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The Best Way to Make Popcorn (Thanks, Mom)

I spent the last year living without a microwave oven and thus sort of inadvertently living without popcorn. The lack of microwave wasn’t because I was taking a stand against Big Appliance, it was just that we moved and left our old microwave behind. It was pretty dirty. (We may or may not have moved to avoid cleaning the microwave, I’m not at liberty to say.)

In my microwave owning years I had come to believe that the ancient art of making popcorn in a pot on the stove fell somewhere between anachronistic and dangerous. After all, there was an entire section of my local supermarket devoted to enabling America’s addiction to the joys of putting a flat little bag in a microwave, pressing the dedicated POPCORN button, and two minutes and 30 seconds later rewarding yourself with a drug treat so delicious it would make your great-grandmother weep. Why would she weep? Because she was born in a time where you risked burning down the house trying to make a harmless snack. You might think I’m exaggerating but one of my most vivid childhood memories was of my babysitter, Lynette, making popcorn for me on our electric stove, and when she lifted up the lid to see if the first three kernels had popped, a giant flame leaped straight up toward her face. She slammed the lid back down and her hair only got a little singed, thankfully, but the popcorn tasted horrible and she made me play Monopoly later, a game that I hate to this day.

A few weeks ago my son finally persuaded us to buy a new microwave, and I was forced to realize how wonderful yet awful microwave popcorn is. Wonderful because it smells so amazing, awful because it’s coated in substances so lethal that they sicken the people who manufacture the stuff.

I decided that to salve my own childhood scars and move bravely into the future I’d force myself to make popcorn for Babble in the quest for a tastier, healthier version of this fluffy but oft-maligned snack.

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I decided to try popcorn four different ways: pre-made (Trader Joe’s), store-bought microwave (Orville Redenbacher’s), home-made microwave (Jolly Time), and stove top-popped using coconut oil (also Jolly Time).

Thanks to the encouragement of some friends who swear that eating popcorn made in coconut oil is like making love to a unicorn that smells like Penelope Cruz and Javier Bardem drinking pina coladas on a beach in Bermuda, I decided to start on the stove. I began by whanging a couple of tablespoons full of coconut oil into the bottom of the pot my husband uses to make boeuf bourguignon. It’s a nice enamel-coated iron pot that heats really evenly. Coconut oil melts surprisingly fast, even just on medium heat.

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When the coconut oil melted — and you can really smell Trader Joe’s coconut oil, as opposed to other brands I’ve used that have almost no coconut flavor or smell to them — I dumped in a bunch of Jolly Time kernels, enough to cover the bottom of the pot.

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Then I put on a hair net and prayed. No, then I put the lid on the pot, forgetting that you’re supposed to just put a few kernels in first and wait until the oil’s hot enough to pop them before putting in the rest. Does it matter that I abandoned all reason and skipped the step that nearly melted the face off my babysitter? NO, IT DOES NOT.

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VoilÝ .

I shook the pan while I heard popping noises and then stopped and turned off the heat when the popping slowed. Then I sprinkled some salt on top and ate all the popcorn, and maybe also the pot. It was DELICIOUS. I didn’t even consider adding butter, since the kernels already had a slight, everso delicate coating of the coconut oil already on them. It was truly a revelation.

On to phase two. A nice commenter on my microwave blog post had mentioned how she made her own microwave popcorn using just a brown paper lunch sack, so that was my next test. I got a bag and put some corn in it. How much? This much.

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Then I folded over the top two times, as per her instructions, and put the bag into the magical science box.

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And guess what? IT WORKED. It popped right up without a dab of diacetyl-based butter flavoring. It was a kitchen miracle!

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You still might want to put some salt and butter or whatever on there. I am not nearly hardcore enough to think that plain popcorn tastes like anything but the rocks on the beach where Javier Bardem is now contemplating the sunset while riding the unicorn lazily through the surf, but you know yourself best. Throw some brewer’s yeast on there, or balsamic vinegar, or parmesan cheese. BEE POLLEN. GO CRAZY.

Next up was me really not wanting to make any Orville Redenbacher extra-cheezy sickness kernels. Then I remembered that I once posted my mother’s recipe for homemade Cracker Jack on the Internet, so I searched around until I found where I’d hidden it on Flickr.

My Mom's Cracker Jack Recipe

And then I said to myself, Self: it’s Valentine’s Day and you’re not going to give the day to some dead guy named Orville, you’re going to make some caramel corn in honor of your mom and then you’re going to have a good cry on Penelope Cruz’s shoulder while you eat it for lunch.

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This is the pot my husband uses when he’s making chile con carne for 150. I put in the sugar, water, butter, and vinegar, and then stood the hell out of the way.

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I was all geared up to dump all of that popcorn into the caramel once it turned amber, but it turns out that if you actually read the recipe it begs you not to do idiotic things like that. My mom specifically wrote that you’re supposed to put TWO QUARTS of popcorn into the caramel.

This was the point where I looked into the refrigerator to eyeball the carton of orange juice, thinking, “That’s a quart, right? So, two of those?” WRONG. Your average carton of orange juice is actually 1.8 quarts. So I asked the internet how many cups are in a quart and it said four. So while the caramel continued to cook, I measured eight cups of popcorn into a bowl.

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It didn’t seem like much but sometimes you have to trust your dead mother’s handwriting on a torn up old recipe card.

FYI, this is what “amber” is starting to look like:

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The sugar is actually burning, and to be honest you do get a whiff of vinegar at first, but you have to TRUST. Then, when all the golden buttery color has turned amber brown, turn the heat off! Dump the popcorn in! And then stir, stir, stir, stir, stir until all the popcorn is coated.

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It takes a little while. Don’t give up!

Then tip it all onto a cookie sheet, spread it around some, and, because we live in the 21st century and eat salted caramel everything, sprinkle some SEA SALT on top while it’s still as warm and receptive as Javier Bardem’s eyes.

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You have just made SALTED CARAMEL POPCORN, OH MY GOD.

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Try not to eat the whole thing all at once!

So, yeah, I forgot to even open that bag of Trader Joe’s popcorn. Maybe I’ll save it for another post where I compare monosaturated fats to the poetry of James Franco.

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Read more from Eden M. Kennedy on her personal blogs Fussy and yogabeans!

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