Cinemas started selling popcorn to boost their bottom lines in the 1930s — forever cementing the connection between munching popcorn and watching movies.
By CINDA CHAVICH
With the big Oscar award show coming up soon, I’m turning my thoughts to the ultimate movie munchie — and my long-time personal vice — popcorn.
I’ve missed National Popcorn Day (it’s in January, at least in the US), but those perfectly popped kernels are never far from my mind, a snack I’ve always believed is a healthier, high-fibre alternative to my other junk food obsession, Old Dutch ripple chips.
But I digress. One of the truisms that movie theatres have forever known is that the aroma of popping corn is universally seductive, and I'm certainly not the first to find it irresistible.
Popcorn was first introduced at the box office during the Great Depression of the 1930s, when local cinemas were struggling and needed a boost to the bottom line.
Cheap and cheerful popped corn to the rescue!
According to Andrew F. Smith, author of Popped Culture: A Social History of Popcorn in America, the unique type of corn used for popcorn has its roots in Central America and made its way to the US in the mid-1800s. By 1885, a mobile, steam-driven popcorn popping machine was invented, and soon popcorn vendors were literally popping up on every city street corner.
The marriage with the movies started with those vendors setting up outside cinemas but by the 1940s, theatres had taken the popped corn business on as part of their own concessions, forever cementing the connection between munching popcorn with your favourite films.
WHY WE LOVE POPCORN
A salty buttery bowl of perfectly popped corn is my idea of comfort food. So simple, yet so addictively delicious.
And I don’t mean the processed microwave popcorn that so many people eat these days, or the dry healthy popcorn that comes out of an electric popcorn popper. I mean real popcorn, popped straight up in oil, on a pot on the stove.
The way I dress it — with melted butter and sea salt — may not be 100% healthy, but popcorn is a good snack because it’s essentially a whole, unprocessed food, with lots of complex carbohydrates and fibre, a whole grain with only about 100 calories per cup, even with butter on top (or just 55 if you can hold the topping).
There’s also a good reason why popcorn is such a popular nosh for movie goers — it’s addictive, perfect to share and easy to eat in the dark, without taking your eyes off the screen.
And the aroma of popped corn in a cinema lobby is something few can resist, so it’s still a great money-maker for modern movie houses.
I think it’s the perfect, bingeable snack for home movie nights and TV marathons, too.
WHAT MAKES PERFECT POPCORN?
There’s a science to popping corn, and only the right type of corn, with the right amount of moisture and the right thickness of hull will pop properly.
Basically, when the kernel heats up, the water expands, and it bursts open. It’s the steam, from the water inside the kernel that creates the pressure and inflates the starch inside the grain. It’s why old, desiccated kernels won’t pop as quickly and easily as fresh popping corn, and will likely end up burnt in the bottom of the pot.
Popping corn is a special type of corn — some makes round mushroom-shaped popcorn, and some makes the butterfly shape, with wings, that’s considered best for eating. The sturdier mushroom shape goes into products like caramel corn because it’s less fragile.
Remember, an ounce of unpopped popcorn gives you a quart, or four cups, of popped corn. So don’t use too much popping corn for your pot, or you’ll end up with unpopped kernels and burnt popcorn.
You want to use a quality popping corn – there is a difference and you want every kernel to pop. Store it in a sealed container to retain its moisture. Store it at room temperature — not in the fridge or freezer.
THE BEST TECHNIQUE FOR POPPING CORN
I have a dedicated popcorn pot – a vintage, heavy-bottomed Revereware saucepan, with good lid and a copper bottom, that conducts heat quickly and makes the corn kernels pop evenly.
I’ve also tried the popcorn pot with the hand crank and paddle to keep the kernels moving while they pop, but I think the good old shaking method is superior.
What's vital is that you buy a good quality popping corn and get it up to that magic 347 degrees Fahrenheit to pop, without burning it.
I use canola oil, because it has a high smoke point, but you can use peanut oil, too. You’ll need a tablespoon or two in the bottom of the pot, then pour in the popping corn to cover the bottom of the pan.
I place the oil and kernels into a pot over high heat and when the first kernels begin to pop, I lower the heat to medium, hold the lid down and shake the pot continuously (often a few inches above the gas flame on my stove) until the popping slows and nearly stops. As the popping begins to slow down, you can turn off the heat, but don’t stop shaking. The heat inside the pot will continue to pop the corn.
Quickly pour the popcorn into an oversized metal bowl, one that’s large enough to allow you to toss the popcorn with the butter and seasoning.
The butter goes right into the hot popping pot to melt (even nicer if it starts to brown a bit), then it’s poured over the hot popcorn. Toss the popcorn to distribute the butter, season well with salt, and toss again. That’s it.
I often say popcorn is merely a vehicle for delicious, organic butter, but you can add other flavourings beyond basic butter and salt.
And just like the actors, you’ll probably want to glam it up for Oscar Night.
Since popcorn has its roots with the Aztecs, a Mexican cumin, cilantro, chilies and lime flavour it nice. Just pop the corn, spread it on a baking sheet, sprinkle with salt, spices and lime juice and bake at 300F for about 8 minutes.
I especially like my popcorn with crumbled seaweed or Japanese Furikake, a seasoning made with roasted sesame seeds, nori, sugar and salt. But lots of spices work with popcorn. You can try mixing things like wasabi powder, curry powder or hot dry mustard and cayenne in with the butter before drizzling it over your popcorn and tossing together.
Popcorn with cheese is delicious, too.
You can toss the popcorn with butter, paprika and a little finely grated hard cheese like Parmesan. Parmesan and butter is nice with Italian herbs like basil and oregano, or some lemon zest, too.
If you toss your popcorn with butter and nutritional yeast, you get a good cheese flavour, without the added calories.
Or you can go totally gourmet with your popcorn — make pesto popcorn with garlic powder, dried basil, parmesan with butter and toasted pine nuts; or popcorn with minced fresh rosemary, garlic butter and Parmesan.
I even discovered one American restaurant that is popping their popcorn in duck fat, and topping it with French sea salt and white truffle oil — very chic for Oscar night noshing.
WHAT ABOUT THE SWEET SIDE?
Popcorn is great with sugary, caramel coatings and nuts, too.
For basic caramel corn, just melt 3 tablespoons of butter, add ¼ cup of brown sugar and a tablespoon of honey or maple syrup and simmer it for a minute, then toss with 8 cups of popped corn, and then bake for 5 minutes at 350F. You can also add nuts and raisins, or a touch of cinnamon.
You can even try adding about 3-4 tablespoons of white sugar with ¼ cup of canola oil to the pot when you’re popping the corn, for a sugary coating. Then season with salt once it’s popped, for that classic kettle corn sweet and salty flavour.
Or try these easy recipes to jazz up your Oscar Party snacks:
BLACK SESAME MUSTARD POPCORN
A recipe for a very exotic combination I found on the Popcorn Board website (popcorn.org) — topped with butter, sesame oil, mustard power and black sesame. Try using dried wasabi in place of mustard powder for colour and extra spicy punch.
Yield: 4 quarts, 16 servings (1 cup each)
4 quarts popped popcorn
3 tablespoons butter
1 tablespoon dark sesame oil
1 tablespoon yellow mustard powder
1 tablespoon black sesame seeds
1 teaspoon kosher salt (or popcorn salt)
Place popcorn in a large serving bowl.
In a small bowl, combine butter, sesame oil and mustard powder.
Microwave butter mixture for 20 seconds or until butter is melted.
Stir until mustard powder is dissolved and mixture is well blended.
Drizzle butter mixture over popcorn and toss.
Sprinkle sesame seeds and salt over popcorn and toss again; serve immediately.
CARAMEL CORN CRUNCH
Classic. Say no more. From The Popcorn Board, popcorn.org
Yield: 3 quarts
1/2 cup butter
1/2 cup brown sugar, firmly packed
3 quarts popped popcorn
Cream butter; add brown sugar and whip until fluffy.
In a large baking bowl, combine popcorn and creamed mixture.
Bake in 350-degree Fahrenheit oven for about 8 minutes or until crisp.
Serve warm if desired.
Makes 8 to 10 cups
½ cup popping corn kernels ¼ cup sugar 3 tablespoons canola oil ¼ teaspoon salt
Using a large, heavy-bottomed pot, over medium low heat, add the canola oil and two to three popcorn kernels and place a lid onto the pot. Wait for the oil to heat and for one of the kernels to pop. Once that has happened, add the remaining kernels and sugar. Again, with the lid on, let the pot sit until the corn starts to pop. Now, begin to shake the pot gently back and forth to keep the popcorn moving and to keep the sugar from burning. Once all the kernels have popped, immediately transfer the popcorn into a large bowl and sprinkle with salt. Once the corn has cooled, place in a container with a tight-fitting lid and consume or give as a gift within 2 to 3 days.