Friday, August 17, 2007

My Favorite Popcorn

This article was inspired by Perfect Popcorn from one of the recipe sites I constantly monitor. I differ in opinion of what I consider to be "perfect," so I decided to share my own definition.

It's interesting to me the way the preparation of popcorn has evolved over the years. When I was younger, we would use vegetable oil and a four quart saucepan. We laughed at those so-called "popcorn makers" that would come along every year, usually around Christmas time. Why pay good money for something that has limited use when you can get better results from a saucepan and a stove that you already have?

Making popcorn on the stove was still quite easy. Just heat up some oil with a couple of kernels until the oil was hot enough to pop them, add the rest of the kernels, and shake back and forth over the burner for a couple of minutes until the popping stopped. It didn't take too many attempts to get to the point where you knew you hit the sweet spot--that point where you get the maximum kernels popped with the fewest kernels burned.

Despite how easy it was to make popcorn without a special cooker, there were always other gimmicks. Jiffy Pop, with its instantly recognizable expanding foil pan, was very popular and was responsible for a lot of hit-or-miss popcorn... it was too easy to overcook or not shake it enough to burn the kernels. However, when it was done correctly, the popcorn was delicious. I remember seeing plastic versions of the Jiffy Pop pans for microwave use, but that was even more gimmicky and I only tried it once or twice—disappointing.

I remember a "kit" available in stores called "T.V. Time," which included some yellow oil/paste (which was the oil you were supposed to melt) and the kernels and explicit instructions on how to cook the perfect pot of corn. I loved the taste of the popcorn resulting from those kits; the oil gave the kernels a great buttery flavor without the need for pouring butter over the popped corn afterward.

In the 1970s, the powers that be came up with "microwave popcorn." Before those silly bags came along, the common wisdom was that a microwave was totally unsuitable for popcorn. I'm not sure which company started the microwave trend; it may have been Pillsbury, but it could have been Orville Redenbacher. No matter, the early versions were quite a travesty and resulted in a lot of bags of burned kernels due to the vagaries of microwave ovens and some silly instructions ("Wait until there are only one or two seconds between pops!")

Nowadays, microwave popcorn is much better, and some ovens even have a special "Popcorn" setting that is supposed to magically ascertain the proper amount of time and power for that perfect batch. It's still hit or miss, and still seems a waste of money over purchasing simple kernels without the overhead of the bag, whatever-oil-substance-they-use-to-cook-it, salt, and marketing.

One place that comes to mind when you think of popcorn is the local movie theater. Unfortunately, very few theaters seem to make it "live" the way they used to with those machines with the rotating arms. Instead, the popcorn is made somewhere else—in the back, at some "popcorn factory?" I guess I'll never know. I've never liked popcorn out of the bag (does anybody REALLY purchase those bags in the snack aisle?), so just thinking of it is a downer.

Some pubs and bars have those classic popcorn machines, though, and they make some great popcorn when used correctly.

So... what do I think makes the best popcorn? Well, as I mentioned, I loved "T.V. Time," I like stuff that comes out of the pub-style popcorn machines, and I don't really mind some of today's microwave popcorn—it's damned convenient to spend a minute or two popping and then throw away the bag without having the wash a pot. What all three have in common is that great buttery taste that doesn't need melted butter to be applied afterward. I've found that adding butter afterward has the effect of making the popcorn soggy.

In the 1980s, I tried making popcorn with a number of oils. Butter was my first choice and resulted in some vile-looking brown popcorn (don't try it... believe me!). I used vegetable oil, corn oil, peanut oil, coconut oil with varying degrees of success, but I knew I was still missing that buttery taste.

In the mid-1980s, I learned about Indian food on my first trip to Australia, and when I got a cookbook, I learned about a special oil used in that cuisine called "ghee," which is also known as "clarified butter." Without the milk solids, ghee is simply an oil distilled from butter and ghee has a higher flash point, which means it doesn't burn as readily as butter does. I wondered if popcorn could be made using ghee, and it turns out that it can... and makes a wonderful batch of it!

Clarifying butter takes time. You basically need to melt some unsalted butter in a large, thick pan over low to medium heat until the milk solids sink and the water is boiled off. It can take from twenty to thirty minutes. You are not interested in the solids on the butter—just the golden-yellow transparent oil on top. Since the milk solids are not in the ghee, it will keep for a long time, especially if you keep it in a jar in the refrigerator.

lar3ry's Popcorn

Yield:About two quarts of popcorn


2 Tbsp ghee

⅓ cup of high quality popcorn kernels

Salt to taste (I use "popcorn salt"—see note)

Heat the ghee in a 4-quart saucepan on medium high heat. Add a kernel or two into the oil and cover the pot. Add a bit of salt to the oil.

When the kernels start to pop, add the rest of the popcorn kernels to cover the bottom of the pot in a single layer (use less kernels if you cannot keep them in a single layer).

Shake the pot over the burner gently.

Wait for the popping to slow down. This requires some experience to get a "feel" for the popcorn.

Remove from heat and dump the contents of the pot into a large bowl. Add additional salt to taste.

I prefer "Popcorn Salt" which is a finer-grained salt than what you normally find in salt shakers. Being fine, it sticks to the popcorn better. I've seen Alton Brown "manufacture" this using table salt and a blender, which is a great idea, but I only paid a dollar or two at a Hickory Farms store back in the 1980s, and have yet to run out of it!

Bon Appetit!

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