Can You Make Stovetop Popcorn With Water Instead of Oil?

Putting Tips to the Test in The Kitchn

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In my quest to put the Internet's most intriguing, promising and potentially mind-blowing tips to the test, I stumbled onto a tip I had never heard before: you can pop popcorn on the stove with a tablespoon of water instead of oil. A fat-free popcorn option for those of us without an air popper or a microwave? I was definitely intrigued, but would this technique actually work? I had to put it to the test.

The Original Tip

This method seems to originate from the America's Test Kitchen Healthy Family Cookbook, although I learned about it somewhere on the web and subsequently found a couple food blogs that recommended the technique:

How to Pop Popcorn in Water - Eve's Garden of Eatin'
Water-Popped Parmesan Popcorn - Foodtastic Mom

Both recipes have you warm a heavy pan over medium-high heat for two minutes, add 1 tablespoon water and 1/2 cup popcorn kernels, cover and shake frequently until the first few kernels pop, then continue shaking until the popping slows.

The Testing Method

I make stovetop popcorn at least a couple times a month, so I already have the perfect pot for making popcorn on the stove, and know how high to turn the heat to pop all the kernels without a risk of scorching.

I tried this technique three times and made one batch with my usual method.

  • Round 1: I missed the direction to shake the pot vigorously while waiting for the kernels to pop, so these results can be disregarded.
  • Round 2: I followed the instructions exactly.
  • Round 3: I reduced the heat, to medium instead of medium-high.
  • Round 4: I used my normal stovetop method to pop popcorn, which uses oil.
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Clockwise from top right: Round 4, Round 3, Round 2, Round 1

The Results

Not good, guys. Not good.

Round 1: Burned kernels that never popped. No surprises there, since I didn't shake the pan while the kernels were heating.

Round 2: Burned kernels that never popped. I shook the pan vigorously and frequently, but after about 3 minutes of that, I peeked into the pan and found a pile of slightly scorched, dry-looking, unpopped kernels.

Round 3: Burned, mostly unpopped kernels with a few popped pieces. I turned down the heat to medium, thinking that might help get the kernels popping before they had a chance to burn. After 3-4 minutes, I started to hear popping and peeked in to find that the majority of the kernels had already scorched.

Round 4: Perfect stovetop popcorn — not made with water. After all that scorching and looking down sadly at unpopped kernels, I was dying for some actual popcorn, so I made a batch as a normally do, starting with a couple tablespoons of oil. This was also a good way to make sure there wasn't anything wrong with my popcorn kernels. Nope. This popcorn was perfect.

Verdict: This is not a mind-blowing tip.

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Final Notes

I don't think this method is impossible; obviously it worked for at least two bloggers, and perhaps I was doing something wrong while trying it out. But I think that in order to count as truly helpful, a tip should be easily reproducible by almost anyone. I am not a stovetop popcorn novice and really wanted this technique to work, but there are only so many bowls of sad, scorched popcorn kernels I can look at before I throw in the towel — and grab the bottle of oil to make a batch of popcorn the old-fashioned way.

Have you ever tried this method? Did it work for you?

(Image credits: Anjali Prasertong)