Smile Politely

Taking the mystery out of microwave popcorn

My mom didn’t cook an evening meal on Sunday nights when I was a kid. She prepared a big chicken dinner at noon and then took the night off. So, my dad would throw a handful of corn and a little oil in a big dutch oven and pop it on the stove before we sat down to watch the Wonderful World of Disney.

Yep, hard to believe that Disney was once relegated to a single hour on network television instead of an entire cable channel and that people would eat corn that wasn’t packaged like it was some kind of biohazard.

Maybe that should have been the tip off for those who ended up contracting respiratory problems from commercially-produced microwave popcorn in recent years. But, let’s be honest. With products like Jiffy Pop, popcorn was already going off the rails long before the first box of microwave popcorn ever hit the shelves.

Why is it so hard for us to believe that we can make popcorn all on our own? It’s not like it’s been around for 5,000 years. Okay, it has. And, thanks to Rod Blagojevich’s pen it became Illinois’ state snack food in 2003.

Popcorn isn’t a huge mystery. It is simply a variant of the field corn that grows in seas surrounding Central Illinois towns. However unlike field corn, when popcorn is heated the kernels don’t just turn to goo. Instead, the water in their starchy center turns into vapor and the kernel expands. Eventually the seed coat gives way and the entire kernel turns inside out, hence its Latin name, Zea mays everta. (Thank god that semester of agronomy wasn’t a total waste of time.)

Of course whether popcorn pops has to do not only with genetics, but with careful harvesting. Ideally the kernels need to be harvested on the ear when they reach 16 to 19 percent moisture. Once they have dried down to 13 to 14 percent moisture, they can be carefully shelled off and popped. Dry them down past 13 percent or mar the seed coat in any way, and the kernels won’t pop.

Thankfully, harvesting is the most difficult thing about popcorn. It is easy enough to make it yourself on the stove or in the microwave. Yes, you need not give your hard earned cash to the likes of ConAgra or Diamond Foods for the privilege of popping corn in your microwave. Simply buy some good quality popcorn in bulk from Common Ground Food Coop in Urbana, grab a lunch bag, and you’re on your way.

Homemade Microwave Popcorn

  • 1 standard lunch size paper bag
  • 3 T popcorn
  • 1 t canola or other vegetable oil

Combine popcorn and oil in a small bowl. Place in bag. Fold bag over ½-inch and then fold over a again. Seal bag with a small strip of clear tape. Place bag folded side up in microwave. Cook on high for 2 to 3 minutes or until there are 5 seconds between pops.
Remove the popcorn from the microwave and pour into a large bowl, adding salt and butter or olive oil as desired.

Of course this begs the question, how much butter can you add before you turn a reasonably healthy snack into a cardiac inducing menace? Anything less than half a stick on what would normally be a small size movie popcorn and your arteries are safer than they’d be at a typical theatre.

Miss the kettle corn at the farmers market? Console yourself by adding a ½ T of sugar when you add the salt.

For those with bourgeois aspirations, drizzle popcorn with some olive oil and sprinkle with truffle salt from World Harvest in Champaign. Or, sprinkle on some grated Parmesan and rosemary salt.

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