Curling up on the sofa with a bowl of freshly popped popcorn, your favorite soda, and a four-star movie turns any night into a winner and a beloved pastime. Americans love popcorn so much that, according to the Popcorn Board, we consume 51 quarts of it annually per capita. In addition to being great comfort food, popcorn is a whole grain product, containing about 1 gram of fiber in every cup. It's also lower in calories and fat than many other snack foods: air-popped popcorn has about 30 calories per cup, while popcorn popped in oil has about 55 calories per cup.
How Popcorn Pops
In case you've always wondered, the Popcorn Board offers the science behind how popcorn pops. Popcorn is different from other types of corn in that its hull has just the right thickness to allow it to burst open when heated. Each kernel of popcorn contains a small drop of water stored inside a circle of soft starch. The soft starch is surrounded by the kernel's hard outer surface. As the kernel heats up, the water begins to expand. Around 212°F, the water turns into steam and makes the starch inside each kernel superhot and gelatinous. The kernel continues to heat, and the pressure inside the grain builds until it finally bursts the hull open. As it explodes, steam inside the kernel is released. The soft starch inside the popcorn becomes inflated and spills out, cooling immediately and forming into the odd shapes we know and love. A kernel will swell 40-50 times its original size!
How to Make Popcorn on the Stove
- In a heavy 3- to 4-quart saucepan combine about 2 tablespoons vegetable oil and about 1/2 cup popcorn kernels. Shake pan so all kernels are coated with oil. This amount of kernels will yield about 10 cups of popped popcorn.
Tip: Use an oil that can withstand high temperatures without smoking or breaking down, such as canola oil, peanut oil,
or an oil specifically designed for popcorn popping. Do not use olive oil or butter.
- Cover the pan and cook over medium-high heat for 4 to 5 minutes, shaking the pan occasionally and partially lifting the lid to let steam escape.
- When the popping slows, remove the pan from the heat and transfer the popcorn to a serving bowl. If desired, toss with 1 to 3 tablespoons melted butter and salt to taste.
How to Make Popcorn in the Microwave
You can also make popcorn in the microwave by using a special microwave bowl designed for this purpose. These bowls are available in stores that carry kitchen and cooking supplies. Simply add kernels to the bowl (no oil required), cover, and heat according to the recommended time for your microwave wattage. You may have to experiment a few times to get the timing right.
Caution: Do not use a brown paper bag to microwave popcorn, as these are not designed for microwaving.
- Whether you are popping corn on the stove or in the microwave, be sure to watch it closely to prevent burning.
- When using the stovetop method, add only enough kernels to cover the bottom of the pan so they all get coated in oil.
- Salt popcorn only after it is popped. Salting the kernels before they pop toughens the popcorn.
- For perfectly popped kernels, popcorn needs 13.5 to 14 percent moisture in the kernel; otherwise it won't pop. Store popcorn kernels in airtight containers in a cool place, such as a cupboard. Do not store in the refrigerator because it can dry out the kernels.
- If you add butter to popcorn, use real butter or stick margarine. The spread products packaged in tubs contain more water and will make your popcorn soggy.
How to Season Popcorn
In addition to butter and salt, you can top your popcorn with any of the following: garlic salt, Parmesan cheese, dried thyme, ground cumin, dried oregano, dry taco or ranch-style seasoning mix, lemon pepper, ground cinnamon, ground nutmeg, or brown sugar.
How to Make Kettle Corn
- Line a large baking sheet or tray with foil; set aside.
- In a 4- to 5-quart Dutch oven heat 3 tablespoons vegetable oil over medium-high heat, adding 2 to 3 popcorn kernels to the oil. When kernels pop, add remaining 1/2 cup unpopped popcorn, 1/4 cup sugar, and 1 teaspoon kosher salt; stir well.
- Cover; heat, stirring a few times, until popcorn begins to pop. Lift from heat and shake pan, holding with hot pads if necessary; return to heat. Repeat until popping slows. Remove from heat and let sit for a few seconds until popping stops.
- Pour popcorn out onto prepared baking sheet. Cool.