Wednesday, January 17, 2007


Those of you who watch Top Chef will know exactly where the idea for a spicy popcorn came from: i.e., from the dish that Sam created to represent wrath in the seven deadly sins challenge. There is even a recipe for that dish on the Bravo website, but the recipe treats the popcorn as a mere garnish. Worse, it just tells you to pop some corn in some canola oil and entirely neglects the seasoning that Sam put on it and that made the judges rave.

Popcorn is the ideal snack food if you're dieting. In fact, on the Weight Watchers Core plan, 94% fat free microwave popcorn is one of the permitted, unlimited snack foods. And I will confess that there have been times at work (these times will, alas, become more frequent as busy season waxes full) where I have resorted to that option. While it is certainly possible to see (especially if you squint) microwave popcorn as a necessary evil, however, you run into a brick wall if you try to justify it on any grounds other than dire necessity. And perhaps on the grounds that if you go to the supermarket, you will be absolutely inundated with options for creating a series of controlled explosions inside your microwave, but you might have difficulty finding any good popcorn that you can prepare on top of the stove. If you look carefully, however, you can probably find a jar of Orville Reddenbacher, and while I'm sure there are better popcorns (and if you have a favorite, I'd be ever so grateful if you leave a comment or send me an email to let me know what it is and where I can procure some), OR has consistently popped well for me over the years.

I am not one to pass judgment on anyone's culinary practices or kitchen equipment (note that I wrote that last phrase with a straight face: just how long I can keep that up remains an open question), but I do not think that the food appliance industry served us well by creating the hot air popper. When I was a youngster (my mother's family would say "young'un"), my mother popped corn using her pressure cooker. She covered it with the lid from another saucepan, making it, in effect, the heaviest saucepan she owned. Mom would melt some shortening in the bottom of the pot, pour in some store-brand popcorn from a plastic bag, cover the pot, and cook it, shaking frequently, until as much of it as she thought was going to pop had popped. Then she'd pour it out into a bowl and add salt and, sometimes, butter.

When I was a little older, dedicated popcorn poppers were common. These were essentially hot plates with a cooking surface (often nonstick) and a cover, and they did the same thing as my mother did with her pressure cooker, but at a controlled temperature and without the shaking. They may have been among the most pointless (though essentially harmless) appliances ever created, and if anyone was sorry to see them go, it was only because they were chased out by the hot air poppers, which were equally pointless -- but not quite so harmless.

It really does not require a great deal of fat to make good popcorn, but popcorn prepared without any fat at all is doomed to an eternity of flavorlessness (there was, in fact, a Greek myth illustrating this exact lesson, but it was ruthlessly suppressed by Big Popcorn shortly after the end of the Napoleonic wars) no matter how hard you work to compensate (if you go to a Weight Watchers meeting, you will hear people talk about using cooking spray on their air-popped popcorn; when this happens, smile, nod, and escape at your earliest opportunity). The problem with fat-free popcorn popping is that in the absence of fat, salt will not cling to the popped corn. (There are also textural problems with air-popped popcorn, but the lack of flavor will suffice here.) I have not used a hot air popper in many years, but if memory serves, the popper had a place to put butter so that the hot air would melt the butter, and the butter would fall down onto the little chute leading from the popping chamber to the bowl. The theory was that the popped corn would hit the chute and the butter and that the final product would then be saved. It didn't work. You could, of course, rescue your popcorn by pouring melted butter over the finished product and tossing it well to coat: enough butter and salt will rescue almost anything. (Really, try it some time with a bowl of chopped haggis and see if the haggis isn't much improved. Not that there was any direction for the haggis to go but up. I shouldn't say that: I've never had haggis, and the lead singer from Franz Ferdinand claims that it's entirely edible [Scotland: come for the tartan, stay for the haggis!], and I'm sure it can't be much worse than, say, chitterlings. And if you decide to rescue a bowl of chitterlings by pouring butter and salt over them, I don't want to hear about it, ok?) But if you are so desperate to be chewing something that you're willing to eat air-popped popcorn, I suggest sugarless gum. The only time I have ever found a hot air popper truly useful was when I was in college, and we wanted to fill a friend's room up with popcorn. Word to the wise: to do so takes a long time and a lot of popcorn. If you can't convince one of the freshmen to carry out the prank for you, then filling the room to a depth of three inches or so completely makes the statement you wanted to make: any more is just punishing yourself. Indeed, if you're going to put large quantities of popped corn in a friend's room, you want to avoid something popped in fat so as to avoid attracting vermin. (Vermin and haggis in one paragraph! Is it even possible for this blog to get any better?)

Anyway, if you want to pop corn, then what you really need is some decent popping corn, some good fat, some seasonings, and a heavy saucepan with a lid that fits well. It is an amazingly simple process. You put your fat in the bottom of the pan, you place the pan over medium-high heat, you add three kernels of popcorn, and you plop the lid on. When the first two kernels have popped, you wait an additional ten seconds, or until the third kernel pops, whichever is sooner. Then you pour in the rest of your corn, shake well to coat it with oil, and put it back on the heat. Continue shaking occasionally until the corn begins to pop, and then shake more frequently. If you can crack the lid on the corn while it's popping without letting any fly out of the pot, then you'll release some steam and the popped corn will be crispier.

The time it takes for individual kernels of corn to pop should be normally distributed around a mean. In other words, the popping will start slowly, then pick up, and finally taper off. A corn that pops well is one that, in addition to having few dud kernels, has a relatively small standard deviation in the popping time so that almost all of the kernels will have popped before the corn begins to burn.

In any case, when the popping begins to taper off, wait until you have two or three seconds with no pops at all, and then take the pan off the heat and let it sit covered for another fifteen seconds or so. Remove the lid and pour the popped corn into a large bowl. Give the corn a few seconds to allow steam to escape, then add your seasonings, and toss well to coat.

And then eat it. The proper way to eat popcorn is with a soup spoon, though very few people are aware of this fact. Manners experts generally won't even tell you about the soup spoon rule because it's an embarrassment to their profession. Contemporary proper manners continue to be governed by provisions of the Treaty of Languedoc, which was ratified in 1827. At the time, few people of property consumed popcorn, but many people consumed asparagus. Asparagus (prior to the Great Vegetable Shift of the 1850s) was an even more delectable vegetable then than it is now. The proper way to eat it was with a knife and fork, but it prompted such gluttony (and delight) that the noblemen of the day were very much desirous of eating it with their fingers. In order to make a compromise possible, the Manualists had to give something up so that the Utensilists could save face. Accordingly, they offered up popcorn, which they didn't like very much anyway, the moving picture still being nearly a century off. Bottom line: asparagus with the fingers, popcorn with a soup spoon.

As you might imagine, however, the whole business is something of a sore sport for the Languedocians, a people renowned mainly for their shyness about acknowledging their national origins. So while it is now technically impolite to eat popcorn with your hands, it's really the only way to go. You never know when you might be in the presence of a son (or daughter) of Languedoc, and, believe me, you don't ever want to piss a Languedocian off.

What you use to season your popcorn is entirely up to you, of course. When I visited France as a senior in high school, the French sprinkled granulated sugar on the corn after it was popped. Salt and butter have been traditional in the U.S., of course. When I was in college, it was a special treat to catch a movie at the Brattle Theater in Harvard Square in part because they still put real butter on popcorn that they had just popped themselves. I am told by a reliable source that they still do that. But nowadays, it's fairly common to see popcorn flavored with grated Parmesan, and of course, there are those giant cans of popcorn that have three different flavors, and God only knows what flavors those have. I don't think anyone ever actually eats that popcorn. You take it to work and leave it in the break room, and, after a decent interval has passed, someone dumps the popcorn down the gargage disposal and takes the giant pail home for another use.

Anyway. Pouring butter on my popcorn, alas, is not consistent with my diet, and in any case, I wanted to make something similar to what I assume Sam made. So I created my own popcorn seasoning.

Popcorn Seasoning

3 T. kosher salt
2 t. ground ancho chile
2 t. smoked sweet paprika
2 t. cocoa powder
1 t. ground cumin
1 t. ground cayenne pepper

Combine the salt and ground chile in your spice grinder, and grind until fine. Put in a jar, add the other ingredients, and shake well.

Excepting the anchos, the other spices generally come very finely ground. The kosher salt is coarse, of course (Willllburrrrrrrr!), and you really want very fine salt for your popcorn, so if you grind the salt and the anchos together, you solve all your problems.

When I make popcorn, I use one tablespoon of olive oil for 1/3 cup of corn. This amount is nicely handled by my Calphalon 3.5-quart Windsor saucepan. It is certainly legitimate to use more oil for reasons of flavor, but the corn pops perfectly well with the single tablespoon. A lot of people will tell you to use canola oil to pop corn, and I'm sure it gets the job done, but if I'm only using a tablespoon of fat, I want to use a fat with real flavor. In searching around the net to see what other people had done with popcorn, I found someone who popped his corn in bacon fat. I must track this person down and see whether he needs a disciple.

One teaspoon of my seasoning adequately flavors what 1/3 cup of unpopped popcorn expands into. When you pour the popped corn into your bowl, let it rest for a moment to give off steam, then sprinkle the seasoning over the top of the popcorn and toss it as well as you can. You will not get a perfectly even coating, and that's just fine. When you taste the popcorn, think twice before adding additional seasoning. It will seem bland at first, but the flavors build, and by the time you reach the bottom of the bowl, your mouth will be tingling.

[I apologize for the lack of a picture. I made two batches of popcorn to make sure that I had the mix of seasonings that I wanted, and while I tried to stop eating for long enough to fetch a camera, I failed. I'll try to make amends later.]


Anonymous lindy said...

Entirely agree that air-popped popcorn is Not Worth Bothering About. And that there is nothing hard about making popcorn in a saucepan with a little bit of oil.
I have, however, resorted to dusting my popcarn with Molly McButter on occasion. It doesn't actually taste like butter, and I suspect it is not the dairy product it claims to be..but somehow, in the right frame of mind, it tastes okay.
Wow, I feel like I have just confessed that I occasionally enjoy eating babies.

12:43 PM  
Anonymous e said...

I'm definitely reconsidering my plan to go on a low carb. I love popcorn and the fact that WW would let me have it would make me very happy.

My Whirley Pop only needs a teaspoon of oil per batch, which I think is 6 quarts.


10:57 AM  
Blogger anapestic said...

I used to have a popcorn popper like your Whirley Pop, I think. I may still have it packed in a box in one of my parents' garages, but I think it's gone. Alas.

Lindy, since I'm not being judgmental, I can't say anything about the Molly McButter or the babies, but I do hope that you're not using the Molly McButter on the babies. That would be wrong.

11:45 AM  
Anonymous e said...

I don't think Molly McButter sticks properly to the babies.

5:00 AM  
Anonymous lindy said...

Maybe if you, you know, use a little cooking spray... first...

2:40 PM  
Blogger Zeke said...

Anapestic, are you GayNinjaRobots uncle or something? you cracked me up with this one and made me go freshen my popcorn stores. I still don't understand how you can eat popcorn with a spoon though...

I think my mom used a mixture of lard and vegetable oil when she made popcorn in her pressure cooker. I've never had popcorn that good except when they actually pop it at the store in the kettle instead of just reheating old bags of it under a heat lamp.

9:16 AM  
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