Old-Fashioned Popcorn with Ghee and Garam Masala
Like most people my age, I grew up on microwave popcorn. Actually, I have a memory of an air popper with a yellowish-brown plastic top that melted butter and shot popcorn into a bowl, but most of the popcorn eaten in my life has been made in a microwave. Which is amazing because microwave popcorn is really really bad. It is always either burning or leaving half the kernels un-popped, or both. Horrible and frustrating, but it was all I knew.
All I knew until a few months ago, when my life changed. Did you know you can make popcorn on the stove? I don’t mean with one of those exploding foil pans either, but in a pot. It’s as simple as pouring a layer of fat (we usually use olive oil but as long as it’s a lipid it will work) and then covering the bottom of the pan with popcorn kernels. As it happens, the Wedge is an excellent source for local popcorn in Minneapolis. Keeping the pot uncovered, apply high heat. As soon as the popcorn starts to pop, cover the pot and reduce the heat to medium. If you don’t cover the pot, you will soon have popcorn all over your floor. Once the popping slows down significantly, to about one pop every five seconds say, I uncover the pot and reduce the heat to low for another minute or two. At this point all that’s left is to add salt or other flavorings, which I usually do by pouring the popcorn into a large paper sack, adding salt and whatever else, and shaking.
This method has really increased my appreciation of popcorn. For one thing, I have yet to burn a kernel. A burnt kernel of popcorn can turn you off to the whole batch, so this is a major plus. Probably the best thing is being able to control exactly what goes into your popcorn. If you’re concerned about excessive salt, fat or chemicals, making popcorn the old-fashioned way lets you control exactly what goes in rather than being left to the whims of the diabolical Mr. Redenbacher (You only have yourself to blame when you go overboard with lard-popped, bacon-salt corn). This also gives you a lot of room to experiment with flavors. As I mentioned, you can use whatever fat you like, all for different flavor effects: olive oil, butter, lard, bacon grease, suet, other vegetable oils, really anything. For the batch that inspired me to write this post, I used ghee, Indian clarified butter that, at least in the case of my probably too old jar, has a kind of funky, goaty character.
You can play with the fats at the front end of the popcorn process, and then at the back there is an even bigger range of possibilities to be explored with flavorings. Salt is fundamental to all of this, but an obvious variation might be to use the assorted flavored salts, like celery salt or garlic salt. With the garlic salt you might add a little dried dill. Our most recent batch of popcorn involved olive oil and freshly grated parmesan cheese and ground black pepper added at the end. For my popcorn with ghee I decided to embrace Indian flavors and added some garam masala. When adding spices as flavorings always keep in mind that your ability to taste them is wholly dependent on there being enough salt; don’t be shy with the sodium chloride. On the other hand, overly salty popcorn gets fatiguing to the tongue fast; mastering the yin and yang of popcorn salting will probably take a few batches. As Martha reminds me when I get too salt happy, it is easy enough to add more but pretty hard to take it away.
Since starting to make popcorn this way I’ve been eating and enjoying it a lot more. It really doesn’t take much more time than making it in the microwave and the end result is so much better that the two aren’t even comparable. The ability to play with the flavoring offers a lot of entertainment, but even if you were just to go the traditional butter and salt route the sound of popcorn popping around inside your pot is reward enough for any extra effort.