If last-minute guests darken your doorstep, don’t panic—just make popcorn! I am NOT talking about microwave popcorn; I'm talking about the real deal, popped in a pan, which takes about 5 minutes to make and tastes 50 million times—maybe 100 million times—better. When you're done, you have a bowlful of fragrant crunchiness ready to be tarted up for a party (or plopped in front of the TV with a glass of wine in the form of dinner).
When I was a kid, we were butter-and-salt purists, preferring plenty of both. Don't get me wrong—browned butter with sea salt to this day makes up 80 percent of my popcorn consumption. I make it for my son's friends, I set it out at our pool for swim parties, I make a batch after a night out with the girls. But it's great fun, and almost as easy, to play around a bit with creative flavor combinations, which are both addictive and gorgeous, and tend to blow guests away for very little effort. Below are a few ideas to get you going.
For all the suggestions, figure 3 tablespoons of oil to 1/3 cup of best-quality popcorn kernels. For a neutral popping oil, choose high-heat sunflower, safflower or peanut (not canola, which tastes fishy when heated to high heat). If you like ghee or coconut oil, both work nicely as well. Choose a large, heavy-bottom skillet with a lid. Have a large bowl ready. Heat the oil over medium-high heat with a few kernels of popcorn in the pan, covered. When those first kernels pop, add the rest of the corn and re-cover the pan. As the corn pops, slide the lid a bit to the side a few times to allow steam to escape (steam makes popcorn chewy instead of crisp, so let it escape from the pan whenever you can). Shake the pan a few times as well and when the popping slows, turn the heat off, slide the lid to the side (or remove it completely), and let the pan sit off heat for a minute or two until the popping stops. As soon as the popping is done, dump the popcorn into the large bowl. The popcorn is now ready to be seasoned.
Make sure to use really good, fresh butter. And good sea salt, too. I grind Maldon or large crystals of Irish sea salt in a spice grinder.
The following three homemade popcorn seasonings are pictured.
Clockwise from left: Pumpkin Seeds, Browned Butter and Crispy Sage; Curry Powder, Honey and Lime Zest; Bacon, Caraway Seeds and Bay Leaf. Photo By Stephanie Meyer.
Pumpkin Seeds, Browned Butter, Crispy Sage: Pop corn in neutral oil, then transfer to a bowl. Toast 1/2 cup of pumpkin seeds in 1 tablespoon butter until golden brown, then add to the popcorn. Add 2 tablespoons butter to the post-popped corn pan and set over medium heat. When flecks of brown start to show in the butter, add 2 tablespoons of thinly sliced fresh sage. Stir a few times until sage is crispy and butter is browned, about 2 minutes. Pour over popcorn and pumpkin seeds, toss thoroughly, salt to taste, then toss some more.
Bacon, Caraway Seeds, Bay Leaf: Slice 2 strips of bacon in thin strips; saute until crisp in popcorn pan. Remove bacon and set aside, leaving drippings in the pan. Pop popcorn in the drippings (yes!) and dump in the bowl. Add 2 tablespoons of butter to pan along with 1 teaspoon of caraway seeds and a bay leaf. Over low heat, toast caraway seeds in butter until fragrant. Discard bay leaf. Add bacon to popcorn, toss with caraway seed butter and salt to taste. Serve with beer.
Curry Powder, Honey, Lime Zest: Pop corn in neutral oil or coconut oil. Add 2 tablespoons of butter or ghee to warm pan. Stir in 1 tablespoon of curry powder; heat over low heat until fragrant. Take off heat, whisk 2 tablespoons of honey and grated zest of one lime into the butter. Toss with popcorn and salt to taste. Try to not eat the whole bowl by yourself.
And have fun!
Stephanie Meyer is a home cook, writer, and photographer. Motivated by the belief that all good things come from preparing meals at home, Stephanie shares recipes, cooking tips and photographs on her accessible food blog, Fresh Tart; on TC Taste/Minnesota Monthly Magazine; and on Andrew Zimmern’s Kitchen Adventures/Food & Wine Magazine. Stephanie is also the founder and organizer of Fortify: A Food Community, a group of Minnesota writers, photographers, growers and food industry professionals that celebrates food, hosts educational events and raises money for local charities.