Sitting down to a good movie isn’t quite the same without a bag of popcorn, so why would you watch the awards without one?
Food historians believe popped corn was the first culinary use of maize, and they trace its use back to the Aztecs and Incas in Mexico in the fifth century BCE. The first recorded uses of it in North America were in the 1840s, when the kernels were brought to New England by American sailors. A popcorn craze soon followed, fueled in part by increasing travel: popcorn could be sold to train and stage passengers. It became a favorite in saloons as well, where highly salted free popcorn encouraged drinking. Buckeye Cookery and Practical Housekeeping, the 1877
edition of which was published in Minneapolis, contains a recipe for “Pop-Corn Balls . . . such as the street peddlers sell.” At the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago, the confection Cracker Jacks was introduced to a nationwide audience and became a long-lasting success: popcorn, molasses, and peanuts. The early movie industry increased popcorn’s popularity, as did the growing number of baseball stadiums, for freshly popped corn drizzled with butter was both delicious and an ideal snack, since it required nothing more than hands and a simple container to eat it.
In an odd way, the arrival of the microwave oven in the 1970s spelled the decline of popcorn—not of its popularity, but of its tastiness. The overly salted, overly heated popcorn produced with commercial microwaved packets pales beside the flavor of freshly popped, stovetop-made popcorn.
Here’s how to make popcorn that’s leagues better than the microwave variety. It takes very little more time, and it affords you the luxury of deciding what, if any, toppings you want to add to it.
Plain Stovetop Popcorn
Use a large, heavy pot with a tight-fitting lid. Don’t crank the heat too high; the oil will degrade at high temperatures and singe the corn kernels.
2 tablespoons of high smokepoint oil (for example, canola or grapeseed)
½ cup corn for popping*
salt to taste
Toppings (optional): melted butter, tasty olive oil, caster (extra-fine) sugar, brown sugar, toasted nuts, nutritional yeast, powdered chipotle or cayenne, molasses
- Put the oil in the pot, turn heat to MEDIUM, and add 2–3 kernels of corn. Cover the pot.
- As soon as the kernels have popped, add the rest of them, cover, and shake the pot back and forth a few times each minute to distribute the oil and prevent the kernels from burning.
- When you can no longer hear popping, remove the pot from the burner.
- Pour the popcorn into a big bowl; drizzle with butter or oil and add salt, a bit at a time, until you like the level of saltiness. If you want sugared popcorn, add the caster sugar or brown sugar as soon as possible so it partially melts from the corn’s heat.
- Nutritional yeast is tasty on popcorn, as is a bit of heat from powdered chipotle or cayenne. For old-fashioned, nineteenth-century American popcorn, add some molasses and toasted nuts and mix them in thoroughly. You can also make a heavy sugar syrup, allow it to cool and thicken a bit, and use it to form popcorn into balls. Pour the syrup over the popcorn, then use your greased hands to form the balls—children love to do this.
* Buy your popcorn in bulk if possible, because popping corn that gets a lot of turnover contains more moisture and pops faster and more thoroughly.