By Carl Franz & Lorena Havens
Over the years, Lorena and I have expended a great deal of time and energy in our restless search for perfection: The Perfect Mexican Beach, The Perfect Camping Spot, The Perfect Hammock, etc. Now, after decades of ceaseless research and no small number of old maids, we are pleased to offer you the recipe for...
Before we get into the actual recipe and cooking instructions, I want to emphasize that perfect popcorn cannot be made in an imperfect pan. If youre currently using just any old pot, especially one of warped aluminum, enamel or even a cast-iron family heirloom, take my advice: give it to the Goodwill or use it to water the chickens. To put it bluntly, a second rate pan makes third rate popcorn.
It is difficult to judge the temperature of thick, very heavy pots, especially cast iron. Nor does a heavy pot allow the quick adjustments of temperature which may be necessary as you practice the fine points of this recipe. On the other hand, very lightweight pots, especially those with thin bottoms, inevitably overheat the oil and scorch your popcorn.
The ideal popcorn pan is hefty, but not so heavy it strains your arm.
In our experience, the best popcorn pots are medium-weight stainless steel, with a domed lid. Of all those weve used, Farberware stands out, both for results and value. You can pay a lot more, but high-end gourmet pots probably wont do a better job.
Contrary to kitchen mythology, a good stainless popcorn pot does not need seasoning or reverential handling. We cook everything from popcorn to vegetable stew and clams in ours. Dont worry; our Perfect Popcorn recipe uses enough olive oil to fill the crankcase on a Volkswagen van. With this much oil, seasoning a pot is irrelevant.
The weight of your popcorn pot is important, but so are the capacity and shape. We use a 4-quart pan, 5-inches high (without the lid) and 8 inches wide. This pan fully covers a burner.
Larger pans that extend well beyond the direct heat of the burner tend to cook popcorn unevenly and too slowly. Unless your stove has a very hot burner, it is difficult to maintain a steady cooking temperature in a very large pan. Weve used an 8-quart Farberware pot on a Coleman campstove, but for all-around reliability, we prefer the smaller 4-quart model.
In the proper sized pan, popcorn cooks fast, erupting like a volcano.
Regarding electric stoves and electric frying pans: Id almost rather make popcorn over a campfire than use an electric stove. If you must go electric, be very careful not to overheat the pan. If I havent used the stove before, Ill set the burner at medium-high and then wait five minutes to see how hot it actually gets. Well discuss this in more detail later, but youll almost certainly scorch the oil and popcorn if you just crank an electric burner up to high and take your chances.
My prejudice against electric burners and their ilk was somewhat modified when my brother gave us a Farberware 12-inch electric frying pan. To my surprise, this pan cooks popcorn like a champion! Unlike the slow, inaccurate adjustments of an electric range, the skillet is very responsive. The pan heats quickly and evenly, and the high domed lid is vented, making it easy to release steam without splattering popcorn and hot oil all over the kitchen.
Living in a 500 square foot cabin, with very limited kitchen counter space, the electric skillet was perfect for one-dish casseroles, stews, pancakes and even flat breads. But then we moved to a log cabin homestead, with an electrical system that was run by a generator and batteries. The electric skillet went into the attic and we went back to our 4-quart Farberware.
The Farberware electric frying pan isnt cheap, but if you dont yet have a gas range or single gas burner for popcorn, such a versatile utensil is worth consideration.
Microwave Ovens: my policy is, Dont ask, and I wont tell what I really think of these infernal appliances.
Yes, the size of your popcorn tub is very important. Youll understand this better when you find yourself spilling perfect popcorn from a hot pan into a too-small bowl. Once the popcorn pops, thats it, its done; you have to get it out of the pot quickly, before it toughens or scorches. (More about this later....)
The ideal capacity is a tub 30 - 50% larger than your appetite. For example, our traditional batch of 8 quarts (2 potfuls of four quarts each) goes into a large, green 3 gallon plastic washbasin. If Lorena and I are working in separate rooms, shell season the popcorn in the green tub and then divide it (fairly?) into two large enameled oaf bowls.
Choose a smooth surfaced popcorn tub rather than rough wooden bowls or baskets. Well talk later about recycling the leftover shake from the bottom of your popcorn tub, but for now it is enough to know that youll want to harvest every delicious molecule for other uses.
Weve tried them all, the good, the bad and the nearly inedible: Jiffy Pop, Orvilles, Newmans, Bango, Showtime and even the microwave stuff. Weve splurged on occasion for specialty designer corn, pseudo-Aztec, New Age and other disappointing, overpriced hybrids. Thousands of batches later, we can assure you that our hands-down first choice and beyond-shadow-of-a-doubt winner for best flavor, best value and highest loft is none other than... bulk organic popcorn from a good whole foods store. (By good whole foods store, I mean one that turns over enough popcorn to guarantee reasonable freshness.)
At this point, you might ask, Carl, just how important is it to get the best? Do you actually expect me to drive 300 miles through a blizzard in a clapped out 78 Datsun pickup truck, just to buy bulk organic popcorn from a good whole foods store when the Wallymart across the street sells Jiffy Pop for pennies a pound?
It would be far better to ask yourself: do you truly and sincerely wish to experience the sublime taste of Perfect Popcorn, or are you willing to settle for much-less-than-Perfect-Popcorn? If second-rate is your choice, why make your own popcorn at all? Bales of pre-popped junk corn are available at your local cineplex or K-Mart snackbar.
Serving popcorn without a proper topping is like giving your dinner guests a garden salad dressed with plain salt. On the other hand, the American custom of drenching popcorn in melted butter ought to be a Class 3 Felony. Popcorn sweetened with sugar or molasses, as in Cracker Jacks, only adds insult to injury. Dont turn a wonderfully healthy snack into high-risk junkfood.
Everyone who tries our popcorn agrees that Lorena has created the perfect topping, a recipe so healthful, nutritious and insatiably delicious that losing your self control is inevitable. (As the photograph suggests, no one loves this stuff more than Lorena herself. With her chin propped on the edge of the washtub, she goes through popcorn faster than a Sears shop vac.)
The powdered form of Chile Mirasol is Lorena's latest favorite popcorn topping
Before we describe how perfect popcorn is actually prepared, I want to encourage you to spare no effort or expense in assembling the ingredients listed above.
You wont add butter to this popcorn, so good oils are essential. In particular, dont skimp on the olive oil. Extra virgin really is extra good. The oil not only adds flavor but also attracts and binds an even coating of condiments to the popcorn. Our preference is for a greener, more flavorful olive oil, which also tends to be cheaper than lighter grades.
Your sesame oil should also be very dark, toasted, and preferably Asian. Sesame oils sold in whole foods shops are usually much less flavorful and far more expensive than those used in Asian cooking. I recently paid just $10 for a 56 ounce can of excellent Kadoya toasted sesame oil in an Asian grocery.
For many people, chilie pepper is synonymous with red cayenne powder or fresh, green jalapenos. The powdered chilies we use are much different. Good fresh chilie powders add a lot of flavor without risking third-degree burns to your tongue. Unfortunately, the ancho that we like best isnt easy to find. As a substitute, try a mild New Mexican red chilie powder (Chile Chamayo is best) -- it shouldnt be that hard to find. Once you get seriously involved, step up -- carefully -- to the potent powdered chipotle (smoked jalapenos).
If Lorena had to choose just one, it would be the chile ancho, especially the dark rusty red variety from Oaxaca. This dried chile is more flavorful and also milder than pre-packaged chile ancho.
You might also follow Lorenas example and collect several types of powdered chiles. She searches the chile section of every market we visit, finding new powered chiles to try out.
Use a different one for each batch of popcorn to add both variety and spice to your life.
Powdered Chile de Arbol is muy picante
-- Chile Negro on the first (bottom) layer and then Chile Ancho or Chile Mirasol on top.
-- Chile Chipotle (small pinch) and Chile Ancho on the bottom layer and Chile Guëro (milder) on the top.
-- Chile Ancho on the bottom and Mole Powder on top.
Powdered cheddars and powdered bleu cheeses are quite pricey, but a little goes a very long way. The flavor is intense, so make a heroic effort to find this essential condiment.
Garlic granules and garlic powder are not garlic salt! The flavor of the former is much richer. Dont substitute garlic salt unless its a certified emergency.
Dont be put off by the term flaked nutritional yeast. It may sound too healthy, but this stuff is dynamite on popcorn, buttered toast, potatoes, gravies and even salads. If youre new to yeast, be sure to get the nutritional style yeast rather than the more intense, slightly bitter, powdered Brewers Yeast. (By the way, nutritional yeast is quite different in consistency and flavor from Red Star and Fleischmann's baking yeast.)
Sea salt: unrefined sea salt is much sweeter than refined, iodized salt. Once you get the taste of sea salt, youll never go back.
Anyone who has scorched their fingers trying to make genuine corn tortillas knows that apparently simple foods often require more practice and careful attention than complex recipes. The same is true of perfect popcorn, which cannot be made off-handedly. Any mistake will be glaringly obvious, if not downright disastrous. With that in mind, turn up the music and clear the kitchen of idlers and curious gawkers.
Now lay out your untensils, making sure that both the popcorn tub and all the ingredients for the topping are close at hand.
Heat the pan and oils over a medium or medium-hot flame. Youll add the popcorn when the oil is hot, but not hot enough to smoke. Should the oil overheat and begin to smoke, instantly remove the pan from the fire and cool it down. Once it is cooler, reduce the flame and try again. (If you burnt the oil, discard it, wipe the pan clean, and try again.)
By the way, if youre using a larger or smaller pan than I recommend above, youll probably have to adjust the quantities of oil and popcorn to fit your particular pot. As a rule of thumb, add just enough popcorn to cover the bottom of the pan one grain deep, and just enough oil to cover the popcorn. Every pan has its own quirks, however, and theres no sure rule for this. Through trial and error youll eventually determine just how much popcorn you can safely add without blowing the lid off the pan.
How do you know when the oil is hot enough? The old trick of popping three grains to determine the temperature is okay, but I prefer to peer (carefully) into the pan and guess-timate. When you get the temperature just right, youll add all of the corn at once and the grains will immediately sizzle vigorously in the pan.
Cover the pan and cross your arms. Ideally, you wont have to shake it, stir it or peek. If nothing happens after 2 minutes, however, increase the flame. The kernels should soon begin to go off. When they do, crank the fire up to high. Good popcorn will quickly explode in a thrilling eruption that soon fills the pan to the brim.
As the popcorn blows, give the pan a gentle shake, if it makes you feel better. When all conditions are perfect, however, theres really no need to do anything. In fact, as you gain practice, youll amaze and frighten your friends by boldly walking away from the stove as the popcorn explodes behind you. (Just dont go too far, or youll smoke the whole batch and expose yourself to cruel ridicule.)
Advanced cooks only: Before the popcorn completely fills the pan, carefully remove the lid and (very carefully) release steam. This makes for a crispier, crunchier texture. Set the lid aside, or if it looks like an overflow batch, replace it after several seconds and let the popcorn lift the lid by itself.
One of the most critical points in the perfect popcorn process is learning when to take the pan from the fire. Do it too soon and youll have lots of old maids; move too slowly and youll blacken the pan and ruin your popcorn.
Assuming youve added the proper amount of corn for your pan, the rate of popping will decrease sharply as it fills to the brim. When only single pops can be heard, remove the pan, pull the lid, and quickly empty the popcorn into the tub. Be professional! The shame and embarrassment of leaving a few old maids is nothing compared to the heartache of ruining an entire batch.
Ok, once Ive popped the corn and poured it into the tub, Lorena quickly steps in with her blue plastic Sears toolbox, stuffed with neatly labeled containers of condiments and spices. She advises that the amount listed below are approximate. Lorena measures with pinches, which allow her to sprinkle each seasoning evenly over the bowl of hot popcorn. However, she insists that the order is important. Thus, the parmesan cheese covers the hot popcorn first and sticks better than if it were added later.
1) While the popcorn is still very hot, first sprinkle it with 1-2 tablespoons of parmesan.
2) Follow the parmesan with 2 teaspoons of dry, finely powdered cheddar or bleu cheese.
3) Now add 1/4 teaspoon -- a big pinch -- of chile powder. Adjust this measurement according to how picante (spicy hot) the chile is. Keep in mind that the burn of the chile tends to be cumulative, so the more popcorn you eat....
4) Sprinkle 1/4 teaspoon or more of garlic powder across the top.
5) Crush a teaspoon of Italian Herbs between your fingers as you sprinkle it over the popcorn.
6) Shake a light layer of nutritional yeast over the popcorn -- about two teaspoons should do it.
7) Salt the popcorn sparingly. (Keep the salt handy so people can add more to taste as they eat.)
Once all of the toppings have been distributed, push your fingers into the popcorn and massage it gently to mix the spices into the top couple of inches. Dont stir very vigorously. As there is no butter to make the popcorn sticky, the spices will slowly sift their way down as you eat.
As I mentioned earlier, our usual meal of popcorn is two batches of 4 quarts each. Lorena adjusts the spices on each batch, so that the flavor of the popcorn changes as you eat.
We wash down our popcorn with a simple, refreshing fruit juice cocktail. Pour a couple of inches of grape juice over ice cubes, add the juice of half a lime, then top it off with cold water or club soda. Stir and serve.
When youve gobbled all the way to the bottom of the tub, youll notice that quite a bit of leftover topping remains among the unpopped kernels. Dont throw this valuable stuff out! Sift out the old maids and tiny pieces of popcorn, and store the seasoning in a well-sealed container.
Later, you can use these popcorn spices in omelettes and gravy, sprinkle them on pasta or tofu, or add them to salad dressings. Theres no limit to their uses beyond your imagination and appetite.