper goes pretty good on
popcorn. This also applies to corn on the cob.
- Yeast. A teaspoon of brewers or Engivita yeast adds
a vaguely cheese-like flavour to the popcorn.
- powdered cheese. This is a bit on the experimental side
for me... It generally seems to work well.
- Mint. I used to have a massive peppermint patch
in my back yard. It provided an almost unlimited supply
of mint. Mint goes well on almost anything.
- Cajun spice. This is actually one of my favorites.
Cajun spice is a spice blend that works
very well on popcorn. Depending on my mood, I'll either
add it to the butter in the pan or sprinkle it on with the salt.
- Coconut oil. This is the additive that I think gives
commercial popcorn that addictive smell. Although
I'm among those people who profess a near addiction to
coconut, I've never gotten around to adding it to my
popcorn. Feel free to try it and let me know how that works out.
- Someone emailed me saying that she enjoyed salt, curry powder,
cumin and coriander
The second most common popcorn topping is caramel. The Caramel topping is
actually pretty easy. Like butter, the hard part is getting it evenly
Put a tablespoon of butter in the pan, and add
2 or 3 tablespoons of water. Melt the butter and add about 1/4 cup of sugar.
Stir for a bit.
Once the sugar is in, you can add a capful of Flavour
concentrate... Vanilla or Maple are my favorites. Mint is another interesting
Sometimes I'll also
crush a teaspoon of mint leaves in my hand and add that to the mix. (sigh)
Cinnamon also works well.
The 'science' of popcorn is the result of my observations from
many years of popcorn making, not a masters degree project
in food science. If anybody has some corrections/suggestions
to make, feel free to email me ... samuel at bcgreen dot com.
Shaking the pot is mostly a horizontal motion. The intent is to get the
kernels rocking on the bottom of the pan (heat distribution, again)
and settling to the bottom of the pan.
When shaking the pot, you want to keep it as close to the burner
as possible. Leaving it touching the burner is permissible, but you
may need to turn down the heat a bit more. It's definitely preferable
to having the pot more than an inch (2cm) above the burner..
Safety note 2: If you use a wet cloth to cool down the pot,
be careful. The pot is hot enough to give you 3rd degree burns
before the pain sensation reaches your brain. After 2-3 seconds in
contact with the pot, your rag will also be painfully hot, and need
more cool water before you can continue using it. (BTW: cotton doesn't
This is also a bad idea if your pot doesn't have a one-piece
bottom (I.e. if it has a heat distribution plate welded to the bottom of
it). the thermal shock of water cooling could cause the plate to separate
from the pot. 'quenching' the pot (dipping it in water) is safer,
but increases the thermal stress by an order of magnitude.
If you have comments, corrections, additions etc. about what I have here, feel free to contact me...
Stephen Samuel samuel at bcgreen dot com (god I hate spammers)