To make perfect popcorn, ditch the microwave

Make it even better.
Make it even better.
Image: AP Photo/Matthew Mead
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Popcorn, if you take a moment to think about it, is pretty neat. The transformation of hard kernels into light, crunchy puffs is nothing short of a small miracle.

I’m far from the only one who loves popcorn. The buttered popcorn scented candle exists, as does the buttered popcorn-flavored jelly bean. In 1987, Madonna told the L.A. Times, “Instead of meat I eat things like tofu, Japanese food and Thai food. I also love popcorn,” in response to questions about her vegetarian diet. The scoldy admonishments about the calorie and sodium content of movie theater popcorn only make it seem like more of a special treat.

My favorite popcorn though, is made at home. Forget the possible health risks of microwave popcorn—I’ve never been able to figure out why anyone would eat something that turns such a delicious snack into something so gross, especially when it’s so easy, and so much cheaper, to make on your stove. And the silvery patter of pouring a few handfuls of kernels into a pot on the stove, putting the lid on, and awaiting the modestly radical transformation to come never gets old.

The key, like with movie theater popcorn, is using more salt and oil than seems strictly necessary. Jessica Koslow, the owner of Squirl in Los Angeles, famously uses more oil than popcorn kernels, by volume, for an extremely crunchy, unctuous pop. “The large amount of oil kind of snuck up on me,” she told The New York Times.  Food52, as usual, has a trick for perfectly crisp, evenly popped popcorn with fewer unpopped kernels—heat the oil, add the corn, take it off the heat for 30 seconds, then return to heat.

I just wing it. I put a large pot–whichever one happens to be clean–on the stove, add two big spoonfuls of coconut oil and a handful of salt. I cannot stress how delicious popcorn popped in coconut oil is. It’s what makes movie theater popcorn so good, and when popped this way at home it adds a subtly sweet aromatic quality. Once the oil has melted I add a substantial pinch of salt, or two, and swish it around. Then I pour in enough kernels to not quite cover the bottom of the pan, and swish those around so they get nicely coated with the oil and salt mixture. The lid goes on and I shake the pan ever 30 seconds or so. Once it starts popping I shake the pan more often, to try to get the popped corn evenly coated with oil and salt and to keep it from scorching. When the popping slows, usually after a minute or so, I pull it off the heat, decant into bowls and top with nutritional yeast, sometimes more salt, or shichimi togarashi—a Japanese seasoning blend.

If you want to go full movie theater experience though–like if you’re hosting a viewing party of a favorite movie or an awards night extravaganza–set up a popcorn bar for your guests. Pop a couple batches of popcorn and either provide bowls or get really festive and buy paper bags (you can purchase 100 for less than $10). Set out bowls filled with movie theater candies—Hot Tamales, Sour Patch Kids, Swedish Fish, M&Ms, and Reese’s Pieces. Adding other savory snacks like pretzels and peanuts will only make it even more deluxe. Yes, everyone takes a bite of popcorn and then a bite of candy for a salty, sweet flavor explosion, and yes, your guests will think you’re a genius.