Wednesday, September 3, 2008

on popcorn

i've always been a lover of popcorn. to the point where i actually brought along my popcorn popper to summer camp in 6th grade. a girl can't leave home without her favorite kitchen appliances. i learned the hard lesson that year that what goes to summer camp doesn't always return.
i went ahead and replaced that popcorn popper because i had always been nervous to pop corn using the stovetop method, and i'm not about to settle for the microwave. something about popping corn on the stove made me anxious - it seemed like a process you could easily mess up and burn, the way i still to this day can't reliably make rice without a rice cooker. it wasn't until studying abroad in the australian rainforest with a former hare krishna snaggle-toothed chef that i finally overcame my fear of stovetop popcorn making. the process turns out to be quite easy and unintimidating - there are a couple of factors to be aware of in making great popcorn and i'll detail them here for you along with some of my favorite popcorn recipes.
popcorn: the basics
my rule of thumb when selecting popcorn is: the cheaper the better. that's generally my rule with selecting most things, but in this case i actually find that i prefer cheaper store-brand popcorn over say, orville redenbacher's or anything like that. i like white popcorn over yellow, but that isn't always available and it doesn't make that much difference - i just tend to think white is crispier.
select a large preferably heavy-bottomed pot with a well-fitting lid. the lid can be the type with a hole for steam to escape, that's fine. if you happen to have a glass lid, even better, then you can actually see the kernels. pour some vegetable oil to coat the bottom of the pan. i recommend a high-heat oil like peanut or safflower (i don't fully understand the chemistry behind which oils work well on high heat and which don't, but i hear it's important). turn your flame on med-high and add 2-3 popcorn kernels, place lid on pot. these are your tester kernels and will let you know when the oil is hot enough to add the rest of the popcorn. i didn't actually adopt this tester kernel method until recently, but occasionally i had to sacrifice whole pots of popcorn because the oil temperature wasn't right and the whole batch didn't pop properly, so now i recommend it. swirl your little kernels around in there so they're coated with oil and let it sit until they pop. note: you're going to want to wait until all three kernels pop - because if you lift the lid after one or two have popped the third is sure to scare (and possibly burn) you. learned from experience.once all three testers have popped go ahead and add your whole batch of popcorn kernels. i stubbornly never measure these out and i always make more popcorn than i can possibly eat. for the purposes of this tutorial; however, i went ahead and measured how much popcorn i put in. in this photo i put in 1/2 cup of unpopped kernels and they resulted in - surprise surprise - way more popcorn than one person, even a person who desperately loves popcorn, could eat by themselves. so based on that i'd suggest making between 1/4 - 1/3 cup of kernels per person who'll be eating popcorn.
once these kernels are in the pot, place the lid back on quickly, grab the edges of the pot and the lid together with your pot-holder-protected hands and shake it vigorously up and down and side to side until all the kernels are coated with oil. they should start popping pretty immediately, and you're going to repeat this shaking-the-pot exercise regularly every 30 seconds or so to make sure you're rotating the kernels around and the unpopped ones are getting to the bottom and nobody's burning. don't be tempted to walk away from the stove - this is not the time. keep shaking the pot until the popping slows down, and (i'm borrowing from the microwave instructions here), listen for a space of 2 seconds between pops. i actually count aloud or in my head "one-one-thousand, two-one-thousand," like hide and seek. it's fun that way. when there is a two second space between pops turn your heat off. there will likely be a few more kernels to blow, so leave the lid on for a minute.get out a good popcorn bowl (i recommend one a bit bigger than the amount of popcorn you've made to give yourself room to stick your hands in and mix around) and once you're pretty confident the popping has ceased, remove the lid of your pot. now here's the key, in my mind, to good popcorn: wait for the popcorn to cool before putting anything on it. i know that you're excited about eating popcorn, and feel free to taste some kernels now, but do not be tempted to pour your butter on yet. i find that if you wait until your popcorn has cooled it will remain crunchy and not get soggy the way it does if you pour butter on right away. you can put the popcorn into the bowl at this point, and stick your hand in periodically to test if it's cooled down enough. it doesn't need to be cold, but it does pretty much need to be room temperature - if you taste the kernels you should be able to notice a distinct change in texture from kinda soft-warm popcorn to crisp cooled down popcorn. then you're ready for the fixins.while you're waiting for your popcorn to cool you can be preparing what goes on top. i really like to experiment with flavors in popcorn, for instance in the photos you see represented here i decided to try to recreate a recipe i had growing up in a cookbook called kids cooking: a very slightly messy manual. i loved this book, and it might have been part of my inspiration to experiment in the kitchen. in it were popcorn recipes including peanut butter popcorn (yea) and spicy italian popcorn. the spicy italian involved butter, black pepper and powdered parmesan cheese, which is what i decided to try to recreate because it involves popcorn and pepper, two of my favorite things. i didn't have any powdered parmesan but i did have a container of shredded parm in my fridge that's been seeing no other action, so i thought i'd try to melt it down with the butter and pepper and do it that way. i kind of knew in the back of my mind that that wouldn't work, but i tried anyway and ended up with clumps of crusty cheese - which i thought was tasty but not worth recommending. so here are some of my favorite, and tested, popcorn topping recipes:garlic-rosemary popcorn
this is a good one, whose credit goes to laura from college. she actually starts out adding finely chopped garlic into the pot with the oil and it seems to work for her, but i almost always burn my garlic that way. i suggest either: adding the chopped garlic and rosemary to the pot when your testers have popped and right before adding the rest of the kernels, or melting them down with the butter and getting the flavors in that way. amounts are basically to taste. i tend to think there's no such thing as too much garlic so i'll put in 3 or so cloves and an equivalent amount of (fresh or dried) crumbled rosemary, you may want to put in less if you're not snacking with garlic enthusiasts. these flavors are great together and this is a prime recipe to add nutritional yeast flakes to, if you're into that. more on that below.

buttery-maple-cayenne popcorn

this is my new favorite flavor. you'll melt down your butter (again, i always get the proportions wrong on butter : popcorn and inevitably have to melt down more butter) let's say you're using 1/3 stick of butter - which i think is likely to suffice for a large bowl of popcorn, but don't quote me on that. you'll want to melt it down and once it's in liquid form add a couple tablespoons of maple syrup (vermont maple, preferably!) and a pinch - or more if you're adventurous - of cayenne. stir together and drizzle this all over your popcorn.

salty and sweet popcorn
this is the less-natural, less spicy version of the above recipe. i'm not a big fan of adding sugar or salt to food in general, but this tastes so good that i make an exception. the credit for this recipe goes to kat from connecticut, who can make even microwave popcorn taste good with this combination. for this one you're going to butter your popcorn first and then add handfuls of sugar onto it and pinches of salt to taste. it takes more sugar than you think to get the right balance, so don't be alarmed. i usually try to do this preparation in a dark corner of the kitchen where my guests aren't going to see the amount of sugar they're ingesting - what you don't know can't hurt you. really, though - don't be turned off by my bluntness, it's damn good.

good ole nutritional yeast popcorn
i was raised on buttered popcorn with nutritional yeast sprinkled on top, and while i know that outs me as the child of some hippies, i have to say nutritional yeast is awesome. nutritional yeast, also called brewer's yeast, is high in protein, vitamins, and minerals, especially B-complex vitamins. some people say it tastes cheesy or nutty. according to wikipedia, "In Canada it has been known to be called "good tasting yeast" - for good reason. i love this stuff, it tastes great as a condiment on many things, and i have been known in my little-kid days to eat spoonfuls of it by itself, but nutritional yeast reaches the height of its potential on popcorn. just butter your popcorn as usual and toss a couple handfuls of nutritional yeast on top and stir around to coat evenly. so tasty. but, admittedly, an acquired taste that you can't really force on people. you either love it or hate it, so check in with your guests before smothering their popcorn.

word to the wise:
people love my popcorn. now that i've shared my secrets with you, marty says be careful who you make this popcorn for. it's that good.


la_sale_bete said...

this sounds SO delicious! i am really excited to try a couple of these out!

I Heart Kale said...

I had Kids Cooking too and I loved it! I wonder if there's a correlation between owning that book in your youth and having a food blog as an adult....

h0n0r said...

I just found my Hop recipe book, and Laura's original rosemary garlic popcorn recipe, and was taken back to that smell filling the kitchen. Now reading about it here too, and with rosemary in the garden, I might just have to make some . . . thank you.

townassmarty said...

Favorite food ever... yours of course!

Harold said...

have you tried Kris' curried popcorn? if not, it is a must do. i had it at Laura's going away party. the spices are similar to those found in Joanne & Rick's "Spicy Fried Tofu."

Sarah said...

I fondly remember your popcorn from college-- and i LOVE nutritional yeast on it... definitely something I got from Hopkins!

aryn said...

this is just about the only thing i can muster the desire to make in my tiny kitchen. i am an adoring fan or yours, still, though. mine turns out good, but i've got nowhere near the popping prowess as you. that is clear.

melinda said...

Hi Kasha, I love this site, and check in often. I know that "felting" season has started in maine, and wanted to share a new tip with you. When it is time to felt the projects in the washing machine I put them in mesh laundry bags, like some people use for washing delicate items. This helps keep the lint from clogging the machine, and also allows for several projects to be felted at once. Just make sure to clean all lint out of the bags before using it again. Any lint left on the bag will fuse to the new project. Hope all is well. Mindy