Making Popcorn


I like the flavour of popcorn. Popcorn is really nothing more than corn that's been cooked in a specific way. In it's barest form (dry), it's a reasonably nutritious low-calorie grain. In it's most dressed up form (heavily buttered and flavoured) it can be teeth-rottingly decadent (but still at least vaguely nutritious).

The science of popcorn making (more or less)

As far as I can tell, the secret to making popcorn is to maximize internal pressure in the popcorn before it pops. Pressure is provided by the steam from super-heated water in the cooking kernel. When you have enough pressure inside of the kernel, it's outer casing gives way, and the kernel explodes (pops) and all (most) of the super-heated water turns to steam. (for those of you who paid attention in physics/chemistry class, you'll realize that this sudden mass transition from liquid to steam also cools the kernel, which is why it doesn't go on to burn immediately after popping).

To get the perfectly popped kernel, you want a maximal distribution of heat into the corn before the casing gives way. If the heat is to low, the steam can leak out slowly, resulting in a less 'light' kernel than you really want. If the heat is too high (and/or unevenly distributed), only part of the kernel will be hot enough to pop, giving a partially popped kernel.
executive summary:The 'perfect' temperature and even heating are the goals of the gourmet popper

The tools

A pot and a small pan are needed to make popcorn.

The small pan is to heat the butter (most (but not all) people put butter/margarine on their popcorn). The butter pan should be relatively small -- you're only going to be heating a maximum of 1/4 cup of butter in most cases. I find it really annoying if 2/3 of my butter ends up stuck to the walls of my pan

The pot is the real workhorse here. The diameter of the pan doesn't matter much as long as it doesn't go way past the edges of the heating element (remember: even distribution). Height is a bit more important... a single layer of kernels will (when properly popped) expand to about a 6 inch column of popcorn.
A steel or copper pot is best. We'll be running the burner on high, so aluminum runs a slight risk of melting (especially if you forget the pot on the burner). Teflon really doesn't like those kinds of temperatures and Pyrex (glass) is a bit ,too thick -- it absorbs too much heat in the process and what we're we're doing with the popcorn is getting close to deep frying (which the care instructions on Pyrex say you should not do -- for safety reasons, I'd guess).

I've had one person suggest a wok. Seems like this would work, but I've never tried it myself.

Oil. Oil in this process is classified as more a tool than an ingredient. the real purpose of the oil is to help transfer heat more evenly into the kernel. Unless you get into exotic oils (which I haven't done), it doesn't really add much to the taste/texture of the popcorn. Corn or Canola oil work fine. Olive oil might not be able to take the temperatures we are using here (I've never tried it), and it's strong taste may interfere with the popcorn taste. One reader swears that grapeseed oil works well, and it's rumored that coconut adds nicely to the taste.

The process

Start with the butter... Put your butter into the small pan (anywhere from a heaping table spoon to 1/4 cup depending on your pot size and your decadence quotient for tonight). Set this stove on low or medium-low heat and let the butter melt while you cook the popcorn. If you're using non-standard flavourings, you may want to add that to the mix as well (depends on the flavouring).

Next, pour enough oil into the pot to form a thin layer on the bottom. Add 3 or 4 'sacrificial' kernels, turn the heat on high, and wait. When the first kernels start popping, add the real payload -- about enough to cover the bottom of the pot. Put on the lid. Turn the heat down slightly (on a 10-notch dial, I'll turn it down to 8 or 9) and shake the pan every few seconds. After about 1/2 minute or so, you should have a pretty continuous popping coming from the pan. At this point, you should be shaking the pan most of the time. My standard is 3 seconds shaking 1 second resting on the burner (to collect heat). The popping should build to a furious crescendo and then subside. (Safety note here... This produces a good bit of steam.. Keep your fingers away from the lid).

When you haven't heard the popcorn pop for more than a second or two, it's time to stop. Take the pot away from the stove. At this point the pot is very hot I don't suggest putting it down on anything other than metal and/or ceramic pot holders. If it's a thick-bottomed pot, it's quite capable of burning wood. Keep shaking the pot for a while, or you'll risk burning the popcorn. At this point, I often use a wet cloth to cool the pot down (Safety note 2). Another option is to pour the popcorn into a big bowl.


I used to think that pasta (i.e. spaghetti and macaroni) was only served with cheese sauce or tomato sauce. This continued until one day when I was invited to a real spaghetti dinner. A sort of gastronomic epiphany occurred when I realized that pasta is simply an excuse for the pasta sauce, and the sauces are many.

Popcorn suffers a similar gastronomic fate. Most people only know of buttered popcorn. This is almost a travesty.

Hot buttered popcorn

The tried and true method. For me the trick is getting the butter evenly distributed on the popcorn. I usually pour the first half of the butter on the popcorn (giving special attention to the outer parts), give the pot a good shake and then distribute the rest and shake it again.

At this point, I'll usually sprinkle on the salt and shake one last time.

note This is where a tall pot comes in handy. If your pot is full to the brim with popcorn, there's no room to shake the popcorn in.

Caramel corn

The second most common popcorn topping is caramel. The Caramel topping is actually pretty easy. Like butter, the hard part is getting it evenly distributed.
Put a tablespoon of butter in the pan, and add 2 or 3 tablespoons of water. Melt the butter and add about 1/4 cup of sugar. Stir for a bit.

Once the sugar is in, you can add a capful of Flavour concentrate... Vanilla or Maple are my favorites. Mint is another interesting choice.
Sometimes I'll also crush a teaspoon of mint leaves in my hand and add that to the mix. (sigh)

Cinnamon also works well.


  • caveat: The 'science' of popcorn is the result of my observations from many years of popcorn making, not a masters degree project in food science. If anybody has some corrections/suggestions to make, feel free to email me ... samuel at bcgreen dot com.

  • shaking: Shaking the pot is mostly a horizontal motion. The intent is to get the un-popped kernels rocking on the bottom of the pan (heat distribution, again) and settling to the bottom of the pan.
    When shaking the pot, you want to keep it as close to the burner as possible. Leaving it touching the burner is permissible, but you may need to turn down the heat a bit more. It's definitely preferable to having the pot more than an inch (2cm) above the burner..
  • Safety note 2: If you use a wet cloth to cool down the pot, be careful. The pot is hot enough to give you 3rd degree burns before the pain sensation reaches your brain. After 2-3 seconds in contact with the pot, your rag will also be painfully hot, and need more cool water before you can continue using it. (BTW: cotton doesn't melt).
    This is also a bad idea if your pot doesn't have a one-piece bottom (I.e. if it has a heat distribution plate welded to the bottom of it). the thermal shock of water cooling could cause the plate to separate from the pot. 'quenching' the pot (dipping it in water) is safer, but increases the thermal stress by an order of magnitude.
    If you have comments, corrections, additions etc. about what I have here, feel free to contact me...
    Stephen Samuel samuel at bcgreen dot com (god I hate spammers)

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