When I was a small child, we made popcorn by getting out a large cast-iron pot and heating what was called “salad oil” in it. We’d add in a couple test kernels, and when they popped, we’d toss in enough corn to cover the pan bottom. Once the popping started we’d shake the pot, then, to avoid burning the kernels, snatch it off the heat as soon as all the thumping and snapping stopped.
The finishing touch was to simply drizzle over and stir in melted butter and salt, resulting in a delicious snack that was completely free of artificial colors, flavorings, and preservatives. Nobody at our house ever incorporated any of today’s usual extras, like Parmesan or herbs, either. My mother wasn’t into seasoning with herbs and she didn’t keep Parmesan in the house. I don’t think anybody else in
the community gussied up popcorn either. It just wasn’t done in those days.
|TV Time Popcorn–a popcorn kit|
My popcorn prepping ritual changed a lot following the arrival of televisions and a product called TV Time Popcorn. This was a handy “time-saver” kit containing a packet of solid yellowish fat on one side, and one with corn and salt on the other. Perhaps because it was heavily advertised on the television shows for kids, I thought this dual pouch packaging was incredibly cool. (Interestingly, I recently read that TV Time company spent so much on advertising that it went bankrupt several times!)
It was just so much fun to squeeze the hardened, butter-flavored lump–described
as “the finest imported nut oil” on the label–out into the pot and watch it melt. (I now suspect that this fat was either hydrogenated coconut or palm kernel oil; nobody knew about the drawbacks of hydrogenation and highly saturated fats then.) It was quite liberating to be able to skip the measuring and just tear open the packet and empty the kernels and salt into the pot. The popcorn kits were more expensive, and maybe the pop corn didn’t taste quite as good, but I adored the novelty of it.
The next big popcorn-making advance I recall involved doing away with the big cooking pot. This happened after microwave ovens and
ready-to-pop microwavable bags appeared on the scene. My friends and I loved setting the bag inside, then peering through the glass screen and watching it rise up and inflate as the corn popped. There was always a sense of daring and excitement associated with this, because at that time some consumer safety experts and assorted microwave-phobic worry warts were still warning that if you got too close to the viewing window the microwaves might escape, and zap your eyes or cause your head to explode! (Today, experts say that small amounts of radiation can escape from around some microwave doors, but not in quantities large enough to pose a risk. Still, I’m now wishing I hadn’t gotten so close.)
I stuck with microwaved popcorn for several decades. After I married and had a family, I’d grab a package and ready it for my son and his
playmates to eat while they watched TV. But, truthfully, the product never really seemed like an improvement—it was convenient but at the sacrifice of aroma or taste. Once my son went off to college, I got out of the habit of fixing popcorn at all.Now, I’m back to making stove-top popcorn again. I like preparing it from scratch so I’m sure it’s fresh and free of artificial flavors, colors, and other additives. I buy a plain, unseasoned yellow corn and cook it in a large, heavy pot, just like we used to. (I’ve tried the eye-catching multi-colored kernels, but the corn, which is pricy, still comes out the usual white.)
These days, I usually cook the corn in olive oil, and I am more careful about how much of it I use. By adding the minimum amount needed to pop
the corn without scorching and omitting the optional butter, I turn out a light, healthful, really satisfying snack that’s also quick to make. Yes, I know that air popped, oil-free, salt-free is even healthier. But air-popped corn reminds me of styrofoam–I just can’t eat it! The modest amount of oil I use—5 teaspoons per 1/2 cup of unpopped kernels—not only facilitates the popping but brings out the corn flavor and provides enough coating that the salt adheres to the kernels.
If you do add the butter, the corn will have 172 calories per 2-cup serving, still not bad compared to many snacks. For example, 2 cups of potato chips have 275 calories, and a modest 1/3 cup serving of dry-roasted nuts or peanuts has about 220 calories.Tip: I prefer to cook the kernels in olive oil because it is mostly polyunsaturated and its flavor enhances the taste of the corn. You can certainly substitute corn or safflower oil if preferred, but never try to cook with butter; it will smoke and burn.
2 to 3 teaspoons medium to hot chili powder, optional
Put the oil and 3 or 4 test kernels in a 3 1/2- to 4-quart heavy pot over medium high heat. Cook until the oil is hot and a test kernel sizzles, then pops. (The oil should never start to smoke, if it does, remove the pot from the burner and lower the heat.) Immediately add the rest of the popcorn. Cover the pot and shake several times to coat all the kernels in the oil.
When the popping starts, shake the pot frequently to keep the kernels moving. After about a minute of steady popping, turn down the heat a little; this keeps the pot from overheating
and burning the last of the kernels. As soon as the popping begins to subside, remove the pan from the stove-top; the heat built up in the pot will still pop the remaining kernels. Remove the lid and gradually sprinkle over the salt (and chili powder, if using) stirring until evenly incorporated throughout.