Humans have probably eaten some sort of popped corn for hundreds, if not thousands of years. Nevertheless, for a long time, I thought making your own popcorn would require all sorts of special equipment and advanced skills.
The opposite is true though. Even though those popcorn machines at cinemas may look high tech, how they work is pretty simple. At home, really all you need to make popcorn are either a pot + stove or a microwave + microwave-proof bowl (and lid!).
Making popcorn starts with gathering the right corn. You cannot make popcorn from fresh sweet corn. In order for popcorn to pop it needs a very strong hull, that allows pressure to be built up within. The hull of fresh sweet corn is not strong enough for that.
Also, you’ll need the right amount of moisture in your corn, too much or too little will prevent your corn from popping. It’s why the popcorn corn you buy is quite hard and dry, perfect for popping!
Whether you’ll be making popcorn on the stovetop, or in the microwave (see detailed recipes at the end of this post), there’s no difference in the type of popcorn you’ll be needing.
Deciding on quantities
You can make pretty much any quantity of popcorn on the stove or microwave, as long as your pans/vessels are big enough. Keep in mind that popcorn can expand by a factor 40. What may look like a small amount of popcorn at the start, can fill up a big bowl at the end!
Storing popcorn corn
You’re probably not going to use all the corn you bought at once. Luckily, popcorn corn is designed for long-term storage so to say. As long as you don’t dry it out further, or store it in a humid place, it will be good for months, if not years. Store the popcorn in a closed plastic bag or an air tight container and it will last you a long time.
How to make popcorn
You make popcorn by quickly and intensely heating the popcorn corn. Once the kernels are hot enough, the pressure inside will have built up so much that they pop! When you’re making popcorn your main challenge is to find a way to make the popcorn very hot, while not burning it. It’s a balance.
Commercial popcorn poppers use stirrers to prevent the popcorn from burning to the bottom. If you’re making it yourself, you might have to shake it.
Want to be updated on new food science articles? Subscribe to our weekly newsletter
Most popcorn making methods add a little bit of oil or other fat course. The main reason for doing so is that oil can serve as a heat transfer method. It has a larger heat capacity than air so can help those kernels to get really hot.
Making popcorn is all about heating the corn and when you’re making it on a stovetop, all that heat will come from the bottom. The gas burners or electric coils will heat the bottom of the pan. Once the kernels are hot enough, they’ll pop, jumping up, letting other kernels go down. Towards the end though, kernels don’t have as much space to ‘jump’ anymore, risking them to stay at the hot bottom for a little too long.
The main challenge of making popcorn on the stovetop is that the heat comes from the bottom. It’s why you want to shake it regularly, to ensure that no corn sticks on the bottom or stays stuck there for too long.
The second challenge is temperature control. If the heat on your stove is too low, it will take too long for the corn to pop or it won’t pop at all. However, too high, and the oil and corn will burn before it has a chance to pop. Once you’ve got the hang of it and know how your stovetop works best, it’s easy to control!
In a microwave, the heat doesn’t come from the bottom. Instead, a microwave uses waves that go through the popcorn and oil to heat food. These waves are especially good at heating up water. Because these waves travel through food, and because most microwaves have the food turn around while microwaving, the heating is a bit more homogeneous than on a stovetop. As such, it is slightly harder to burn the popcorn.
Microwave vs Stovetop popcorn
Both methods for making popcorn make a perfectly fine popcorn and it will depend on your personal preference and tools at hand which one you prefer. That said, scientists have looked at the difference between the two types more extensively. They found that, under ideal circumstances, microwave popcorn would turn out slightly smaller than its stovetop counterpart. It’s a difference of some 10%, very relevant if you’re selling popcorn by volume, less so, if you’re just making it for your own enjoyment.
You can make popcorn with just corn and a little bit of fat (to help distribute that heat!). However, if you’re up for a bit of an adventure and need some more punch in your popcorn, the options are endless.
The most common flavoring is probably salt. Salt generally helps to highlight flavors in food and it does so in popcorn as well. Just sprinkling some salt throughout the popcorn will do the job, although you can also add it before popping, by adding it into the oil.
Next up is using a flavorsome fat, such as butter. It’s simple, since you’re not adding an additional ingredient, but very effective. One watch out if using butter: its smoke point is a lot lower than that of most liquid oils. As such, it’s more prone to burning. Use ghee, or any type of clarified butter, to overcome that while still giving off a lot of flavor.
Go wild, but not moist
Then there’s the endless list of flavorings you can mix through your freshly baked popcorn. What about some chocolate, chili powder, or even caramel? When choosing which one to use, keep in mind that the popcorn should remain crunchy!
Popcorn is a dry product with a very low moisture content. If you’re planning on adding a wet, moist covering, that will most definitely ruin the crunchy texture of the popcorn. The water from the topping will seep into the popcorn (read why here), making it soft and soggy. It’s why a fat-based topping (such as chocolate) works great, or a very sugary one such as caramel (the high sugar content lowers the water activity). If you do decide on using something that has quite a bit of water, ensure to dry it after applying to the popcorn.
Ready to start making some popcorn? Below, you can find both a stovetop as well as a microwave version!
- 1/4 cup of popcorn corn
- 1 tbsp of clarified butter or oil
- salt (to taste, we use none, start at 1/8 tsp if you prefer slighlty salty popcorn)
Use a sturdy pot that you know heats evenly. We use a wok, but you can also use a thick bottomed pan. The advantage of using a lighter pan is that it will be a lot easier to shake!
- Add the clarified butter and salt to your pot on a medium heat and add 2 or 3 popcorn corn kernels.
- Cover the pan and continue to heat, shaking regularly. Within a few minutes you should start to hear your corn popping away!
- Add the rest of the corn to the pot and place back the lid. The corn will jump when it pops and if you have no lid they will literally jump out of the pot!
- Within another minute or so the freshly added corn should start popping. If it doesn't start popping after a few minutes, increase the heat on the pan. Continue to shake regularly to prevent some kernels from burning at the bottom!
- The popping sounds should initially increase and more and more kernels pop. After that, the number of pops should slow down. When you hear no more popping or only a few pops every few seconds it is time to take the pan from the fire.
- Take off the lid to let the moisture escape and pour in a bowl to cool. Add more salt if desired.
- If there are still unpopped kernels left you can place these back in the pan to pop but watch the heat if there are only a few kernels in the pan. It's easy to burn them.
- 50g (1/4 cup) popcorn corn
- 1/2 tsp oil
- salt (optional, to taste)
To make popcorn in the microwave we use a rice cooker for the microwave (see below). It has a sturdy lid and enough holes for moisture to escape from the bowl. Refrain from making too much or your bowl will overflow. Remember the popcorn increases a lot in size!
- Place a piece of parchment paper at the bottom of your bowl. It doesn't have to fit tight, it's better if it's a little loose, see notes.
- Add the oil and popcorn corn to your microwave proof bowl with a lid. Place in the microwave at regular power. Once you start corn popping take the bowl out of the microwave every 30-45s to shake it, to prevent burning of kernels.
- Every microwave will operate differently so follow your own instructions where relevant. Our microwave popped all the corn in approx. 2,5 minutes. Take the bowl out of the microwave once the popping has died down significantly.
The oil in the pan will get very hot. As such, make sure your device is truly resistant to high temperatures! If you're in doubt, a layer of not tightly fit parchment paper will prevent the heat from reaching the bottom and protect the bowl.
Mark Peplow, Popping perfect popcorn, Nature, 25-Feb, 2004, link