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Friday, 2 November 2007

Pop Your Kernels on the Stove - How to Make Perfect Stove-top Popcorn: Money Saving Tip #7

If you're like most people, you make your popcorn in the microwave. For the life of me, I can't figure out why people do this. Cooking popcorn on the stove is cheaper, healthier, and tastes better. You can flavor it any way you please and you can control what kind of oils you use. Cooking time is the same or faster on the stove and if you know what you're doing you won't be likely to burn your kernels. Spending approximately $1.00 on a bag of popcorn simply isn't very frugal, or very smart, when you can make better tasting, healthier popcorn on the stove for three times less, spending only around $0.30 a bowl*.

The only explanation I can come up with is that people are afraid of making popcorn on the stove, which I'm basing on personal experience. Every time I host a movie night party my new guests are shocked and amazed when they hear popping coming from the kitchen without the hum of a microwave. Their faces reflect the horror running through their minds, thinking that they'll be forced to eat burnt popcorn out of politeness, or that the kitchen will go up in flames. They cautiously step into the kitchen and watch. But the end result is always the same: a stove-top popcorn making tutorial complete with tricks and tips, and a virtual agreement to ditch the microwave among my guests.

If you're tempted to make the switch, here are some illustrated instructions and a few tips to help you get the perfect pop.

Step 1: Pour some oil into the bottom of a pot. The size of the pot you use determines the amount of popcorn you will make. If you only want a little popcorn, use a small pot. For movie nights, use the largest pot you have; just make sure you also have a lid to fit it. You can use any kind of oil you like. I use olive oil because it's healthier, though it's certainly not the cheapest option.

Step 2: Tilt the pot from side to side so that the oil coats the bottom of the pan. This is very important, because if the pan isn't coated evenly, your popcorn will not heat evenly and this could cause some of the kernels to burn and/or not pop at all.

Step 3: Cover the bottom of the pan in kernels. It is very important that you only have a single layer of kernels covering the bottom of the pan. If you put too many kernels into the pot, the ones on top will not heat up in the oil properly, resulting in a bad batch of popcorn with many burned or unpopped kernels. I suspect that this is where most people go wrong in making popcorn on the stove. If you want more popcorn, then you will need to make additional batches. If you're in doubt as to whether you have too many kernels in the pot, look at the picture to the left again for reference. Also, I suggest throwing the kernels into the pot by hand rather than pouring them in from the bag, as you can easily pour in too many.

Step 4: Select the appropriately sized burner on the stove. Pick the burner that most closely matches the size of the bottom of your pot. If the burner is smaller than your pot bottom, the oil and kernels may not heat as evenly. If the burner is significantly larger, then you risk over-heating your pot and burning the popcorn. Also, it wastes energy. If you have a choice between a gas or electric stove, I suggest choosing the gas stove as it provides a more constant and even heat and may give you a better result; however, until very recently I've always made my popcorn on an electric stove and haven't had any trouble. Turn the burner to high heat and place the pot, with the oil and kernels inside and a lid on top, directly onto the burner. Don't forget the lid or you will have quite a mess on your hands! Also, it's best to use an appropriately sized lid for your pot (unlike you see in this picture - remember, I just moved to Africa and I'm cheap; I've only got one lid for all my pots and pans!).

Step 5: Leave the pot on the burner, untouched, with the heat level set to HIGH until you hear the first kernel pop. When the first kernel pops get ready to lift the pot off the burner; grab some pot-holders for the handles, if necessary. Once the kernels really begin popping, usually just a second or two after the first pop, lift the pot above the burner approximately 2 to 4 inches. How high you need to lift the pot depends on how hot your burner is. The hotter the burner, the higher the pot needs to go. If you leave the pot too close to the heat, it will burn, so be safe and start high. If the speed of the popping decreases rapidly, you've lifted the pot too high and should place it back on the burner again for just a moment to get the oil hot again, then re-lift it, this time a little closer to the burner. As you hold the pot above the burner, gently shake it from side to side to roll any unpopped kernels across the bottom of the pot. This will ensure that all the kernels are heated and given the chance to pop. DO NOT REDUCE the HEAT on the burner at any time, and KEEP SHAKING the pot and holding it ABOVE THE BURNER until all the kernels have popped.

Step 6: You know that all the kernels have popped when two things happen: 1. You can no longer hear any (or very few) unpopped kernels rolling around the bottom of the pot as you shake it; and 2. You can count approximately 5-6 seconds between pops. Use the tried and true "one Miss-is-sip-pi, two Miss-is-sip-pi..." if you have to. Remember it's better to have 1 or 2 dozen unpopped kernels in the bottom of the pot than a whole batch of burnt popcorn. If you're wondering whether or not you should take the pot off the burner, then you probably should.

Stove-top Popcorn Troubleshooting:

  • If you burned your popcorn: Next time hold the pot higher above the burner
    and make sure that you remember to gently shake the pot the entire time. Also,
    you can try using a different kind of oil if you have it. I've always had better
    luck with thicker oils.
  • If you had lots of unpopped kernels: Next time keep the pot closer to the
    burner as you shake it, shake less vigorously, and don't remove the pot from the
    heat so soon.

Additional Tips:

  • DO NOT, for any reason whatsoever, remove the lid from your pot while it's on or near the burner. You will get a flying, hot kernel in the eye. Very, very bad.
  • Season your popcorn by sprinkling some salt or other seasonings on it. Some people like to melt a little butter in the still-hot pot and then pour it over the top. Check out recipezaar and this party recipes site for seasoning suggestions.
  • Remember that practice makes perfect. Just because you didn't get it quite right the first time doesn't mean you should give up. There's an art to making stove-top popcorn and it takes a few tries to really master, but once you've got it, you've got it for life! So practice before your movie-night debut and be prepared to throw out a few batches on your first try.
Enjoy your popcorn!

*Prices based on a quick browse through products advertised on Netgrocer.com

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Anonymous said...

dido! thanks bitch!

lindsay said...

hi there!
I was google-ing how to reincorporate moisture back into my popcorn kernels (I have an old bag of kernels that no longer pop very well) and stumbled upon this post. do you have any advice?


Sharen said...

Lindsay, put your old popcorn in a glass jar and add a tablespoon or two of water, depends on how much popcorn you have. Keep this in the fridge for a week. Your popcorn will pop up fresh after using this method.

Sharen said...

An easier method for an electric stovetop is: using a 3 quart size pan, add 2 tbls. of canola oil and place on burner set to medium. Add to this 1/4 cup of fresh corn kernels. Place lid on, tip the lid a bit to allow steam to escape but not enough to let the kernels fly out. No need to shake, lift, or otherwise attend to the process other than standing by to remove the pan when the popping stops.

PoonamS said...

Thanks for this, it came out wonderful :)