Amuse-bouche: The joy of popping

February 10, 2011

There are some foods that America’s giant, faceless, agri-beast processed food industry can make just as well as the average person. The Pillsbury Grands Flaky Layer Butter Tastin’ biscuit, for example, is a thing of beauty. Frozen pizza and Stouffer’s macaroni and cheese are both mostly high-fructose corn syrup, and not coincidentally both delicious.

However, there is one processed food that is an affront to all that is good, right, and beautiful about eating: microwavable popcorn.

Microwavable popcorn tastes like brined packing peanuts—greasy, tart, and stale. If the taste doesn’t turn you off, squeeze a package of unpopped Pop Secret before you microwave it. Feel the kernels slowly spread out in the congealed imitation butter sludge in which they are suspended. Now ask yourself, doesn’t that belong in a landfill?

Pardon my disdain. I didn’t feel this way until I began to make popcorn myself, on the stove. It’s magnificent. Where microwave popcorn is like Styrofoam, a kernel of popcorn popped on the stove is moist, complex, and slightly sweet (as if it were—gasp!—made from corn), but still effortlessly light and crunchy. Think about it: if it has to be smothered in greasy cheez dust to be palatable, it’s crap. A good piece of popcorn should be a joy to eat with or without its toppings. But oh, what toppings. Melted butter and a careful sprinkling of salt will wake up your taste buds, if not give you a foodgasm.

My family boastfully refers to this as “making real popcorn.” We are so aggressively proud of our ability to do so that my sister invites her friends to best her in popcorn-making contests. (Her most recent challenger backed out due to nerves.) And if we sound like a bunch of jerks, keep in mind that my sister and I are regularly implored by our friends to make popcorn.

Besides, we never showboat without offering to teach. I taught my sister to make popcorn when she was 11 years old while we were home alone watching The Bourne Identity. We paused the movie, and I took her upstairs along with my family’s designated popcorn pot. There is no art to choosing a popcorn pot—just a sensibility. It should be able to hold at least half as much popcorn as you intend to eat (you can dump the finished corn out as you pop it), and you shouldn’t attempt to make a single serving batch in a stockpot, but anything in between can do the job.

I told her to pour oil into the pot until it just filled the bottom, and drop two kernels into the oil. We covered the pot and heated the oil over medium-high heat until they both popped, then sent an avalanche of kernels into the heated oil and covered the pot again. Some recipes will suggest a kernel-to-oil ratio for this step, but I’m a fan of eyeballing it. The oil should just cover the kernels, and the kernels shouldn’t be swimming. That’s about all the direction you need.

Have a bowl ready. That’s key. Popcorn will surprise you. The single serving you thought you made will suddenly turn into a three-person batch, forcing the lid off the pot as the kernels turn into projectiles, so be ready to dump the top layer into the bowl while the kernels on the bottom continue to pop. Butter it and salt it, again, eyeballing it.

And it will be perfect the first time you try it, I told her.

You can cook a batch of popcorn in the time it takes to microwave a bag of “popcorn.” So if you have access to a stove—hell, if you have access to a hotplate with frayed wiring—throw your Orville Crapenbacher in the garbage. It’s time to make real popcorn.

Show Molly that once you pop, the fun don’t stop at mredden@georgetownvoice.com


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