Making Perfect Popcorn

Everyone loves walking into a movie theater and sniffing the air. The smell of freshly-made popcorn in every theater is both heady and addictive. And that’s the one thing missing from almost every home theater setup: the smell of that perfect popcorn.

Why is it so difficult to duplicate the popcorn you buy at the movies? Easy – because they cheat. They use a special type of popcorn, specifically ground salt, and butter topping you can’t buy on the public market. But their main secret is the oil their popcorn is popped in – and it will surprise you.

The Right Corn

This is the easiest part. Many different popcorn companies, including Orville Redenbacker, have developed excellent popping corn. The two things you need to adhere to with your popcorn is to always use fresh popcorn, and to always keep your popcorn sealed so that air and humidity can’t get to it. Don’t buy popcorn in bags if you can help it; only purchase popcorn in plastic or, preferably, glass jars. Just get plain popcorn, nothing marinated in oil or fancy.

The Right Popper

The best popcorn machine is one that continually agitates the popcorn. A hand-turned crank kettle is both ideal and cheap. A gas stove on medium-high gives your popcorn the perfect heat, but you’ll have to stir and shake the popcorn constantly to ensure the kernels get equal heat throughout.

That’s why microwaved popcorn so often leaves tons of unpopped kernels; the popcorn isn’t stirred in the bag. If you want real movie-theater popcorn, either use a crank kettle (available in many specialty cooking stores or online) on a gas stove or buy a hot-oil popcorn machine. Never use a hot-air popcorn machine.

The best popcorn comes from a home version of the industrial popcorn machines. The prices on these range from about fifty dollars up. Look for one with a kettle popper, and a reasonably large reservoir at the bottom for popped corn.

The Right Oil

This is the real secret. Air popped popcorn will never, ever taste like movie theater popcorn. You must use a fat.

But which one? You can use every type of vegetable oil, from canola to peanut; Crisco; lard, butter, or bacon fat. Nothing you find in a grocery store will duplicate the taste of real movie theater popcorn. Nothing.

That’s because the perfect oil is only sold online or in specialty stores; it has unfairly gained the reputation of being very unhealthy, though it’s no worse than peanut oil. The secret is coconut oil. It’s expensive, but has the perfect consistency; it is just congealing at room temperature.

Like all fats that are not liquid at room temperature, coconut oil has a high level of saturated fat. But it is better for you than lard or butter, the other two fats that come close to the movie theater flavor, and there is some scientific evidence that it may have some health benefits.

I suggest using clarified butter (discussed below) and coconut oil in equal amounts when you experiment with getting the right flavor in your popcorn. If you cover the bottom of your pan with popcorn, the right amount of oil is just enough to nearly cover the popcorn. Manipulating the relative quantities of clarified butter and coconut oil will help you find the perfect flavor for you.

The Right Salt

The simple solution to getting perfectly-salted popcorn is putting salt in your oil while the popcorn is cooking. This allows salt to coat your kernels as each one pops, and as long as you’re not cooking too much popcorn at once, it is a very even way of spreading salt over your popcorn. The problem is that most people may use a little too much salt – it tastes fine, but the sodium content is too high.

But if you don’t put salt in with your popcorn while it’s cooking, you wind up with very uneven salting. There’s a secret to this as well, and it’s the same secret McDonald’s and other fast food restaurants use when they salt their fries. It’s powdered salt.

Though it’s not available in all areas, but Diamond Crystal salt is perfect for popcorn. This salt is crushed to a powdery consistency, and comes out looking more like flour than ordinary salt. It has a larger surface area because it’s powdered, which means you can use less of it to get the same effects; because it comes out in a cloud, it also tends to salt all sides of the popcorn on top evenly.

Use your powdered salt in a large shaker with lots of holes, and sprinkle it over popcorn in a wide container like a bowl, not over popcorn in a bucket. For the perfect technique, watch the fry guys at McDonald’s the next time you’re in; one quick shake should do it.

Butter salt, which you can find at many stores, is similar to powdered salt, but because of the flavoring it’s a little sticky, which can make it clump on your popcorn – not desirable. It will do in a pinch.

And Butter On Top

If you’re like me, popcorn is not perfect until it has butter on top. If you’ve melted butter and put it on air-popped or microwaved popcorn, you’ve also seen it turn popcorn into a soggy mess. And margarine? You may as well pour milk on it and eat it with a spoon.

The best butter topping for popcorn, though this is not generally used in theaters because of the expense, is clarified real dairy butter, unsalted. This is not just a melted stick of butter, but it can be derived from one.

To clarify butter, melt a stick in the microwave in a small glass bowl; you want your butter to be completely liquefied, but watch it to keep it from boiling out.. Take it out of the microwave and set it on the counter (careful not to burn yourself), then look at the bowl from the side. After it sits for about a minute, you should see two distinct layers (if not, heat it for another thirty seconds). The bottom layer looks milky and has solids floating in it; the top layer is a clear golden yellow.

The top layer is what you want – pure clarified butter. Let your butter solidify, without stirring it or disturbing it, in the fridge so it won’t go rancid and covered so it won’t pick up the flavors of your garlic or the chili you put in there last night; then take the solid top layer off, gently rinse it with very cold water, and pour out the semi-liquid bottom layer. Pat dry, and re-melt the top layer. Pour over your popcorn and enjoy the perfect bowl of popcorn!

Clarified butter can be stored in the freezer for about a week; to preserve the flavor, don’t reheat it more than once.

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