From Scratch: Popcorn 101

June 21, 2012

popcorn kernels
Photo by Nicole Franzen; styled by Mariya Yufest

A whole-grain snack that comes in multiple shades and is a cinch to make at home? Sign us up! Popcorn has been around since ancient times, but this airy snack has been enjoying a resurgence in recent years. In this primer, we opt out of the lacquered, sodium-laden movie theatre stuff and reclaim the wholesomeness of the (surprisingly colorful) kernels.

What's Behind the "Pop" in Popcorn?

  • Dried corn kernels pop because their hard inner core (the endosperm) traps the steam pressure that is built up in the cooking process. 
  • The kernel’s dense outer shell (or hull) stays in tact until the internal steam pressure exceeds seven times the external pressure on the kernel, at which point the popcorn pops, puffs up, and cools.

Types of Popping Corn

There are two shapes of popped corn: mushroom (found mostly in snack mixes and kettle corn because its rounded shape is more easily coated) and butterfly (the perfect snacking popcorn because it puffs out in various directions ensuring a crisp bite). A few popular varieties include:

  • Monarch Butterfly is a fancy yellow popcorn variety with a deep yellow corn taste and big, fluffy pieces.
  • Yellow is a smaller butterfly popcorn variety with a toasty flavor and medium kernel expansion.
  • White is a smaller kernel popcorn than the yellow variety, though it puffs up significantly and is extra fluffy and crisp. It has a mild corn flavor.
  • Midnight Blue is a medium kernel popcorn. The kernels explode into large creamy white pieces that feature tiny blue specks on the hull. This type of popcorn has a slightly sweet, unique flavor.
  • Ruby Red is a smaller kernel popcorn but when cooked it bursts into big fluffy puffs. The popped corn is white with red hull specks and has a rich, nutty flavor.
  • Mixed Baby Rice is an heirloom variety, often touted as hull-less. The kernels are rice-shaped and come in white, red, and red-striped shades. When popped, this delicate variety exhibits less volume than other types of popping corn. 

popcorn
Photo by Nicole Franzen; styled by Mariya Yufest

Two Methods for Homemade Popcorn 

Stovetop

  • Heat a large heavy-bottomed pot over medium-high heat, then add 3 tablespoons of vegetable or peanut oil to coat the base of the pan. 
  • Pour in 1/2 cup of popping corn, quickly stir to coat with oil, then cover with a lid (or, our preference, an inverted colander, to allow for extra volume) and heat to pop. 
  • Gently shake the pan over the burner while leaving the lid slightly askew to allow the release of water vapor. (If you're using a colander, no need to leave it askew, as it has vents built in!)
  • Allow the popcorn to pop wildly, then take it off the heat when there are 2 to 3 seconds between each pop.

Microwave

  • If using a brown paper bag, scoop 1/4 cup of popping corn into the bag and fold the top over several times, then tape it securely shut. Give the popcorn a 2 to 4 minute spin in the microwave, stopping when you hear 2 to 3 seconds between pops.
  • If using a vented microwave lid, combine popcorn kernels, oil, and any dry seasonings in a glass, microwave-safe bowl and top with the vented lid, then proceed as above.

Add-Ins and Embellishments 

  • Add minced fresh herbs -- rosemary, thyme, tarragon, and chives are all great options. 
  • Dry cheeses like Parmesan and Asiago can be finely grated and mixed into popped corn. If you prefer a dairy-free option, nutritional yeast adds a savory, cheese-like boost.
  • Any spices in your spice cabinet are fair game -- a sprinkling of hot paprika contributes heat and color, and a dusting of cinnamon sugar is a universal crowd-pleaser.
  • Before popping, infuse melted oil with slices of fresh ginger, halved hot peppers, or cinnamon sticks and other whole spices.

Sweet and Smoky Popcorn Honey Jalepeno Popcorn
Photos by Joseph De Leo (left) and Tricia Martin

Recipes

Sweet and Smoky Popcorn and Nut Mix (pictured above, left)
Honey Jalapeño Popcorn
(pictured above, right)
Truffled Parmesan Popcorn
Tipsy Maple Corn [FOOD52]
Party Popcorn [FOOD52]

Have you ever made stovetop popcorn? How would you goose up these puffed kernels? Share your cooking tips in the comments section below.

Like this post? See last week's From Scratch topic: Griller's Guide to Skewers.

6 Comments Add a Comment
  • Missing_avatar

    Annek says: My husband pops popcorn on the stove in clarified butter. Yum! Can't wait to try the colander idea.

    about 1 year ago Reply to this »
  • Img-20110522-00041

    G Greens says: Has anyone ever put truffle butter on popcorn.Elegant but simple app for a party.I did it for acadamey awards night.

    about 1 year ago Reply to this »
  • Missing_avatar

    Dan Barthel says: sure would have been nice to caption the photos.

    about 1 year ago Reply to this »
  • Maddy-macau-robuchon

    Maddy is the senior editor of Whole Foods Market Cooking.

    Maddy, Editor says: Hi Dan, Sorry about that! The types of popcorn in the first image (from top right, moving clockwise) are: yellow, ruby red, white, and a mixture of the three plus midnight blue. The placement of the popped corn in the second photo is identical.

    about 1 year ago
  • Missing_avatar

    jjb says: Resurgence indeed - last Christmas I gifted blue, red, yellow and white popcorn with poppers - BIG success. I love the colander idea.

    about 1 year ago Reply to this »
  • Dsc_0122

    panfusine says: The brown paper bag in the microwave is a godsend of a suggestion. Thank you so much!

    about 1 year ago Reply to this »
  • Missing_avatar

    ralgirl47 says: I make popcorn on the stove also but I use coconut oil and a little sea salt.

    about 1 year ago Reply to this »

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