Snacks On a Budget: Everything You Need to Know About Popcorn

by Elise Nussbaum

The Economics
A 32-ounce bag of kernels will pop you up a giant bowl of fluffy beauties every night for about two weeks, and run you about $1.39. That same $1.39 might buy you three servings of microwave popcorn, one small bag of Smartfood, or a quarter of a small serving at the movies. (If you are determined to spend more money on homemade popcorn, 30 ounces of Orville Redenbacher costs about $7 and is only marginally fluffier. Still a bargain compared to leaving the house.)

Making Popcorn: A Guide
This otherwise thoroughly researched Smithsonian.com article on movie popcorn contains the puzzling assertion that “Popcorn wasn’t widely eaten in homes, mostly due to how difficult it was to make: consumers needed a popper, oil, butter, salt and other ingredients to replicate their favorite movie theater snack at home.”

Oil, butter and salt are hardly specialty ingredients, and you don’t need any special equipment! All you need is a pot and a lid. Pour some peanut oil or coconut oil in the bottom, just enough to cover the bottom (if your coconut oil is solid, this is about a tablespoon). Toss three kernels into the oil; when all three have popped, this is the sign that the oil is hot enough. If it’s smoking, on the other hand, your oil is too hot and you should turn down the burner. Measure out a quarter-cup of popcorn kernels and add them to the oil, shaking the pot to coat them evenly. They’ll start to pop — how many other foods tell you how excited they are to be eaten? — and when you can count to ten between pops, your popcorn is done and will soon start to burn. That’s it! Now you add salt or whatever (more on whatever below) and you are ready to binge-watch Orange is the New Black.

There is another way to make popcorn, in the microwave, that is much more akin to stove-popped than regular microwave popcorn: just put kernels in a paper bag, fold/tape/staple it shut and microwave it on HIGH for 3 and a half minutes, or until the pops slow down. You get the same result as air-popped corn.

The Nutrition
As a salty snack, popcorn stands, nutritionally, head and shoulders above all other comers, a statement I am basing mostly on my own intuition and partially on studies like this.

It’s a whole grain, full of fiber, and if calories figure into your snack decision-making, popcorn itself only has about 30 per cup. Ascetic types might take that number as a challenge and insist on air-popping, but air-popped popcorn is a bit dry, and it doesn’t hold on to toppings as well as popcorn popped in oil. Peanut oil and coconut oil both have a relatively high smoke point, meaning you can get the oil very hot and keep it that way without setting off the smoke alarm. Hotter oil = fewer unpopped kernels, and my unscientific, intuitive theory is that it also explodes the kernels with greater force and therefore = fluffier popcorn.

Though I first learned about the perils of movie popcorn from the classic alarmist medium of the 11 o’clock local news (“Tonight: what you don’t know about your snack food… could kill you”), the hyperbolic anchors weren’t exactly wrong. I’m a big fan of salt and fat, but even a small movie popcorn can contain two days’ worth of saturated fat and a third of the recommended daily allowance for sodium.

As for movie theater butter, a friend of mine who worked the concession told me he wasn’t allowed to call it anything besides “flavored topping.”

The diacetyl used to flavor microwave popcorn gives the people who work in artificial butter flavoring factories a disease called bronchiolitis obliterans, aka popcorn lung. No one in the modern world can lead a totally pure lifestyle when it comes to pathogenic chemicals, but popcorn is a beautiful snack that should not be killing either the people who consume it, or the people who make it.

The Deliciousness
Of course, when it comes to snack food, the ultimate rubric, and the only one that really matters, is taste, and there are many delicious ways to mitigate both the economic and nutritional benefits of popcorn. A few of my favorites:

Caramel Corn

Just abandon all pretense of a healthful snack here: you’re cooking up butter, sugar and corn syrup in a pot. You’d rather make pecan pie, but you don’t have any pecans in the house. Worth it for the science-y thrill of watching the caramel concoction foam up when you drop in the baking soda. If you have strong feelings about corn syrup, you can replace it with molasses.

Cheez Doodles (crunchy)

Unlike most packaged salty snacks, an entire bowl of popcorn won’t make you feel a little sick afterwards. Mixing Cheez Doodles into your popcorn lends a tinge of pleasurable junk-foodie self-indulgence without the “oh god I am covered in sticky orange dust inside and out” comedown.

Dried Dill & Cream of Tartar

This combo makes your popcorn taste like pickle-flavored potato chips. Best with melted butter.

White Chocolate Chips

You can create an interesting salty-sweet combo by mixing room-temperature white chocolate chips in with the warm popcorn as it leaves the pot. The chips will melt and if you play your cards right, layering chips and popcorn like an ad hoc casserole, every few handfuls will bring a shock of sugar.

Nutritional Yeast

Real talk: I buy nutritional yeast (or, as vegans call it, “nooch”) in bulk so that I always have some on hand to spoon (okay, pour) over popcorn. The people I love are almost exactly evenly split on the nooch issue, with half saying, “I know what you mean, it does taste a little nutty and a little cheesy!” and the other half saying, “Have you ever tasted nuts and/or cheese?” Depending on which camp you fall into, you may find that nutritional yeast makes your popcorn taste a little nutty and a little cheesy. Or you may not.

Za’atar

This Middle Eastern spice mixture tastes warm and earthy and was basically made to sprinkle over popcorn.

Butter

I am always looking for ways to incorporate more butter into my diet, and this is exquisite in its simplicity. While the pot is still hot from the popcorn, throw a pat of butter in there to melt, and drizzle it over your corn. Salt to taste, obviously.

Truffle Oil

The ne plus ultra of popcorn toppings. I bought a mister from Williams Sonoma for the sole purpose of lightly spritzing truffle oil on popcorn, but it was much too subtle for my (gourmandizing) tastes. With a controlled hand, a sprinkle of truffle oil and a little table salt bring a regular bowl of popcorn near the sublime.

With a friendly price point and a nearly infinite array of ways to prepare it, homemade popcorn is a snack that you can feel good about eating every night. Share it with friends or whip up a giant bowl just for yourself; stick to a smattering of salt or devise elaborate recipes. Movie night will never be the same!

Elise Nussbaum lives in Jersey City with a husband, a cat and a baby on the verge of becoming a toddler.

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