One of my research participants told me about this method of popping corn. It was a cold night in January and we would both rather be elsewhere — in this particular situation, we would both rather be home in front of the fire, digging into a book we’d both started reading at the same time, and stuffing our faces with popcorn. She told me about this new/old method she’d re-discovered: the art of cooking popcorn on the stove top.
We’d had an air-popper growing up, which was fun to watch, but noisy, and when you poured the melted butter over the popcorn you often ended up with soggy popcorn in some places and no butter at all in others. The flavour-distribution method needed work.
Then of course there are the microwave popcorns, which always seem to leave a weird film on my teeth and which all taste (to me) faintly of chemicals. I’m also not a huge fan of using the microwave, unless it’s to melt butter for baking or heat up my tea.
Everyone has their own method for making popcorn on the stove, and I tried a bunch of them (including the method prescribed by my research participant). The best and simplest method I came up with was a combination of her recipe, this one, and this one. You should definitely test out different approaches to see which works best for you, your stove, and your pots and pans.
So. Take yourself a large saucepan with a lid (the amounts below will give you about 12 cups of popcorn).
Add 1/4 cup vegetable oil to the bottom (anything with a high smoke point will do, like canola, sunflower, peanut, or grapeseed. I like to use peanut oil because I think it tastes better on the popcorn). Place over medium heat and let it get nice and toasty.
Plop 3 or 4 kernels of popping corn (my research participant tells me that No-Name brand kernels are terrible for popping this way, so use another brand if you can) into the pan and cover with a lid. When you hear the kernels pop (you use more than one in case that one is a dud), you know the oil is hot enough for popping.
Pour in 1/2 cup popping corn. For a sweet treat, add 1/4 cup sugar as well (if you use white sugar it tastes like candy corn, and if you use brown sugar, it’s like caramel corn). For a salty taste, add in 2 tablespoons salt instead.
Stir it all really well, cover, and remove it from the heat. Wait for 30 seconds. This brings all the kernels up to the same, almost-popping temperature.
Put the pan back on the heat. Very shortly thereafter the corn should start popping like crazy, and all at once. Keep the pan covered but leave the lid slightly ajar to let the steam escape, and every few seconds, give the pan a shake back and forth on the burner to keep the popped kernels from burning. When you get to the point where there are about 2-3 seconds between pops, it’s time to take the pan off the heat.
Pour the popped corn into a large bowl. If you used sugar, allow the corn to cool slightly (so you don’t burn your tongue), and break up the large clumps with a spoon. Then feel free to gorge yourself silly. I did find that the sugar version has a slightly smaller yield, and I think that has something to do with the stickiness of the sugar tamping down the explosive properties of the corn.
Some of the kernels got caramelized before they’d reached their full potential. But perhaps I just didn’t stir it well enough.