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The View from My Kitchen

Benvenuti! I hope you enjoy il panorama dalla mia cucina Italiana -- "the view from my Italian kitchen,"-- where I indulge my passion for Italian food and cooking. From here, I share some thoughts and ideas on food, as well as recipes and restaurant reviews, notes on travel, and a few garnishes from a lifetime in the entertainment industry.

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Grazie mille!

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Easy, Perfect Popcorn

Movie Theater Quality Without Expensive Poppers And Questionable Ingredients

To say that I love popcorn would be a tremendous understatement. Statistics show that the average American consumes approximately sixty-eight quarts – or seventeen gallons – of popcorn annually. Boy, am I above average! Think I exaggerate? I was once given a bushel bag of popcorn as a gift. That's thirty-two quarts. It lasted me about two weeks.

Not only do I know a good bit about eating popcorn, I'm pretty proficient at popping it, too. In fact, my first paid employment was popping popcorn in a small town movie theater. But I had been burning Jiffy Pop at home long before that gig. (Seriously, did anybody ever get that stuff to completely pop without burning at least half of it?) Fortunately, Jiffy Pop was just a fad in my house. My mother had a special pot she reserved for popping popcorn when I was a kid and she instructed me in the finer points of its use when I was barely tall enough to stand at the stove without a stool. So popcorn and I go way back.

Over the decades I've utilized every popping gadget that ever came down the pike. Besides the aforementioned failed Jiffy Pop, I've popped corn in a regular kettle on the stove top, I've used one of those wire mesh poppers over a campfire, and I've had a couple of “Whirly Pop” poppers, which weren't too bad except for the ones with plastic gears that quickly wore out. I burned myself severely with an old-fashioned electric popper back in the late '60s. A defective handle on the kettle caused it to overturn and spill smoking hot oil all over my hand, arm, and down my leg. Not fun. I've had limited success with various versions of microwave popping devices and I've gone through a couple of hot air poppers over the years. The most reliable of those is an Orville Redenbacher-branded popper made by Presto. I spent a little over twenty bucks on it about ten years ago and it's still going strong. And, of course, I've used the heavy-duty theater units. I'd install one of those suckers in my kitchen in a heartbeat if I had the space and the money, but I don't, so I make do with the household models. (Sigh)

And then there's microwave popcorn, an entity unto itself. Technically, microwave popcorn was “invented” back around 1946 as a whole-cob-in-a-bag affair, but the popular form that we know now has its roots in the early '70s when General Mills developed the first practical popping bag for individual kernels. Pillsbury sold microwave popcorn out vending machines in the mid-to-late '70s. I know, because I worked just down the road from Pillsbury's test kitchen in Minneapolis back then and we had some of their very first microwave popcorn in our cafeteria.

Microwave popcorn quality is an “iffy” proposition at best. Some varieties are really good and some are absolutely awful. Add to that the fact that the good stuff can be a little pricey. Then factor in recent health concerns: A report from the FDA indicates that a chemical coating used in microwave popcorn bags breaks down when heated into a substance called perfluorooctanoic (PFOA). The Environmental Protection Agency has identified PFOA as a “likely carcinogen.” Besides the “likely carcinogen” part, there's what's actually in the bag to consider. Like nearly everything else on the market, microwave popcorn is loaded with additives and preservatives. Tertiary Butylhydroquinone? I've never seen that one offered as a movie theater topping. And several popular microwave brands still contain trans-fat, which is a proven no-no when it comes to heart disease.

But don't despair, fellow popcorn lovers; I've got some good news for you. There is a way you can have delicious, light, fluffy perfect popcorn that is on a par with movie theater product in your own home without expensive poppers and without questionable ingredients. And it is super fast and stupid simple.

I wish I could take credit for this method, but I can't: I stumbled on it quite by accident. It's not a “new” idea by any means, but it's one that for whatever reason has never gotten a lot of traction. The version I came across is credited to Alton Brown. Somebody needs to nominate Alton Brown for sainthood or knighthood or some kind of hood because the man is frickin' brilliant. I modified Alton's simple microwave method just an eensy-weensy bit and produced a batch of popcorn that left me gasping for breath and grasping for superlatives. I told my wife, “Try this,” and then had to wrestle her to get the bowl back.

Here's what you need:

Popcorn (duh!)

From the “did you know” department, did you know there are actually two types of popcorn? Yep. Mushroom and butterfly. Butterfly popcorn is the more common variety. It is irregular in shape with multiple “wings” protruding from each kernel. Butterfly is judged to be more tender and fluffy and has fewer hulls. Mushroom popcorn is more compact and ball-shaped and pops up looking like.....a mushroom, and is the type used for caramel corn and kettle corn and such because it's tougher and can handle the handling needed to apply the coatings. The choice is yours. You'll want ¼ cup.

Salt

Alton uses plain ol' table salt. This is one area in which we differ: I like popcorn salt. It's a super fine salt specifically designed to adhere to popcorn. It comes in flavors, with butter flavor being the most common, but the plain unflavored variety is fine. Again, your choice. You'll want ¼ teaspoon.

Alton stops there. I go one tiny step further and recommend oil.

Most popcorn popping pros use some form of coconut oil. Yeah, that's why movie theater popcorn always tastes better than the stuff you make at home using Wesson. While I prefer coconut oil, I had some Orville Redenbacher's Buttery Flavor Popping & Topping Popcorn Oil on hand. It's made of soybean oil but it's an acceptable substitute since you'll only need a few drops.

Finally, a paper lunch bag. A plain brown (or white) flat bottom, gusset side, self standing lunch bag.

And here's what you do:

Scoop or pour your popcorn into a ¼ cup measuring cup. Pour on the salt and dribble on a few drops of oil. Drops, mind you, not a stream or even a drizzle. If the oil reaches the bottom of the cup and you have to wipe it out, you've probably used too much.

Dump the prepared popcorn into the bag, shake it up a little, and tightly fold over the top of the bag two or three times. Alton used to recommend a staple to close the bag, but some people got all freaky and thought it would blow up the microwave, so just make sure you have a good, tight fold at the top.

When popping popcorn, timing is way more important than time. You have to pop by ear. (Sorry.) If your set your timer to 1:45 and walk away, you'll come back to an ugly mess because the popcorn finished popping and start burning at 1:30. And don't use the “popcorn” button. Most microwaves, especially older models, lack humidity sensors and just rely on a preset time. Your ear is your best indicator. The popping will start out slow, then it will increase and get really vigorous for a few seconds and then it will trail off until you only hear a “pop” every few seconds. That's when you want to pull your bag out of the microwave. Three or four unpopped kernels in the bottom is a lot better than a whole bunch of burned ones.

That's it. When you unfold the top of the bag, you'll be amazed at what's inside.

I was skeptical at first. “Oh, this is too easy,” I thought. “There's got to be a catch.” Nope. It really is that simple. And OM-freakin'-G, is it good! Like I said, popcorn and I go way back and this was easily some of the best stuff I ever ate, regardless of popping method.

So I'm going to make my wife happy and toss one kitchen unitasker: goodbye, microwave popper! My pots and pans will now only be used for cooking, not popping, and my venerable hot air popper will just gather dust. Better still, we will never again waste money on microwave popcorn or worry about any possible related health considerations.

With a new stock of corn and paper bags laid in, I'm ready to start popping. Let's see......1/4 cup of unpopped popcorn is equal to two ounces and that yields about two quarts popped. I just bought five pounds of popping corn......that's eighty ounces.......wow! I'm really gonna be above average!

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