Anyone can make movie popcorn at home by following a few basic principles. My quest for great popcorn started as a kid and continues today. I learned a lot while working my first part-time job at our local movie theater. I later continued to experiment with countless techniques, poppers and ingredients. What I learned is that it doesn’t matter if you are using the stovetop or an expensive popper, the same basic principles for making great popcorn always apply.
Popcorn, oil and salt…that’s all you need. Before you start adding a bunch of extras to make gourmet or flavored popcorn, it is important to first master the basics.
Use quality popping corn – Don’t skimp. Buy good quality popping corn. The most readily available is Orville Redenbacher’s®. Specialty and gourmet food stores also sell gourmet corn. Quality corn does make a difference. It pops up bigger and leaves fewer unpopped kernels.
The right oil is the key – The most important single ingredient is the oil. Plain vegetable oil works, but is not recommended. The ultimate oil for movie popcorn is coconut oil. This is the oil used by many theaters and concession stands. It always makes the best tasting popcorn. The internet has made it much easier to get this product, but it is not readily available in most stores.
The best readily available oil is peanut oil. The oil that gives boardwalk style fries their unique texture and flavor is the same oil you can use to make movie popcorn at home. Beware of “gourmet” popping oils sold in grocery stores. They are often simple vegetable oils with coloring and butter flavor added. If they do not have peanut or coconut oil as a base, pass them by.
Never use table salt – “Popcorn salt” or fine grain “powdered salt” must be used. Putting regular table salt on popcorn is like putting ketchup on filet mignon. Personally I prefer the butter flavored popcorn salt. Powdered butter flavored salt is what they use on movie popcorn. It is usually bright orange or bright yellow and helps give the popcorn its buttery appearance. Powdered salt coats more evenly than table salt and doesn’t ruin the texture of the popcorn.
Popcorn can be made in a variety of ways with a wide range of equipment. As long as you understand the principles of making great popcorn, you can adapt them to the equipment you have at home.
Stirred, not shaken – The best popcorn is achieved if you have a way to stir the corn while it cooks. Poppers or pans with a rotating arm that constantly stirs the corn as it cooks are the best. If you are using a simple stove top pan, try to avoid lifting the pan off the heat source when you shake it. A constant heat source allows for more complete popping.
Don’t drown the kernels – While you may think adding more oil will help make better popcorn, this is not true. Too much oil can cause the popcorn to turn out “soggy,” not just from the oil, but from all the extra steam generated. Use the lowest amount of oil recommended by the manufacturer of your popper. If using the stovetop, consult the recipe on your package of popping corn. Less oil is not only healthier, it generally produces better popcorn.
Let it breathe – Don’t steam your popcorn! To make movie popcorn at home it is important to provide a significant outlet for the steam produced during the popping process. If you let it breath you will get much crispier and lighter popcorn. If popping on a stovetop, vent the top slightly to allow the steam to escape. Most popcorn poppers have a vented top. Don’t cover it up and don’t use it to melt butter.
The Finishing Touches
Age your popcorn…at least a few minutes – You might think popcorn tastes best right when it comes out of the popper. Actually, it is much better if you let it sit for a few minutes after it pops. Fresh popcorn is slightly moist and chewy from the steam generated during popping. Letting it sit for a few minutes allows it to dry out and achieve maximum crispness.
Salting is more art than science – Be sure to apply salt as soon as the popcorn comes out of the popper. The corn is still a little moist and salt will stick to it better. My favorite technique is to use two large bowls. I dump the fresh popcorn into one bowl, salt it immediately, dump it into the other large bowl to help mix it up and then salt again. Tossing between the two bowls helps achieve more even salting. It is also an excellent way to quickly dry out the popcorn and make it crispier.
Some Final Thoughts
It’s fun and economical to make movie popcorn at home. Make up several batches at once and store for later snacking in zipper bags or storage containers. Just be sure to let the popcorn cool completely before you seal it up.
Once you master the art of basic popping, move on to creating gourmet and flavored corns. There are tons of great articles and recipes on the web. Play, experiment and happy popping!
The Popcorn Board