Popcorn, like Halloween, screams nostalgia to me. I have vivid memories of enjoying popcorn as a kid, at home and on Halloween, and we even had a woman in my small hometown who handed out homemade popcorn balls to trick-or-treaters and nobody had a problem with that. Ah, yesteryear.
Trick-or-treating, like everything else, has changed over the years and though it is still (apparently) popular with the kids, we don’t see a lot of action in our cul-de-sac. Last year, we had a 50% decrease in costumed-kid turnout, and that means the doorbell only rang twice rather than the usual three times. Who knows what this year will hold (especially with rain in our evening forecast), but at least we can enjoy our memories of Halloween from our own childhood, and I’ll figure out some way to use any candy we have left over.
Throughout my childhood, there were many ways to make popcorn, including Jiffy Pop, which was first introduced in 1958 (when my parents were kids) and the best way to make it was over a campfire. It would sputter a bit at first as the oil inside the crumpled foil pan heated up, and then it would puff up into a giant ball that you had to have an adult tear open because the steam would burn your hands. It was crazy fun, and they still make Jiffy Pop today but it has largely been replaced by the convenience of microwave popcorn. When that trend became the norm for popcorn at home, I lost interest.
But popcorn started to have a new moment in my life almost a decade ago. I was living by myself with my three fur babies in a tiny, post-divorce apartment, and there were some nights that I didn’t feel like making a meal, so I’d settle onto the loveseat with my kitties and watch a movie with real, oil-popped popcorn and a glass of wine. Hey, there was nobody else around to complain or argue about it and, in an odd way, it was kind of liberating. When Covid hit two years ago and going to movie theaters was impossible, my husband and I started making more popcorn at home as we streamed movies on Netflix or Prime. Quite frankly, I don’t care at all about movie theater popcorn anymore because it pales in comparison to what we make at home.
The greatest benefit of making popcorn on the stove top is that you miss out on the chemical aftertaste and “after-feel” that the packaged microwave stuff always offers—you know, that chalky, filmy residue that lingers? There have been many red flags raised about the chemicals used in the microwave bags, and please raise your hand if you have ever had one catch fire in the microwave, or ever had to wave a wet towel in the air to stop the shrieking of your smoke alarm when the microwave popcorn got out of hand. Yeah, it’s everyone.
Making your own microwave popcorn may not be the best idea either, as some food safety experts have raised concern about heating brown paper bags (especially those which may include recycled materials) in the oven or microwave. So, from a safety standpoint, perhaps the old-fashioned method of popping it on the stove is still the best. It is certainly the tastiest.
Hot-air poppers were popular for a spell, but the popcorn is bland without some kind of oil and, given that we only make popcorn about five times a year, one of those bulky unitaskers doesn’t make a strong enough case to earn a coveted spot in my pantry.
Popcorn made on the stove is easy. Grab a lidded pot, at least as tall as it is wide, and preferably one with a heavy bottom to prevent scorching. It helps to have a pot with a vented—or even perforated—lid, if you can find one. Today, I use this pot that my husband loves for easy draining of pasta and potatoes. I like it for popcorn because the steam generated by the popping kernels has an easy way out of the pan and that keeps the popcorn nice and fluffy. You might also consider using a mesh spatter screen over a tall pot, and use a slightly smaller lid to keep it in place during popping so steam can escape but the hot kernels don’t.
I generally use peanut oil for popping, and I sometimes mix it up with a touch of extra virgin olive oil or unfiltered coconut oil. Do not try to make popcorn using only extra virgin olive oil, because its low smoke point practically guarantees you’ll have a mess on your hands, or maybe even a kitchen fire. Stick with oils intended for frying at higher temperatures, and you’ll be good. Heat the pot over medium to medium-high heat, and start with only two kernels to help you recognize the optimal heat level. As soon as those two kernels pop, add the rest of the popcorn all at once and give the pot a little shimmy-shake to settle them into one layer, all evenly coated in the sizzling oil.
Let the popping commence! When you notice that two or three seconds elapses between pops, immediately turn off the heat and transfer your popped corn into serving bowls. At our house, we dive right into one large bowl nestled between us, and it’s especially fun when we reach for it at the same time. If you like butter-topped popcorn—and let’s be honest, who doesn’t?—then you can melt a couple of tablespoons in a dish in the microwave or a separate pan while your popcorn is popping. I like to transfer only part of the popcorn at a time into my giant serving bowl and toss it with melted butter and salt or seasoning in batches.
As for the seasonings, think outside the salt shaker for a moment, and consider what else is in your spice cabinet that might be tasty on popcorn. If you are sodium-averse, consider chili powder or garlic powder as a seasoning, or try one of the Mrs. Dash blends to add a little zip to your popcorn. Use your imagination, and leave a comment with your favorite!
I promised a playlist for Halloween, and you’re welcome to borrow it for your own spooky enjoyment as you wait for the doorbell to ring. I’ve curated this list to include a little bit of everything—from classic Halloween “standards” to all genres of songs about witches, monsters, creepy-crawlies and devils. It helps to have the Spotify app, but you don’t have to be a premium member to listen. Just click the play button and enjoy!
Real Homemade Popcorn
Why subject yourself to substandard microwave popcorn, when you can make it on the stove top in minutes and get creative with the seasonings? All you need is a tall, lidded pot and a light oil for popping.The amount of each ingredient depends on the size of your pot.
- Neutral oil, such as vegetable, peanut or canola oil
- Whole kernel popcorn
- Melted butter and salt or seasonings of choice
- Place a heavy-bottomed, tall pot over medium heat and add enough oil to just cover the bottom. Drop two kernels of popcorn into the pot and cover it with a lid until they both pop.
- When both kernels have popped, carefully add enough popcorn to completely cover the bottom of the pot in a single, dense layer. Immediately replace the cover and wait for the popcorn to pop.
- Popcorn is finished when 2 to 3 seconds passes between pops. Immediately remove the pot from heat and carefully transfer it to a large serving bowl.
- Toss with melted butter and sprinkle with seasonings of your choice.