Quick, Easy, Healthy, and Tasty — the Best Way to Make Homemade Popcorn
Look in the “snack aisle” of your local supermarket and you’ll see package after package of microwave popcorn. You know, boxes filled with sealed paper bags designed to be nuked at home. Most stores stock several brands, and they usually offer a wide variety of flavorings. It’s convenient, and microwave popcorn really is good stuff. But look closely at the list of ingredients on the box, and you may wonder whether those are things you really want to ingest. If you’re like me, you’ve probably had your fill of weird-sounding additives whose names you can’t pronounce.
Way down on the bottom shelf, you’ll generally find popcorn in bulk — the kind that’s meant to be cooked the old-fashioned way. It’s not as convenient as the packaged microwave popcorn, but it has no added ingredients. And it’s much cheaper than the “convenience” brands.
And guess what? You can pop that bulk popcorn in your microwave. You don’t need to buy the specially packaged “microwave” varieties. Just find an appropriate container — I use a brown paper sack — and you’re in business. And you can flavor the popcorn with your own tasty (and natural) ingredients. No mystery chemicals needed. The result is much better flavor. Plus you’re saving money!
Try this method of making popcorn and you’ll never look back.
Recipe: Microwave Popcorn
Microwave ovens cook with radio waves, which excite the water molecules in food, causing them to move back and forth. This movement — and the friction the molecules create as they rub together —produces the energy (heat) that does the cooking. (For a more detailed explanation, check out Wikipedia.)
Any food with a high water content is an excellent candidate for the microwave. That includes popcorn. Even though the kernels appear to be dry, they actually contain moisture. When heated, that moisture produces steam, which causes the corn kernels to puff up (explode, actually), forming the characteristic shape we associate with popped corn.
The traditional way of preparing popcorn at home is to put it in a covered pot with some fat (so you don't scorch the kernels), and heat it on top of the stove. You can get excellent popcorn this way — but if you don’t want the added fat, you’re out of luck. When you cook popcorn in the microwave, you don’t need to add fat, so you can enjoy a relatively low-cal treat. And if you do want to add some fat as flavoring (butter or olive oil are my faves), you can easily do so after you’ve prepared the popcorn.
You can microwave “bulk” popcorn in a large covered bowl. Or you can buy a dedicated microwave popcorn popper (which is essentially, well, a large covered bowl). But my favorite method is to use a paper bag — one of the inexpensive brown lunch sack-sized ones that come in packages of 100 or so. You’ll need to secure the bag so it doesn’t spring open. I do this with 2 staples from an ordinary office stapler. Yes, I know you shouldn’t put metal in a microwave, but a couple of staples aren’t enough to cause problems (see Notes). This method works in a microwave that has a turntable (as most do). I haven’t tested it in one without a turntable, so I can’t vouch that it works or that it’s safe to use staples in that case.
I learned about this method of microwaving popcorn from Alton Brown’s first cookbook, I’m Just Here for the Food. My recipe is (slightly) adapted from his, and yields 6 or so cups of popcorn.
- 1/3 cup unpopped popcorn
- salt to taste (optional)
- melted butter to taste (optional; I usually like 2 - 3 tablespoons or so for this amount of popcorn)
- Place popcorn in a paper bag. Fold the top of the bag over itself twice (use ½ inch folds). Staple 2 times, making sure each staple is at least an inch from the side of the bag, with a couple of inches between the staples. When you place the bag on the microwave’s turntable, make sure the staples don’t touch the sides of the microwave (and won’t when the bag expands).
- Heat on high. The popcorn kernels will begin popping in about 30 seconds. Remove bag from microwave when the kernels have essentially stopped popping (i.e., when the time between pops is around 5 seconds or so). In most microwave ovens, the whole process will take 2 to 3 minutes. In mine, it takes 2 minutes and 10 seconds.
- Tear the bag open (be careful — the steam trapped in the bag is hot) and pour the contents into a bowl. Add salt and optional butter, and toss to mix. Serve.
|Position of Staples on Paper Bag|
- Very small amounts of metal (like the 2 staples I recommend) seem to be OK in a microwave — or so Alton Brown assures us. I trust him and have had no problem microwaving popcorn this way dozens of times. But if you’re hesitant, you can also tape the bag shut with cellophane tape. My luck with this has been inconsistent — it usually works, but sometimes the tape doesn’t hold (although the popcorn stays in the bag). I use staples, but if you're worried they might cause a fire, try the tape method.
- You can use just about any brand of bulk popcorn. My supermarket’s generic brand usually works fine (most of the kernels pop, and the popped kernels are a decent size). Several interesting “boutique” brands of popcorn are available, and I’ve read that some of them are particularly good. If this sounds interesting, experiment until you find a brand that makes your tongue happy.
- Some people like to add salt and butter to the bag before popping. I don’t find that this produces better flavor, though, so I prefer to season the popcorn after it’s popped. It’s easier to get the flavors well distributed throughout the popcorn when you season after the fact.
- I like salt with some heft to it (so it clings to the popcorn). I generally use Kosher salt, but you can also find special popcorn salt.
- Salt and butter are classic popcorn flavorings — but they’re just the beginning. You can also add black pepper, herbs (rosemary is great), olive oil, or cheese (Parmesan is a classic, although any cheese tastes good; use a couple of tablespoons, or to taste). Whatever you think will taste good probably will. A lot of people like to add sweet flavorings (caramel, etc.), so that’s another route you can take.
Ridiculously Easy — and Cheap
“This is just too easy,” Mrs. Kitchen Riffs observed the first time we made our own microwave popcorn. “Just put popcorn in a paper bag, staple it, and nuke for a couple of minutes? Why have we been bothering with that supermarket microwave popcorn?”
“Good question,” I said. “We should have done this long ago. We get to add our own flavors, so it’s much tastier. And it costs way less.”
“Great budgeting move,” mused Mrs K R. “We’re saving money with every bite! Which means we can afford to buy . . . .”
I took another handful of popcorn. I had a feeling we’d need to eat a lot of it to pay for whatever Mrs K R had in mind.
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