Popcorn Basics: How to Make Great Popcorn

Popcorn - Heirloom_ForkFingersChopsticks.com

Normally, I like food with exotic flavors and sauces. But, popcorn, I like simple – popped fresh with a dash of salt and, on occasion, lightly buttered.

After talking with folks here and there about how they eat p-corn, it seems I’m not alone. Most adults, or at least the ones I spoke with, prefer to nosh on popcorn that’s simply salted and buttered. It’s most often eaten while watching flicks.

So this post is about the basics. No fancy toppings or long ingredient list. (My shortest recipe to date.)  Just some guidance on making great popcorn at home.

I do not claim to be an expert. But, we know a bit about popcorn in our house since we make it two to three times per week. Roughly speaking, I (yes, just me) eat about 100 quarts of popped popcorn a year. Note: the average American generally consumes about 44 quarts of per year.

Let me know how you like your popcorn? Or, if you employ any interesting techniques. Before we get to popping, here’s some helpful info:

Why does popcorn pop?

The outer shell of popcorn kernels (the pericarp) is tougher than regular corn and can withstand greater pressure. This special maize “pops” when heated because the moisture inside the kernel swells as it cooks, rapidly expanding to a point where the shell cannot contain the explosion. It bursts, turning it inside out.

Butterfly v. Mushroom?

These terms refer to the “flake” shape. Whether it’s marked “butterfly” or not, it’s the kind found in most grocery stores. Butterfly popcorn is irregular in shape with protruding “wings.”  The mushroom variety is ball-shaped with less distinct wings. The main difference comes down to texture. Popped butterfly popcorn is light and fluffy, with wings that are delicate. Mushroom popcorn is generally preferred for candied and coated popcorn because it is denser and less delicate.

Popcorn Maize - Cob - Kernels - ForkFingersChopsticks

Boulder Popcorn heirloom (left); Popcorn varieties (right, clockwise - top right): Kailey's Kernels, Ryder's Red, Cambria's Cream from Boulder Popcorn, large yellow and white from the grocery store.

Which type:  yellow, white, colored?

Regardless of the color you buy, it’ll pop up some color of white. If you’re shopping for popcorn at a regular grocery store and they have white and yellow kernels, choose white. White popcorn pops lighter and crisper. The yellow has a tougher hull, which makes it much chewier. I also find it sticks in my teeth.

If you have access to other varieties, definitely give them a try. There are several companies selling heirloom popcorn online and at local farmers’ markets. In the Denver area, there’s Boulder Popcorn.

Boulder Popcorn sells three heirloom varieties:  red, blue-grey and yellow. The kernels are smaller than what you find in the store and are much lighter and crisp when popped. They carry Ryder’s Red, Kailey’s Kernels (hulless), and Cambria’s Cream (hulless). Note, the hulless varieties still have hulls but they are less distinct, easier on the teeth and to digest. Their popcorn is natural and non-Genetically Modified. This was so good, we ate it plain – no salt or butter. Each variety is unique: the red pops large and fluffy; the blue has a medium, bright white wings with a slight nuttiness; and the cream is smooth and creamy.

Addendum 10/17/10:  Andrew Knowlton, the BA Foodist (Bon Appetit) is also a fan of Boulder Popcorn. In the October 2010 issue and on the BA Foodist blog he says Boulder Popcorn is his current favorite brand of popcorn.

What kind of popper?

There’s a lot on the market from hot air poppers to fancy/gimmicky contraptions. However, a no fail method and my preferred equipment is a heavy pot with a lid.

What if I have a lot of duds?

It’s likely the moisture content is low. Don’t throw it out, you can fix it. Put your kernels in a glass jar with about a tablespoon of water. Cover, shake and refrigerate for a day or two. The moisture will absorb into the popcorn and should pop up fluffy. Just make sure the kernels are dry first. Researchers say the moisture content of popcorn kernels should be between 11 to 14 percent.

What kind of fat or oil?

I’ve popped it in olive oil, coconut oil, butter and bacon grease. But, we still prefer canola oil.

What about leftovers?

Heat oven to 200 degrees and reheat on a cookie sheet for about 20 minutes. However, I think the best popcorn is fresh popped.


Anything goes when it comes to flavoring your popcorn, but the key is starting with quality popcorn.


2 to 3 tablespoons canola oil

1/2 cup popcorn

Salt to taste, optional

Melted butter, optional


In a large, heavy-bottomed pot with lid, add oil and popcorn. Turn heat to medium-high. Place the lid on the pot. After the first few kernels begin to pop, shake the pot with it still on the heat. Continue to cook, shaking frequently, until the popping almost ceases (about 3 minutes). Remove from heat and pour into a bowl. Add salt and melted butter; toss to mix.

Tip: If you get a few spots of soggy popcorn, keep the lid adjar or use a metal colander to cover. Careful, it spatters while cooking. These methods enable steam to release rather than building up condensation and dripping back in the pot.


Fat/oil:  olive oil, extra-virgin coconut oil, bacon grease, vegetable oil

Salt/seasoning: anything goes so go for it; try mixes from specialty spice stores, your favorite hot sauce and more.



2 to 3 tablespoons canola oil

1/2 cup popcorn

Salt to taste, optional

Butter, optional


In a large, heavy-bottomed pot with lid, add oil and popcorn. Turn heat to medium-high. Place the lid on the pot. After the first few kernels begin to pop, shake the pot while still on the heat. Continue to cook until the popping almost ceases (about 3 minutes). Remove from heat and pour into bowl.

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10 Responses to Popcorn Basics: How to Make Great Popcorn

  1. [...] Popcorn Basics: How to Make Great Popcorn | Fork Fingers Chopsticks [...]

  2. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by ForkFingersChopstick. ForkFingersChopstick said: New blog post: Popcorn Basics: How to Make Great Popcorn http://forkfingerschopsticks.com/popcorn-basics-how-to-make-great-popcorn/ [...]

  3. Some interesting tidbits. I thought I had read once that no popcorn is GMO. Hmmm, is that true? I was just thinking last week how long it had been since I made popcorn. I used to make it all the time until my hot air popper started going south and that was the end of my popping days. It’s been years now. I really want to see how your colored varieties look after they’ve popped!

    Andrea (FFC): I haven’t done extensive research on non-GMO/GMO popcorn. I’ll look into it and report back. Or, if someone else out there is versed – please pipe in. FYI, the large picture at the top of this post is the Ryder’s Red. You can see the colored hull. The popped kernels are similar to the size of white popcorn.

  4. [...] Popcorn Basics: How to Make Great Popcorn | Fork Fingers Chopsticks [...]

  5. [...] recently met a sharp, Denver-based food blogger who posted a great popcorn-related essay. She’s a bona fide foodie, so give her tips a try. var addthis_language = [...]

  6. Meg says:

    Thanks for the tips – we usually eat popcorn every night while watching a show so we eat a ton of it!

    We like it best with a local spice (Colorado Plateau Pepper – From Savory Spice Shop in Denver/Boulder) and a little salt and a spray of olive oil.

  7. gue says:

    Wow, wonderful blog layout! How long have you been blogging for? you make blogging look easy. The overall look of your web site is wonderful, let alone the content!. Thanks For Your article about Popcorn Basics: How to Make Great Popcorn | Fork Fingers Chopsticks .

  8. Michael says:

    This is my foolproof method for achieving the largest possible, dry kernels every time: Place kernels in heavy, metal-lidded sauce pan, covering the bottom one kernel deep. Add oil to about 3/4 of the depth of the kernels . Place on burner on high heat. Immediately remove from heat when oil begins to sizzle, holding it over the stove (do not set the pan down). Remove lid and heat it by holding it low over the burner for about 20 seconds. . Swirl the pan gently with the other hand while heating the lid so as to thoroughly, evenly bathe the kernels in the hot oil. Place lid on pan and return pan to burner, gently swirling pan while it heats up. When two kernels pop, remove from heat, continue swirling gently, remove lid from pot and hold low over burner for 10 seconds. Return lid to pot and place pot on burner. When kernels begin to pop again, lift pot away from burner and swirl gently again for a few seconds until popping almost stops. Return to burner and when popping begins again lift off burner but hold above the burner, gently swirling while holding the lid slightly agar to let steam escape. As kernels begin to pop vigorously, place pot on burner, tilting the lid open (away from you) a full 1/4″ or so on one side. Popcorn will begin to explode violently . Do not shake pot! Exploding kernels make this unecessary, and full contact with burner should be maintained for this crucial few seconds. When popping begins to slow down, remove from heat, keeping lid ajar, tilt over the serving bowl while popping diminishes, and when pops have slowed to about a second apart (or stopped), remove lid and pour into the bowl.
    Somehow, heating the kernel material as much and as thorouhly as possible before the interior moisture pops it causes a larger explosion and fuller “cooking” and expansion of the kernel. I have used this method to such effect that the final step resulted in the entire pan popping completely in a vigorous 5-6 second burst, with ridiculously big kernels. Heating the lid prevents condensation from forming beneath it. Therefore less condensation is present to rob precious heat, and the popcorn is completely dry and crisp.

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    Popcorn Basics: How to Make Great Popcorn | Fork Fingers Chopsticks…

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