Friday, March 8, 2013

Popping Perfect Popcorn

Last year I was on a popcorn kick, and I made it my goal to pop the perfect movie theater style popcorn. After countless batches, I succeeded. It turns out that there is a lot more going on with popcorn than you would expect.

Popcorn Selection: Butterfly vs. Mushroom
Butterfly popcorn is your basic popcorn. When it pops, it has wings sticking out in random directions. It is the standard popcorn available at most grocery stores and in microwave bags. Mushroom style pops in nice round balls and is more durable, which makes it the ideal for coated popcorns like caramel corn. Unfortunately, this comes at the expense of chewiness and more hulls. Get the Butterfly unless you need the strength Mushroom for coated popcorns.

The greatest popping oil is coconut oil. In fact, it was the go to popping oil in theaters until the mid 90's. It is light tasting and slightly sweet. Corn and Vegetable oils impart a slight earthly taste to the popcorn. Do not worry about it being a saturated fat. Not all of its constituent fats are saturated. Being a vegetable fat, it does not have any of the hormones or chemicals that bio-accumulate in the saturated fats of higher food chain animals.

The ideal ratio of fat to corn is 1:3. So 1/3 cup oil with 1 cup corn. You can use less, but if you go too low, the flavor will not stick. I typically round down to the nearest whole measure so that I do not have to dirty too many measuring cups.

The key flavors for popcorn are butter and salt. Nothing defines popcorn flavor quite like Flavacol - pre-mixed artificial butter flavor and salt. This is what I use. If you are worried about getting popcorn lung (unlikely) and want to avoid using artificial butter flavor then there are alternatives*. Just be sure to get "Popcorn Salt" which is just extra finely ground salt. The smaller grains make a difference.

The art of popping
Popping perfect popcorn requires even heating and ventilation to get rid of the steam that will make the popcorn chewy. Wabash Valley Farm’s Whirley Pop is a special popcorn popping pot that does all this. It has a stirring arm attached to a crank to get even heating and vents in the lid to let the steam out while keeping the popcorn in.

To get a good pop, you want an evenly distributed high heat. This it requires so much oil: it spreads out the heat. More heat means bigger flakes but more risk of burning (both the popcorn once it pops and the oil which can smoke). I typically use medium high heat on my stove because after that point, the flame spreads out to wide and I do not get even heating. If you have a dual ring open burner stove, you can turn it up higher.

My (formerly) Secret Popcorn Recipe**
  • 1/2 cup Butterfly-style Popcorn
  • 2.5 tbsp Coconut Oil (I use one flat and one with a little extra)
  • 1 1/4 tsp Flavacol (Only 1 tsp for your second batch if you didn't wash the pot.)
  1. Place Oil and Flavacol in Whirly Pop on Medium-High heat until the oil shimmers.
  2. Pour in popcorn and shut the lid.
  3. Turn crank slowly (about 1 turn/sec) until popcorn starts popping.
  4. Shake pot to keep kernels on the bottom.
  5. Pour into bowl and Enjoy.
 Let me know how this works out for you!

*Alternatives to Flavacol
If you prefer to use real butter I recommend that you make clarified butter. Use the clarified butter to pop the corn and use the leftover milk solids to flavor it. (The milk solids are the flavor, but are also what cause the butter to burn.) You will need a lot more milk solids than butter fat so make a whole stick (or two) and save the extra butterfat for something else. Here [link] is a great method for making clarified butter fast.

**Full Size Recipe for 8oz Popcorn Machines
  •  1 cup Popcorn
  • 1/3 cup Coconut oil
  • 1 tbsp Flavacol