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 V.14 No.45 | November 10 - 16, 2005 

Food 101

Let's Get Popping!

A D.I.Y. primer on popcorn

Emma loves popcorn.
Wes Naman
Emma loves popcorn.

Films are just fine on their own, but every movie needs a big, buttery dish of snacks to really make it pop. Warm and light, salty and crackling under the kernel-busting pressure of your teeth, popcorn is best enjoyed when not-so-delicately shoved in the general direction of your mouth. Go ahead; ram it in by the handful. The flickering darkness of the theater makes it possible to eat like a total ape, even if you are in public. Just pray you can make it through the trailers with a few crumbs to spare.

But what if you're too broke get a tub of your own? Well, unfortunately, the overinflated cost of popcorn at the movies is pretty difficult to swallow. We are talking about corn here; a grain the U.S. produces more of than all other nations in the world combined. (F*** yeah, America!) Meanwhile, the fat and salt content in preprocessed popcorn can be more frightening than the horror flick you came to see in the first place. Don't bother with all that crap. Make your own salty snack and sneak it in to the theater. Or rent a flick from Burning Paradise (800 Central SW, 244-1161) or Alphaville Video (3408 Central SE, 256-8243), and chomp away from the privacy of your own corn-catcher. Er, couch.

Popcorn Boot Camp

You don't need a microwave or any special equipment to make popcorn—just some oil, corn kernels, a stove and a skillet with a lid.

First off, choose your frying oil. The best temperature for popping corn is between 400º F and 475º F, so the smoke point of the oil you select is critical. (Remember: The smoke point is the temperature at which heated fat begins to burn, or “smoke.”) Whole butter, lard, sunflower oil, olive oil and vegetable shortening all top out between 350º F and 400º F, and so they aren't acceptable for popping. (But you can always add some grease post-frying for a flavor boost.) Your best bets for high-heat cooking come from refined peanut, safflower, soybean, grapeseed, corn and canola oils. It goes without saying that the flavor of popcorn is quite mild, so whatever oil you choose to fry the kernels in will affect the character of the finished product.

Next, select your hardware. Go for a heavy-bottomed pan or a cast-iron skillet; even a wok will work fine. Just make sure that you've got a loose-fitting lid for your pan. It's got to be loose enough to allow steam to escape, yet secure enough to stay on while you move the pan around on the stove. If the lid is too snug, excess moisture will accumulate in your pan, rendering your popcorn tough and chewy. A sheet of foil with a few "steam vents" snipped out will do in a pinch.

Now you're ready for action. Add 1/4 cup of the vegetable oil of your choice to your pan, then set it over a medium-high stovetop burner. Allow the oil in the pan to heat up. (If the oil begins to smoke, your temperature is too high.)

Test the heat of the oil by dropping one or two kernels into the pan. When the kernels spin in the oil, you're ready to pop! Pour just enough kernels to cover the bottom of the pan. When in doubt, it's always better to use too little of an ingredient than too much. You don't want to overcrowd the kernels in the pan, which could lower the temperature of the whole operation and produce stone-filled, wimpy popcorn. (Those unfortunate aborted kernels are known as "old maids.")

Cover and shake the pan so that each kernel gets a nice, hot oil bath. Continue to gently shake the pan from side to side, agitating it at least every 20 or 30 seconds. Near-constant movement prevents the popped corn from scorching on the bottom of the pan.

When the popping sounds have just about ceased, or the popped corn begins to push up against the lid, remove the pan from the heat. Carefully take off the lid, then transfer the popped popcorn into a large bowl. You're done!

A Word on Seasoning

Melted butter and oil taste great on popcorn, but their primary function is giving your seasonings something to stick to. You don't have to go crazy with the grease—a few tablespoons should be plenty. (Of course, if you like your popcorn swimming in butter, by all means, make it happen.) It's also a good idea to avoid using margarine or "light" butter—the high water content of fake fats will liquefy your popcorn. (But, again, if it's your thing, I can't tell you who to sock it to.)

And what about salt? Fleur de sel and kosher salt are usually great ingredients—just not for this application. Their large grain size and tendency to clump make fancier salts a poor choice for popcorn. You'll get the most mileage out of ordinary table salt.

Where Does the “Pop” Come From?

Each corn kernel contains a small amount of moisture beneath its hull. When sufficiently heated, the water that's trapped inside vaporizes and turns to steam. The steam causes pressure to build up inside the kernel, and once this pressure reaches critical levels, the hull ruptures and the hot, starchy insides of the kernel explode outward. They don't call it "nature's grenade" for nothing.


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