Americans spend over $1 billion annually on unpopped popcorn kernels. And for good reason, it’s tasty, economical and low in calories. Each year, corn producers develop over 30,000 hybrids in search of a better, more flavorful kernel.
In an effort to find out which popcorn popped best, America’s Test Kitchen conducted a taste test. They stacked up seven national brands against a “baseline” plain (homemade) popcorn, dressed with a modest amount of melted butter and salt, and came to a startling conclusion.
The homemade popcorn won by a landslide!
Popping the perfect batch of corn starts with fresh kernels, a little oil and just the right amount of heat. We’ve borrowed these tried and tested methods from the folks who know how to do it best, The Popcorn Board.
Here’s how you do it:
First, warm your heavy pan or skillet. If you’re using a popper, turn it on for a few minutes before you add your kernels to allow the air to heat up. If you pour in your kernels before it’s had a chance to warm up you risk burning, not popping, your corn!
If you’re using oil to pop your corn, which is what we recommend (butter burns), add 1/4 cup of cooking oil to the pan and allow the oil to heat. Bring the oil to between 400 and 460°F – the best popping results. But, be careful, oil burns at 500°F. If your oil starts to smoke, it’s too hot. Start over.
Any cooking oil will work provided it can retain the proper temperature. The less saturated the fat in the oil (like corn or sunflower), the less calories you add to your snack. (Oil-popped corn has only 55 calories per cup.)
The Popcorn Board recommends you check the temperature of your oil by dropping in one or two kernels and seeing what happens. They say, “when the kernels pop or spin, you’re ready to add the remaining popcorn.”
While that may work for the layperson, we believe the key to perfect popcorn is perfect temperature, which is why we recommend using an infrared thermometer to gauge the temperature. Normally, an instant-read, like the Thermapen®, would be our go-to for checking oil temps, but with only 1/4 cup dispersed across a skillet that won’t work.
Aim your infrared thermometer directly over the oil so it’s perpendicular to the pan. Pull the trigger and you’ll get an instant reading of your oil’s surface temperature. When it hits your 400 to 460°F window you’re ready to start popping.
When your popcorn has been safely removed from the pan, give it a nice drizzle with melted butter, sprinkle it with salt and toss. You can rest assured that what you’ve just created is better than any store bought brand that you could have zapped in the microwave.
Kernels that do not pop are known as “old maids.” They do not have sufficient water within the starch to create the build up of pressure needed to pop the kernel.
If your popcorn does not pop into fluffy, crunchy kernels, it may have lost some of its moisture. Rejuvenate popcorn by filling a 1-quart jar 3/4 full will kernels. Add one tablespoon of water. Cover and shake every five to ten minutes until all the water is absorbed. In two to four days it should be perfect for popping.
America’s Test Kitchen