Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Secret to the World's Greatest Popcorn

My wife and I recently agreed to help put on our friend Desson's birthday bash and here was one of my assignments: make popcorn for 100 people.

Of course I thought this a bit ridiculous, making a small truckload of popcorn on the stove top. Why not just buy the stuff already popped? But the wife would hear none of my complaints.

"That's what you get for making the world's best popcorn," she said.

Well, I've been making popcorn for years but this was something new, popping two pounds of seed at one go. A few adjustments were required along the way. But since I was knee-deep in popcorn, I thought this might be a good time to pass along my method for making the world's greatest popcorn, even though I should probably be submitting it for a patent and securing my fortune.

If the only kind of popcorn you make is in the microwave, you should know-- first--that the chemical additive that makes it taste like butter causes an incurable lung disease. Some companies are eliminating the additive because of the harm it has done to factory workers. Needless to say, you should not be spending idle hours with your nose in your popcorn. Aside from that, microwave popcorn is a laboratory experiment--it has no place in your mouth.

For a time, I air-popped my popcorn because this did solve the problem of unpopped seeds and also had some purported health benefits in that it did not require copious amounts of cooking oil, which is calorie-dense. But you could never get the salt to stick to the air-popped variety. Some people advocated spritzing the popped corn with water before applying the salt. This variety of popcorn quickly lost its appeal.

So it was back to the stove-top popcorn that I learned as a child and have been perfecting, oh, since about the time Moses brought the original recipe down from Mt. Sinai. The idea is to achieve just the right ratio of oil to seeds in the pot, to perform the popping at just the right temperature, and to make sure the seeds stay in contact with the bottom of the pot.

The pot I use is an old 2-quart Revere cook pot, the kind your mother got as a wedding present. Its sole purpose in life is popping popcorn. Consequently, it has a nice, black crust around the bottom to prove its popping chops, like a tool you might find in an old-fashioned blacksmith's shop.

The first order of business is to set the pot over high heat and pour about 1/8-inch vegetable oil (I use canola oil) into the bottom. I don't measure it--it's the depth of the oil that matters most, and this would vary with the size of your pot. You want the oil to just come over the top of a single kernel of corn that you drop in there, which might actually be more than 1/8-inch.

In fact, I drop three kernels into the oil as indicators of when the oil has reached the optimum temperature. Pretty soon you will see tiny bubbles forming around the kernels. Then they will pop, one at a time, signaling the oil is ready. (Note: the popping occurs when moisture inside the kernel vaporizes and causes a small explosion. For this to occur in the optimum fashion, you must use fresh seeds. I buy mine in bulk--about a pound at a time--and keep them in the freezer.)

Now it is time to pour just the right amount of seeds into the pot. They should come just to the top of the oil and a little higher, so that each kernel is coated with oil. Quickly cover the pot and wait for the popping to begin. You should have at hand a large mixing bowl (I use stainless) and some fine table salt.

As the seeds begins to pop, give the pot a little shake. Soon, the popping will become very rapid, even frantic. Steam will pour out from under the lid and you might think things are happening a bit too quickly. But remain calm and let the popped corn begin to lift the lid. Then snatch the pot off the stove and pour some of the popped corn into your bowl, tipping the pot and removing the lid just enough that the popped corn can escape.

There's still quit a lot of popping to do. Put the pot back on the burner and shake it vigorously. The shaking helps the unpopped kernels find their way back to the bottom of the pot. You've probably done this and had too many unpopped kernels at the bottom of your popcorn bowl. Well, that's partly from starting with too many seeds, maybe not enough oil, but almost certainly from not shaking the pot enough and allowing those seeds be carried up and out of the pot in the popping process.

You may overflow the pot again, in which case empty some of the popped corn into the mixing bowl as before and bring the pot to the heat again for a third time, shaking like mad, until the popping stops or you begin to feel the popcorn might start to burn, in which case you are done. Dump the remaining popped corn into the bowl and season it with salt.

The seasoning method is an art in itself and quite ritualistic. I shake a little salt, then toss the popcorn into the air--not too high--giving the bowl a bit of a twist. It's all in the wrists. Repeat this twice or three times, or until the popcorn is salted to your liking. Just be careful not to over-salt your popcorn. There's nothing worse, and unfortunately you cannot remove the salt once its there.

Made too much? Not to worry. The overage can be poured into a sealable storage bag. It will keep a good day or two, sitting quietly on top of your refrigerator.


Rob said...

You. ARE. The man.

Where do you go for your bulk seeds?

Ed Bruske said...

Rob, when the stash in the freezer starts to get low, I'll pick up a pound at Whole Foods. I used to just buy the small package of Safeway brand. It worked just as well. You could probably buy bulk at Yes! or some other natural food store. The important thing is, the seeds cannot be stale or they will not fully pop. The turnover at Whole Foods seems to be pretty quick--I haven't experienced any problems.

sister in law #4 said...

Edward you are an expert popcorn maker. It has just the right amount of oil and salt.

The Baklava Queen said...

Ah, Ed, how did you know? I almost had this for dinner last night after a snowy day. There is nothing, and I mean nothing, that beats popcorn popped on the stove, with just the right amount of salt (and sometimes a little drizzle of butter). I think, though, that I myself would not risk tossing the kernels to salt them completely unless I had a dog to clean up the mess. :-)

Ed Bruske said...

SIL#4, I think I know who you are and I'm glad you like my popcorn. You should come around soon and we'll make some.

Jennifer, we probably eat too much popcorn. But you're right--there are days when it is just the thing. We try to always have a stash in the freezer. It's a real tragedy when we reach for it and it's not there. The tossing part's not hard. You don't really throw it in the air so much as just get it to turn over in the bowl.

Mark said...

Inspired yesterday, I finally popped some kernels I had bought perhaps a year ago. I'm hoping fresher kernels will do the trick. My wife and I just finished a huge box of pre-packaged, single-serving microwave popcorn bags, and I hope we never have that stuff in our house again. After all I've read, I am scared of it.

I just called my wife and asked her to grab some fresh kernels at the store today so I can try your method tonight.

yeldarb1983 said...

i was always told to use a metal screen when popping popcorn on the stove, and in my personal experience this seems to yield better results than using the lid itself...

that being said, i noticed that you didnt say anything about whether you use the original lid for the pot or a metal screen for your method.

i guess im asking what you use and if, in your experience, it makes any difference with your method?