Hot, buttery, salty, crunchy — movie theater popcorn is as much a part of the cinema experience as the movie itself. The aroma beckons moviegoers toward concession stands, but the pay-off to this seductive smell is all too often disappointing, with greasy kernels loaded up with fake butter flavoring.
The fantasy of movie popcorn deserves better. Today, we fulfill the promise of super-buttery, crispy popcorn with the recipe it deserves.
There are a few surprising keys to making the best, buttery, movie-style popcorn and all of them add up to the best bowl of popcorn you can make at home.
How to Make the Most Buttery, Movie-Style Popcorn
The popcorn at the movies isn't made with butter at all. The corn kernels are cooked in coconut or canola oil and sprinkled with a concoction of salt, butter flavorings, and bright-yellow food coloring.
Now, as a person trained in the food science field, I'm not scared of scientific terms found on the back of the box, but that also means I know when back to basics is the way to go. Yellow food coloring doesn't belong in popcorn!
The Best Fat for Movie-Style Popcorn Isn't Just Butter
Having said that, back to basics doesn't mean all butter. Coconut oil is my oil of choice when making stovetop theater-style popcorn. And there's some authenticity to this choice: Some movie theaters also use coconut oil to cook their kernels. I like the flavor this fat adds, so this gives us one piece of the popcorn puzzle.
The Secret to Buttery Popcorn
So, what about the butter, then? When does that come in? Clarified butter is the best bet for coating your kernels. Regular butter contains water and milk solids, which lead to a soggy snack. Clarified butter gives you a clean, rich, buttery flavor.
I like to pour half of the butter, toss, and then pour the remaining half so that you get more even coverage.
You can make your own clarified butter or purchase ghee, a type of clarified butter with even more of the water content removed, for your popcorn.
More on clarified butter: How To Make Clarified Butter and Ghee
The Best Popcorn Kernels for Movie-Style Popcorn
Movie theaters use popcorn that pops into large, irregular snowflake shapes, which come from "butterfly" or "snowflake" kernels. White and yellow popcorn are standard, but heirloom varieties of popcorn come in just about every color of the rainbow. Still, no matter the hull's color, the starch is always yellow or white.
I prefer yellow kernel snowflake popcorn because it replicates the fluffy popcorn from the movie concession stand and because I like the variety in shape and size. Snowflake-style popcorn might sound exotic, but it's the kernel most common to most grocery store brands, including Orville Redenbacher and even Bob's Red Mill.
Know Your Popcorn Basics
A popcorn kernel has three basic parts: the pericarp (hull), the endosperm (starch), and the germ. Popcorn pops when the kernels are heated and the moisture within the endosperm turns to steam, causing the hull to burst under pressure, flipping the kernel inside out.
Since the moisture of the kernels is vital to the pop-ability, be sure to stash your unused kernels in an airtight container in your pantry or cabinet so that they do not dry out.
The Importance of Popcorn Salt (and How to Make Your Own)
Popcorn salt is a finely textured salt that adheres to buttered kernels more easily than a coarse salt, like kosher salt. You can buy a container of popcorn salt rather inexpensively, but it is just as easy to make your own. I grind 1/4 cup of kosher salt in a mortar and pestle, small food processor, or clean coffee grinder until it is very fine. I stash it in a spice jar and label it for future use.
Season the popcorn while it is still hot. The steam from the freshly popped kernels and the warm clarified butter will help the salt stick. I like to use a relatively light pot (my stockpot), rather than a heavy cast iron Dutch oven, so that I can shake the pot while the kernels are popping and to coat it evenly in the clarified butter and homemade popcorn salt.
How To Make the Most Buttery, Movie-Style Popcorn
Makes 3 quarts
What You Need
(3 1/2 ounces) popcorn kernels
(4 tablespoons) clarified butter or ghee, melted
finely ground kosher salt or table salt
7- to 9-quart stockpot with lid
Measuring cups and spoons
Heat the coconut oil: Melt the coconut oil in a 7- to 9-quart stockpot over medium-high heat.
Add tester kernels: Add 3 kernels of popcorn and wait for them to pop. These little guys will let you know when the oil is hot enough to add the remaining kernels.
Add the popcorn and pop: When the tester kernels pop, add the remaining popcorn kernels. They should cover the bottom of the pot in a single layer. Swirl the pot to coat the kernels in the oil.
Continue to pop and shake the pan: Cover, lower the heat to medium, and shake the pan gently while the kernels pop. After about 3 minutes, when the popping slows significantly (1 to 2 seconds between pops), remove from the heat. Continue to shake the pot for another 30 seconds or until the popping stops completely.
Flavor with butter and salt: Pour 1/2 of the butter or ghee over the popcorn, cover, and shake the pot to coat. Pour the remaining butter or ghee over the popcorn and sprinkle with the salt. Cover again and shake. Serve immediately.
Storage: This popcorn is best served immediately while the kernels are still warm and before the real butter aroma dissipates. It can be stored in an airtight container for 1 day; just keep in mind that the kernels will get stale and soften the longer they sit.