12 Mistakes Everyone Makes When Cooking Popcorn
Movie night is incomplete without a steaming tub of buttery popcorn—here's how to make sure yours is the best it can be.
The kernels are old
Stale, outdated or just plain bad kernels won’t deliver delicious popcorn. “There are plenty of good brands of popping corn that are available online or at most supermarkets. But once the packaging is opened, air and moisture are the enemies to those kernels,” says Susan Sellani-Hosage, co-author of The 40-Year Old Vegan. “Ideally, the corn you don’t pop should be vacuumed sealed to maximize its shelf life.”Do you know the difference between yellow and white popcorn kernels?
You use the wrong oil
Popcorn pops at high temperatures, so you need an oil that can take the heat. Instead of olive oil or butter—both of which have low smoke points and can burn. Opt instead for oils like canola, corn, grapeseed or sunflower. These oils can withstand the high heat from a microwave or stovetop without creating off flavors. If you like the flavor of butter, sprinkle it on the popcorn after it’s popped.
You use too much oil
You may be not worried about cutting calories, but if you pour too oil much into the pan, you’ll have a mess on your hands. Kernels that are saturated with oil won’t pop properly. And when they do pop, they’ll explode right into a pool of oil, which will leave them soggy. Less is more when it comes to oil-popped popcorn. Add enough to swirl around the bottom of the pan, but not more. Two tablespoons of oil per half cup is usually efficient. Eat up—here’s why that popcorn is healthy for you!
You try to cut fat by cutting oil
Popcorn is among the healthiest snacks for nearly every type of diet. It’s a whole grain, packed with fiber and you can have several cups for one serving. Adding oil can increase the calories and fat, but a bit of oil is necessary to make the kernels pop. Use just enough oil to get the kernels primed for popping, and split the big serving with someone else to keep your portions in check. By the way, this is what movie theater popcorn butter is actually made of.
You try to be too efficient
You can’t get every popcorn kernel to pop, at least not the first time. You might make a mess if you try. “True popcorn aficionados are willing to sacrifice a few for the benefit of the many,” Sellani-Hosage says. “Attempts to pop every kernel of corn, regardless of the method used, result in burning the ones that popped earlier in the process.” Here’s what happened when our editors put 10 brands of popcorn to the test.
You don’t shake the pot enough
If you’re popping kernels on the stovetop, make sure you remember to shake, shake, shake. If kernels sit on the hot surface of the bottom of a pan, they can burn; even if only a few pieces get a hint of char, the smoke and smell may be enough to taint the whole batch. Once kernels start popping, give a shake every few seconds. Shake more often as the popping intensifies.
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You don’t watch the pot
A watched pot might never boil, but if you walk away from your popcorn, your snack will be ruined. “Popcorn burns so easily, but you can avoid it by standing and watching the pot,” says Beth Nydick, a clean cooking guru and founder of Blue Barn Kitchen. “Try a glass cover so you can actually watch it. Start at high heat, and when the kernels get going, turn it down to medium. It will allow more kernels to explode into the white fluffy goodness.”
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You rely on a timer
The popcorn button on your microwave is not your trusted friend. Most microwave memory settings are programmed to run too long, which will leave you with charred bits or worse, a flaming appliance. Instead, follow the time suggested on the package and listen for the cadence of the kernels. When you hear two to three seconds between each pop, your snack is ready. Believe it or not, there once was a ban on eating popcorn during movies.
You add too many toppings
Popcorn is naturally nutty with a just-right hint of saltiness. If you overdo the toppings, you’ll ruin the snack—and potentially the health factor, too. “Nothing destroys the fluffiness of freshly popped corn like disproportionately adding too much salt, butter or other seasonings,” Sellani-Hosage says. “High-quality popcorn actually has a delicate texture and taste. The purist will add only enough topping to complement, not overpower, the corn’s natural flavor.” Here’s our favorite way to pop popcorn on the stove.
Taste of Home
You add the toppings while the popcorn is in the hot pan
Hot popcorn may be able to capture toppings more easily than they do at room temperature, but a hot pan will rob your kernels of flavoring. Salts, powders and other popcorn toppings will adhere to the oil that’s still covering the surface of the pan and remain behind when you dump the kernels into a bowl. Instead, season the snack in the bowl and give it a few shakes to distribute the flavor evenly. After it’s popped, add these fun toppings to your popcorn.
The salt is too big
Popcorn salt is sold separately on grocery store shelves for a reason. It’s nothing like typical salts. “One of the biggest mistakes people make when popping their own popcorn is to try to use salt that’s too big to stick to the popped corn,” says Katie Moseman, food blogger and author of Gluten-Free World Tour Cookbook. “You don’t need to buy ‘popcorn salt,’ though. All you have to do is grind your favorite salt down with a mortar and pestle to make it fine enough to stick to the popcorn. This works with any salt, whether it’s sea salt, kosher salt, pink salt or smoked salt.” Believe it or not, this is the reason you need to microwave popcorn “this side up”.
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You pop too early
When you let popcorn sit around a bit before you season it and start eating, you’ll be disappointed with the results. “Room temperature and moisture are not friends of freshly popped corn,” Sellani-Hosage says. “There’s a sense of urgency about eating popcorn. Perfect popcorn waits for no one!” For prime popcorn flavor and texture, pop just before you plan to eat it. If you need to keep it warm, throw a thick towel over the top of the tub to keep heat in.
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