Buring Question: What is the best way to make popcorn?

Buring Question: What is the best way to make popcorn?
Popped corn from Martinburg’s Spoor Farms. [Dave Faries]
Dave Faries

Movie theaters.

When you read those words “popcorn” popped – figuratively – in your head. It’s an association few of us can shake. And just as people believe hot dogs at the ballpark just taste better, many Americans have a thing for theater popcorn.

Wayne Robertson, owner of Mexico Cinema III, insists they start with the same kernels you can find elsewhere, but he understands the love affair.

“You walk in and it’s the smell,” he observed.

Robertson is not immune to the allure of theater popcorn. He prefers the stuff that pours from a larger kettle like you find in movie houses.

“There’s a difference in the taste, and I believe it has to do with seasoning the kettle,” he added.

But few of us can fit a theater-sized kettle in the kitchen. And if we managed to, the results may not match expectations.

Fortunately, there are many ways to pop corn.

“My favorite way is on a stove top with oil,” said Gavin Spoor of Spoor Farms. “Right before the kernels pop I toss in a spoonful of sugar and start shaking the pot. Man that’s good.”
Spoor knows a thing or two about popcorn. He grows it on a plot of land near Martinsburg and distributes to local stores, as well as selling online.

Spoor Farms popcorn prepared simply – hot oil in a saucepan, shaking occasionally and lifting the lid to vent steam – is remarkable. The puffs are full and bright, with a crisp veneer over a pillowy foam. Yet you are also rewarded with a gentle sweetness, balanced by a faint earthy whisper.
A little salt and butter and Spoor Farms popcorn becomes mesmerizing … well, as mesmerizing as a freshly popped bowl can be.
“I only sell the most recent harvest,” Spoor explained. “That has something to do with the quality and flavor.”

The science behind why popcorn pops involves words like amylose, amylopectin and endosperm that take a bit of explaining. But essentially, the type of corn that truly pops contains moisture, and a lot of it. Each kernel must weigh in at 14 to 20 percent moisture content for the starch and protein to do its thing.

Robertson recalls attending a convention in Las Vegas where they served movie theater popcorn that amounted to the worst he had ever tried.

“They had let it dry out,” he said.

Robertson also knows a thing or two about popcorn. Besides owning a theater, he used to farm several hundred acres of it, selling to the likes of the Orville Redenbacher brand. And while he likes the freshly kettle popped corn, he snacks on the microwave version at home.
So any way you pop it, the results might fall short. Too much heat, too little heat, how – and how long – it has been stored all factor into the popcorn experience. Yet few foods are as versatile.

In addition to the stove top with a saucepan or bags ready for the microwave, there are whirley poppers, with a hand-cranked handle and vented lid, old fashioned things with long handles intended for the campfire, Jiffy Pop, air poppers and other purpose-made machines. No saucepan? A wok works. So does cast iron. You can fry it on the cob.

The list goes on.

Popcorn takes to additions like caramel, dusted cheddar cheese, chocolate, bacon, kimchi, even anchovies.

“If you leave it plain it’s dang near health food,” Spoor pointed out.

But first you have to make it. To find out the best way, writer Sohla El-Waylly at Serious Eats tested several methods. The tasters settled on two favorites.

One group preferred the light, crispy bite from a Whirley Popper and just a small amount of oil. For the other tasters, the stove top saucepan won out, especially when popped with plenty of oil.

The pan, she wrote “gave the fat-coated, glistening popcorn a dense and hearty crunch.”

So the answer is not so difficult. Popcorn responds to heat and welcomes additional ingredients. And it plays an integral role in our appreciation of movies and other events. Host an old fashioned Christmas and it would be unthinkable not to string popcorn around the tree. And remember the story about the Pilgrims popping corn at the first Thanksgiving?

OK, that didn’t actually happen. But settlers did learn of popcorn from native tribes.

Yes, the grain has a long history, too. But Spoor thinks there’s another reason why it remains so popular.

“There are not many foods you can watch explode,” he said.


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