I come from a family of serious popcorn makers. My memories of childhood are tied to the rattle of corn kernels hitting the pan. The ping-ping-ping of them bursting. The alluring fragrance of popped corn wafting into the room. The deliciously greasy fingers that had to be licked.
On Saturday nights, my mother would pull out the 3-quart pot – the one with a few vestiges of burned kernels – and pop up our treat while we, freshly scrubbed and smelling sweetly of soap and shampoo, watched “My Three Sons” and “Hogan’s Heroes.”
Occasionally, there were private popcorn moments to which I was not invited. Hours after my appointed bedtime, I would be buried in blankets in a darkened room, tossing and turning as only a night owl does, when I would hear the telltale kernels as they clattered into the pan. It meant only one thing: Mom and Dad were eating popcorn. Alone.
That always posed a late-night dilemma. Should I give in to temptation and tiptoe into the kitchen to let my folks know I was awake and wouldn’t mind having some popcorn? Or would I risk a bad-tempered “Get back to bed!” if they didn’t want me around? Some nights the siren call of popcorn was worth the prospect of a little danger.
We took our popping seriously, my mother comparing notes with her sisters on the best technique: lots of oil or little, salt before or after, shaking the pan or not, white, yellow or any of the gourmet versions of popcorn.
By the mid-1980s, when microwave popcorn appeared on the shelf, we had packed up the old pan. The sheer novelty of almost-instant popcorn had us transfixed in front of the microwave as the small bag expanded in front of our eyes. It was magic.
I’m back to the real thing these days, kernels popped in a heavy pan with just a thin coating of oil.
I top it with a modest dose of melted butter and salt. It’s the perfect snack (and in some cases, dinner) in the winter and fall.
Not only is popcorn cheap to make at home, but it’s also fast – almost the same amount of time to make popcorn from scratch as to make it in the microwave. From start to finish, 3 to 5 minutes. (So much for our early excitement over the speed of microwave popcorn.)
There is the fuss factor, which doesn’t matter to the die-hard popcorn maker: The popcorn pan may get marked by an errant kernel; there’s more cleanup than with microwave popcorn. But there also isn’t the distracting burnt paper smell.
These days, the corn offers a big advantage we never considered earlier: Popcorn is a whole grain and, yes, it can be used to meet dietary recommendations for whole grains (3 cups of popcorn is considered to be one serving of grain). It is fiber, after all.
A SIMPLE HOW-TO
I’ve included a recipe here, though you don’t really need one. The key is to match the amount of popcorn kernels to the pan you are using. First lightly coat the bottom of a deep pan with a neutral oil that has a high smoking point, such as canola. (The oil gets very hot, so you want one that won’t burn. And, if the oil has a flavor, the popcorn will pick up the same.) Use only as many kernels as make up one layer on the bottom of the pan. Too many and you will end up with unpopped kernels, or what we used to call “old maids.”
Cover the pan and place it over medium-high heat. Years ago we shook and rattled the pan till our arms were numb, but in retrospect it wasn’t necessary. The kernels are moving as they pop, and are just fine if you leave the pan on the burner while they are exploding.
Listen as the kernels pop and when they slow to two seconds in between bursts, take the pan off the burner and carefully pour the popcorn into a bowl (do this pointing away from your eyes, in case an unexpected last-minute kernel pops).
If you’re using butter, now’s the time to melt it (cool the pan a bit if you’re using the same one because it will be hot enough to burn the butter) and add whatever flavorings you prefer.
That’s it. A treat for the times: cheap and fast. And tasty – whether you nibble the popped corn or woof it down.
Store the kernels in an airtight container in a cool, dry spot — not in the refrigerator. The kernels have moisture inside (that’s what makes them pop when heated) and refrigerators will dry them out.
Salt the popcorn after — not before — the kernels have popped, or it will make them tough.
BY THE NUMBERS:
5,600 Age, in years, of popcorn ears found in caves in New Mexico
400 to 460 Degrees that are the ideal popping temperature
70 Percentage of popcorn eaten at home (remainder at theaters, stadiums, etc.)
54 Average number of quarts of popcorn eaten annually by each American (more than in any other country)
122 Calories in 1 cup popcorn, oil-popped
102 Calories in 1 tablespoon butter
31 Calories in 1 cup popcorn, home-popped, hot air, no fat
Yield: Makes 5 cups
2 tablespoons vegetable oil (see Note)
1/2 cup popcorn kernels
Melted butter, optional
Directions: Cover bottom of 3-quart pan with thin coat of oil. Place over medium-high heat. Add kernels to cover the bottom of pan in one layer. Cover. You do not need to shake the pan as the popping keeps the kernels moving. The popping will take 3 to 5 minutes. When the popping slows to 2 seconds between kernels (instead of the early rapid-fire), remove pan from heat.
Transfer popcorn to a large bowl. Add melted butter and salt, as desired, and toss well. Serve immediately.
Curried variation: Combine 2 teaspoons curry powder, 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt and 1/2 teaspoon sugar. Toss with 8 cups buttered popcorn.
Ranch Chile variation: Combine 1 tablespoon dry ranch salad dressing mix, 1/4 teaspoon ground chipotle chile pepper or chili powder and 1/8 teaspoon garlic salt. Toss with 8 cups buttered popcorn.
Savory variations: Butter popcorn first so the other flavorings will stick. Use one: Ground red pepper; grated parmesan, cheddar or other hard cheese; finely chopped fresh rosemary; garlic powder or paprika.
Note: It’s best to use a deep, heavy pan. Use only as many kernels as cover a single layer in the bottom of the pan. Use a neutral-flavored oil with a high smoking point, such as canola.
Nutrition information per 1 cup serving: 122 calories, 6 g fat, 2 mg sodium, 15 g carbohydrates, 1 g saturated fat, 1 mg calcium, 2 g protein, no cholesterol, 3 g dietary fiber.
Diabetic exchanges per serving: 1 bread/starch, 1 fat.