First Plates Extra Helpings: The Perfect Pop
Popcorn gets under the fingernails and stays in the blood
By Sara Reihani,
4:00PM, Wed. Feb. 11, 2015
As a movie theatre grunt, I served as the human assistant to the house's giant popcorn machine: a stainless steel chamber with clear plastic windows and a kettle inside suspended from the top.
I worked at the theatre for two years. It was part of a chain that no longer operates in Austin. The theatre I worked at was a historic building with a single screen, nearly a century old. Most of the patrons were nearing the centennial mark too, but they kept showing up on walkers to see our selection of mediocre French action movies, erotic French coming-of-age stories, and moody French family dramas. Barring anything in French, we could always count on a crowd for whatever bizarre puppet show Woody Allen had pulled out of his ass that year.
I dutifully fed the kettle cupfuls of raw kernels and salt and listened to it squirt out its mechanically apportioned ration of sunflower oil. Inside, metal arms churned around to keep the kernels from sticking, and once most of the corn had popped up and… and… and… spilled out into the chamber, the kettle had to be swung down from its perch 90 degrees and emptied to keep the remaining half from burning. We’d time the first batch so that the smell of fresh popcorn wafted out into the lobby just as we were letting in the first patrons. After 20-30 minutes of “Jesus Christ, five bucks for a small?” and clarifications of exactly how many pumps of melted butter constituted “just a little”, the movie would start, and we’d be left staring at dunes of popcorn yellow-spotted with oil, like a snowbank pissed on by one of our prostate-challenged customers.
Popcorn is the edible equivalent of a Christmas tree — irresistible one moment, useless the next. If it was the last show of the night, we’d often scrape the corn straight into the trash can just minutes after selling a bag for exorbitant prices. Still, the fact that we popped multiple fresh batches throughout the day was a point of pride; many multiplexes pop enormous amounts of popcorn at the beginning of the weekend, then just keep it warm, like eggs in an incubator, growing staler and staler until it’s thrown out on Sunday nights.
After the last show started, we cleaned the machine. This was a waterless, soapless, entirely chemical process involving about 50 paper towels and a spray bottle of degreasing “orange cleaner.” We sprayed and wiped down the kettle, the grease-spattered chamber walls, the metal popcorn scoop, the kernel drawer that hid underneath and caught all the little seeds and greasy shell bits… and that was it. The next day, we’d pop again. Whatever residue the orange cleaner left, I’ve probably ingested a gallon of it over the years. Maybe it’s the secret ingredient.
Nothing could actually be easier than microwave popcorn, but stovetop popcorn gets close. It’s also vastly cheaper, more customizable, healthier, and tastier.
STOVETOP POPCORN RECIPE
You’ll need: A saucepan with a tight-fitting lid, oil (vegetable, sunflower, olive), salt, yellow or white popcorn kernels (1/4 cup of kernels makes enough popcorn for two). Optional for fancypants: melted butter, chopped fresh herbs (rosemary’s my favorite), sesame oil (but just a tablespoon added to the main oil), or powdered spices.
Have a big bowl ready. Pour just enough oil to cover the bottom of the saucepan. Add kernels, stir until coated with oil, then sprinkle salt (more than you think you’ll need – not all the salt will stick) and chopped fresh herbs over the top. Shake the pan horizontally so the kernels are as close to a single layer on the bottom as possible. Cover and turn the heat up to high.
Don’t leave. Don’t watch TV. Don’t do anything. Stand there until the kernels have popped. Remove from heat once the time between kernel poppings is about two full seconds. If you smell burning before then, shake the saucepan horizontally (making sure the lid is still on tight) once or twice to loosen any popped kernels stuck to the bottom. Empty into your big bowl and sprinkle on powdered spices and melted butter.
Read more Extra Helpings at austinchronicle.com/daily. The Austin Chronicle’s First Plates food issue hit stands Thursday, February 5.