Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Lessons I Learned from my Popcorn Popper

I am old enough to remember a time when getting to see a movie was a really big deal. Yes, I grew up in the days before cable television and VHS (or Beta Max!) My family had a 19 inch black and white TV, and it was a rare treat when the networks played a movie worth watching. Otherwise, seeing a movie meant a trip to the theater or the drive in, which we only got to enjoy once every few months or so.

But CatMan and I are both HUGE movie buffs. For years we had a collective fantasy that "some day" they would come up with a way to stream videos over the internet, and maybe, if we were lucky, we'd get to experience a time when you could watch any movie you wanted, any time you wanted, from the comfort of your own home.

Ahhhh Netflix, you are my dream come true! And with a little device called a Roku player, it's all right there at my remote control clicking fingertips.

So, once Netflix entered our lives, CatMan and I started doing double feature movie night once a week. We go all out, which, for us, means that I cook a nice dinner, we open a bottle of wine, then set up the living room with an old hide-a-bed mattress and a bunch of pillows on the floor, turn off the lights and snuggle together under a blanket while we drift off into cinematic bliss in front of the 50 inch plasma television. Oh, how spoiled we are!

Of course, this sort of movie watching debauchery would not be complete without a hefty dose of popcorn, and that's where this story really begins.

Back in college I had one of those air popper machines, but to tell the truth, I've never really been a fan of air-popped popcorn. Healthy or not, it always seemed a bit like munching on tasteless Styrofoam packing peanuts to me, so after hauling the thing around through 5 or 6 apartments, I'd finally just given it to the Goodwill.
But that left me without a good way to make popcorn! I had long ago given up microwave popcorn because of a story I had read about the dangers of putting plastic film of any sort into the microwave... carcinogenic chemicals, anyone? Plus, have you ever tasted that stuff? It always seemed much more like toxic waste than food to me.

But I remembered as a child, the mother of one of my friends always made popcorn in a big pot on the stove top, so I decided to give it a go. And the results were... well... unpredictable. I tried every pot in the house... thick bottomed ones, thin bottomed ones, cast iron... and every once in a while I'd get a good batch, but generally it came out too chewy, or scorched, or not fully popped, and a few times I actually welded an inch thick layer of burnt popcorn to the bottom of the stock pot... did I mention movie night usually involves a bottle of wine?

Clearly, this was not working. So next I tried making it in the microwave. Oy. I've heard all sorts of people extolling the virtues of home-made microwave popcorn, but I tried everything, and couldn't make it work. I tried the paper bag method, or the Pyrex bowl with a plate on top... I tried with oil, without oil... whatever I did I either ended up with half of the kernels un-popped or a somewhat unpleasant scorched taste.

So I was pretty much at my wits ends, and decided that I was gonna have to pony up and buy some sort of popcorn popper. But pretty much everything I found was totally covered in Teflon or some similar non-stick surface, and after reading "Slow Death by Rubber Duck" which, BTW - is full of great info on the toxins in everyday products - but I'm not actually sure I'd recommend reading it because it sort of sent me into a tailspin and made me want to run off and cower in a yurt somewhere in the wilds of Mongolia. But I digress... let's just say that after reading that book there was no way I was getting anywhere near non-stick coatings.

So this left me back where I started with the old air popper option, and I felt frustrated. I kept telling myself that there MUST be a better way, but I sure as shit hadn't found it, so here I was about to shell out money to buy something that I used to own, didn't like, and didn't really even want, because I just felt like there wasn't another good option out there.

Then, one day, I was watching one of those decluttering shows on television (so much more fun to watch than to actually do) when I happened to see that one of the items these people were getting rid of was a big theater quality popcorn popper like you see at the movies. Really? You could own one of those? So I did some research and discovered, that indeed, one could buy a real theater quality popper for about 500 bucks.

OK... did I REALLY want to go there? I mean, on the one hand it seemed utterly ridiculous to spend so much money on something as silly as a popcorn popper, but on the other hand I was totally obsessed. There HAD to be a way to make good popcorn at home, and it was seeming increasingly likely that this was the only way I'd ever get there. I hemmed and hawed. I saw visions of my future self on some decluttering TV show, trying hopelessly to explain how I'd come to posses such an extravagant and meaningless object.

Every fiber of my frugal being was screaming "What are you doing you stupid idiot?!?" but I really, REALLY wanted to be able to make good popcorn!

Then it happened. I was reading the reviews of the ridiculously expensive theater quality popcorn makers on Amazon.com for the umpteenth time, when I happened to glance at a little section of other products that "might interest you." I generally avoid looking at this sort of thing because I figure it's just a nifty way of getting you to buy something that you never really set out to shop for in the first place, but for some reason, that day I let my eyes wander, and there, among the assortment of movie projectors and ridiculous kitchen gadgets was something called a stove top popper! Aaaahhhh, the clouds were parting, the rays of sunshine were appearing, and I saw my solution descending from heaven... cue the angelic music....

Seriously, I had never heard of such a device, but there it was. It functioned pretty much like the fancy theater poppers - a drum with a rotating paddle to keep the kernels evenly heated and prevent the popcorn from sticking. But instead of being a self contained unit with it's own heating element, this little guy just sat on the stove top and had a hand crank. Oh what a revelation.
At any rate, still unwilling to shell out real money for something that might not work, I plunged into reading reviews of stovetop poppers. Basically, every model out there seemed to have an Achilles heel. Some had crummy gears that wore out, some had blades that didn't do a good job of keeping the popcorn from sticking,  some had ill-fitting lids. So having concluded that whatever brand I got there could be "issues" I decided to take my chances with whatever I could find at the thrift store. And first time out of the shoot I found one for $3. Score!!!!

Turned out it was the brand with the ill-fitting lid issue. I couldn't believe all those reviews were right. I mean, why would they make something with a lid that would never go back on. But sure enough, I struggled and struggled and for the life of me I just couldn't see how it could possibly work.

But, having come so far in my popcorn Odyssey, there was no way I was turning back now. So I just sat and stared at the thing for about 2 hours... and finally it came to me! The little clip that held the lid on was not supposed to be "snapped into place" it was actually a clamp, and you had to pull it upwards to release it so it would go on and off. Elated with my discovery, I promptly wrote responses to all of the Amazon reviewers touting my lid revelations, and telling them the secret to avoid getting their lids (and sensibilities) all bent out of shape. I fear none of them responded to thank me for my helpful advice - ingrates!

But no worries... I finally had a popcorn popper that worked. And to make things even better, as I was reading the reviews I had picked up a bunch of tips for the best ways to make popcorn. Now, I'm generally not one who is very good at following instructions, but lo and behold, I discovered that if you can subdue your rebel instincts for a few minutes of direction following conformity, you actually get perfect popcorn! EVERY SINGLE TIME!!!!!!

Soooo... where was I going with this? Oh yes... lessons learned. So here they are.

Lesson 1: Holding onto stuff you don't like and don't use just because you're afraid you might "need it" some day, really doesn't serve us well. I mean, if I had kept that stupid air popper from college I would have been stuck eating yucky air-popped popcorn, and I never would have discovered my super-duper, nifty & wonderful stove top popper. Letting go of things that don't serve you makes room for things that do.

Lesson 2: Throwing money at problems seldom works. Someday I'm gonna learn this lesson. I may have to live to be 100 years old, but someday I will get it through my thick skull that you can't just buy your way out of trouble. I mean seriously folks, I came perilously close to shelling out $500 bucks for a popcorn popper, when it turned out that the real solution just involved $3, a bit of perseverance and some research.

Lesson 3: Following directions is not always a bad thing. I am a rebel, I just am. And my rebellious nature follows me everywhere I go including the kitchen. In general this serves me well as I enjoy experimenting with different recipes and adding a pinch of this or that. But there are some things like... um... making popcorn that really are much easier if you simply follow instructions, creativity be damned.

OK, I realize the possibility that anybody out there is still with me is extremely remote, (sorry, brevity is not my strong suit) but on the off chance that you are, here is the recipe for perfect popcorn.

1/2 cup popcorn
1 Tablespoon grape seed oil (I tried them all, this works the best... high smoke point and no funny taste)
1/2 teaspoon salt
melted butter to taste (we use about 2 Tablespoons)

Pour the oil and half of the salt into your nifty gallifty stove top popcorn maker. I know this sounds crazy, but adding half of the salt now really helps to distribute it nicely and gives your popcorn lots of flavor. Add 3-4 kernels of popcorn and heat on medium high heat (this means about 6 on your stove dial - seriously, don't even think of turning that sucker any higher) until those kernels pop.

Once your test kernels have popped, add the rest of the popcorn, give it a whirl or two to coat everything with oil and remove from the heat for one minute.

Return to heat and turn crank at a slow and steady pace. When popping slows to one pop every second or less, remove from heat and pour into large bowl. Sprinkle the rest of the salt and pour the melted butter on while stirring to distribute it.

Enjoy your perfectly popped popcorn!!!


  1. I'm still with you and was the whole time. I finally donated my air popper too. We don't do a lot of popcorn these days so it's been the micro bags for us here and there - bad I know but too seldom to really worry about in the grand scheme of things.

    1. Well, very little of this is worth worrying about in the grand scheme of things! Just remember, all things in moderation...


    2. Ack! First the rubber ducks and now this! I don't know how much we can really fight it no matter how hard we try, the dangers are in the very air we breathe everyday ::sigh::

    3. I know... I was just lamenting to CatMan that the only safe thing would be to get a time machine and go back to the 19th century. He laughed and promptly started telling me toxic horror stories from the past. Did you know they used to process radium (which is some radioactive metal) right in downtown Denver?!? And not only that, they actually used the tailings as fill dirt for the streets, so many of the streets in Denver are actually radioactive!

      I fear there are no "pure moments" in human history!

  2. These are good lessons. Unfortunately, I have to keep learning them over again.

  3. My husband bought me one of those pesky air poppers and i totally hate it. The popcorn tastes awful, like you said and what's more it sprays the stuff all over the kitchen. I'd be finding it in the pot plants months later. So I tried the micro popcorn but it smells so revolting I can't handle it. I've gone back to making it on the stove in an ancient shallow pan with a tight fitting lid so I can give it a good shake while it's popping. Thanks for the grape seed oil hint - I'll try that!

    1. Air popcorn haters Unite!!! Oh wait, that was the last post.

      Hmmmm.... shallow pan, maybe that's the trick. Of course, it could just be that bottle of wine and my inability to perform complex maneuvers in a lubricated state! :)

  4. First, I LOVE my Roku w/Netflix streaming. Best thing ever! Second, I am a popcorn freak but I quit using my stovetop popper because it's made from aluminum and I am freaky about eating food that has aluminum "sweating" all over it because my Dad's family is filled with victims of Alzheimers :( I totally agree with your point about moderation - however, I don't have it with popcorn. Sad but true.
    Third, I read "Slow Death by Rubber Duck" and amazingly it didn't paralyze me with fear, but I just realized I have not eaten tuna since, LOL. I did round out my Pyrex storage bowl collection and largely pitched my ziplocs, and changed from a regular deodorant to a crystal. Come to think of it, I did make quite a few changes after reading that book. Since I'm half convinced plastics are going to kill us all, it was probably not the best reading choice for me ;-)

    Very glad you found a great way to make good popcorn, and fixed the lid problem!! Enjoy!


    1. Hey Misty,

      Well, I was a tad bit paranoid about the aluminum too, especially since Alzheimer's runs in CatMan's family. But, CatMan is much more scientifically grounded than I am, so rather than freaking out (which is my general approach) he does research. Anyhow, we had a rather lengthy discussion about whether it would be safe to use the aluminum popper or not, which involved him siting all of the latest research on both aluminum and Alzheimer's, as well as a lengthy tour through the periodic table. Anyhow, he managed to convince me that it was safe, and since he's the one with the family history of the disease, I figured that was good enough for me.

      BUT - they do make stainless steel varieties in case you're interested. :)

      I'm still convinced that plastic and synthetic estrogens are evil though!

  5. I totally appreciate that information (about the aluminum and the fact that there's one in stainless steel, haha). Maybe one of these days I'll give it another Whirl (pun intended), ha!

  6. Lesson #4: Always try to fix something before throwing it out. I wish more Americans tried that one. And yay for thrift stores! Seems like Colorado has better thrift stores than Bozeman. I've found good stuff at the Glenwood Springs one when I'm down there visiting friends. By the way, I love the painting of canary with the gas mask. -Emily

    1. Hey Emily,

      Oh yes! Fix it, fix it fix it! I actually didn't even tell the rest of the story because the post was already too long, but our thrift store popper originally had a plastic window in the flap part of the lid, which I accidentally broke trying to tighten the screw on the little wooden handle that you use to lift the flap. But I fashioned a replacement using the lid from an old yogurt tub and some tin foil. My precious popcorn popper shall live forever!!!!

      And yes, we do have great thrift stores. I've got 4 of them within a few miles radius of my house, and seldom shop any place else!

  7. Ugh, I hate air popped popcorn, too. I think the cat might have fun swatting at it since it goes flying all over, but it's way too much effort for crappy popcorn that doesn't taste like anything. I make mine on the stove and really haven't had any issues with it. I have a dedicated popcorn pot -- it's small, stainless steel with a copper bottom. I put in enough kernels to cover the bottom in one layer, drizzle in just enough oil to coat them, put on the lid, set to medium. If I happen to be in the kitchen, I'll give the pot a shake once or twice while the popcorn's popping. I take it off when the popping stops. There are usually a couple of slightly burned pieces near the bottom, but they're easy to avoid. I've even made kettle corn in this pot (it just requires more frequent shaking).

    Hmm...now I want popcorn.

    1. Hmmmm... I think part of the problem may have been my need to produce massive quantities of popcorn... or it could have been the bottle of wine... Well, I'm glad to know at least somebody is actually able to make it the old fashioned way!

      The power of suggestion is strong isn't it? Remember how I was saying I never crave chocolate? Well, as soon as everybody started blogging about it, chocolate was all I could think about! Plus, I had to make myself a big batch of popcorn to munch on while I wrote this.

      I think from now on, the only food posts I'm gonna let myself read or write will be about dark leafy green vegetables!

  8. I stand by my air popper, which is made immensely better by the stick of real butter I melt over every batch:-)

    1. A-ha! So you're the one!

      The way I see it, popcorn really is just a vehicle for butter anyhow...

  9. I read the entire thing. Funny as hell. Took me a while to find the time to read it, but I read it.

  10. Thank you for this. I've been reasonably happy with my pot-popped popcorn, but no two pans are the same, and the one that works best is starting to get a singed bottom look that won't go away. I may go looking for one of these gadgets soon!

    I am trying to reduce dairy so I either use warmed olive oil or earth balance spread on mine. Not as tasty as butter but oddly, I've come to adore the olive oil as a topping. Extra virgin of course. It feels "light".

    1. Well, actually... CatMan is the butter freak, when I make it for myself I generally just sprinkle it with a bit of salt, Parmesan cheese, nutritional yeast, and sometimes a bit of garlic powder. Totally delicious!

      One word of caution... you probably already know this, but if you use olive oil it's best to add it after you pop... trying to pop with olive oil doesn't generally give you good results because it has such a low smoke point.

      Since I wrote this, I've noticed these stovetop poppers all over the place in the thrift stores, so you can probably pick one up cheap. Happy popping!

  11. I always pop on the stove with either canola or sunflower oil. Both seem to work great for me. I think I've even tried olive oil and I didn't mind it. I usually make sweet popcorn. So add the oil, the popcorn, then sprinkle on sugar and salt. I have to shake it a lot so the sugar doesn't burn. I don't add butter. I've tried adding butter but then my popcorn gets wet and soggy. Maybe I'm doing it wrong.

    And I hate air popped pop corn! I don't remember how I ended up with one of those machines but I gave it away after using it 1 time.

    1. Wow... I've never heard of putting sugar on popcorn. And sometimes if I overdo it on the butter it does get a bit soggy... but in my book popcorn is really only a vehicle for butter and salt anyhow! :-)

      But clearly you've got the hand-made popcorn gene - apparently some of us require the fool-proof method!

  12. I use a West Bend air popper and get all the kernels popped completely by tilting the unit backward by two inches and have them going out the chute to a large paper bag. Then from a paper bag to an empty plastic ice cream gallon container, add a few pourings of olive oil, a dose of salt. Then pour from this container to the paper bag as not of corn fit to the container. Last step after pouring the mixture of salt, olive oil and corn the bag is folded for slight seal and shakened a few time, and poured back into the container. Added item to go along with this snack is micro-waved potatoe size of a hard ball. The second item a few raw carrott sticks.
    Lastly, there are times a few kernels do not pop and save these to be soaked in water overnite, and let dry for a day and put back into purchased bag of corn kernels. These kernels do re-pop or as chewable stubs.

    1. Holy Moly... that is quite a system. I think you lost me with the potato & carrots though - you mix those with the popcorn somehow?

      Anyhow, I'm glad you've found a system that works for you!

  13. wow sorry to resurrect an older post/comment thread but this was so cute to read I really enjoyed it. I just learned today that using a medium glass bowl in the microwave I can make perfect popcorn, easy as heck. I had bought a air popper from Walmart made in China, but it had a warning "Contains chemicals known to cause cancer and birth defects" right inside the box.

    1. Ha! So those uber-healthy air poppers really aren't so healthy after all. I knew that something tasting like polystyrene really couldn't be good for you. Take that, plastic gadgets!!!

      Anyhow, congratulations on your success - you are obviously a more talented microwave charmer than I am!


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