Forget the microwave. For perfect popcorn, make your own on top of the stove.
I come from a family of serious popcorn makers. My memories of childhood are tied to the rattle of corn kernels hitting the pan. The ping-ping-ping of them bursting. The alluring fragrance of popped corn wafting into the room. The deliciously greasy fingers that had to be licked.
On Saturday nights, my mother would pull out the 3-quart Revere Ware pot -- the one with a few vestiges of burnt kernels -- and pop up our treat while we, freshly scrubbed and smelling sweetly of Lux soap and Prell shampoo, watched "My Three Sons" and "Hogan's Heroes."
Occasionally, there were private popcorn moments to which I was not invited. Hours after my appointed bedtime, I would be buried in blankets in a darkened room, tossing and turning as only a night owl does, when I would hear the telltale kernels as they clattered into the pan. It meant only one thing: Mom and Dad were eating popcorn. Alone.
That always posed a late-night dilemma. Should I give in to temptation and tiptoe into the kitchen to let my folks know I was awake and wouldn't mind having some popcorn? Or would I risk a bad-tempered "Get back to bed!" if they didn't want me around? Some nights the siren call of popcorn was worth the prospect of a little danger.
We took our popping seriously, my mother comparing notes with her sisters on the best technique: lots of oil or little, salt before or after, shaking the pan or not, white, yellow or any of the gourmet versions of popcorn. ("Can you believe it?" my mother would exclaim when she saw the newfangled oddities. "Popcorn comes in colors these days.")
When it came to eating from the overflowing bowl, the Svitaks had a distinct style. Well, at least two of us did (that would be my father and me). There are those who eat their popped corn delicately, kernel by kernel, as though they could nibble all day without fear that anyone else would finish the bowl. There are others who grab small handfuls and, again, take their time.
Then there are those who can only be called "woofers." (And yes, that would include you-know-who and you-know-who's father.) We would grab huge handfuls, from which more than a few kernels would fall to the floor or our laps. With heads tilted backward (the better to catch the popcorn), we would toss back the fistfuls of popcorn at one time with gustatory relish. Not a pretty sight, I know. Like wolves tearing apart a carcass, we would devour the bowl of popcorn while the others cavalierly nibbled away at theirs.
By the mid-1980s, when microwave popcorn appeared on the shelf, we had packed up the old pan. The sheer novelty of almost-instant popcorn had us transfixed in front of the microwave as the small bag expanded in front of our eyes, even though we heeded the urban rumor to "stand clear of the microwave." Never mind that the bags often burned. It was magic.
The good old days
I'm back to the real thing these days, kernels popped in a heavy pan with just a thin coating of oil. I top it with a modest dose of melted butter and salt. It's the perfect snack (and in some cases, dinner) in the winter and fall, which not surprisingly is when most popcorn kernels are sold.
Not only is popcorn cheap to make at home, but it's also fast -- almost the same amount of time to make popcorn from scratch as to make it in the microwave. From start to finish, 3 to 5 minutes. (So much for our early excitement over the speed of microwave popcorn.)
There is the fuss factor, which doesn't matter to the die-hard popcorn maker: The popcorn pan may get marked by an errant kernel; there's more cleanup than with microwave popcorn. But there also isn't the distracting burnt paper smell.
These days, the corn offers a big advantage we never considered earlier: Popcorn is a whole grain and, yes, it can be used to meet dietary recommendations for whole grains (3 cups of popcorn is considered to be one serving of grain). It is fiber, after all.
A simple how-to
I've included a recipe here, though you don't really need one. The key is to match the amount of popcorn kernels to the pan you are using. First lightly coat the bottom of a deep pan with a neutral oil that has a high smoking point, such as canola. (The oil gets very hot, so you want one that won't burn. And, if the oil has a flavor, the popcorn will pick up the same.) Use only as many kernels as make up one layer on the bottom of the pan. Too many and you will end up with unpopped kernels, or what we used to call "old maids."
Cover the pan and place it over medium-high heat. Years ago we shook and rattled the pan till our arms were numb, but in retrospect it wasn't necessary. The kernels are moving as they pop, and are just fine if you leave the pan on the burner while they are exploding.
Listen as the kernels pop and when they slow to two seconds in between bursts, take the pan off the burner and carefully pour the popcorn into a bowl (do this pointing away from your eyes, in case an unexpected last-minute kernel pops).
If you're using butter, now's the time to melt it (cool the pan a bit if you're using the same one because it will be hot enough to burn the butter) and add whatever flavorings you prefer.
That's it. A treat for the times: cheap and fast. And tasty -- whether you nibble the popped corn or woof it down.
Lee Svitak Dean • 612-673-1749