A well-executed batch of popcorn is like so many other things in life: Finesse improves the result.
Kristina L. Kern can attest to that. In 2012, the Washington resident started Stella*s PopKern, a gourmet popcorn catering company with a food truck. (The asterisk is a signature: Stella is her 11-year-old daughter; their last name is fitting for the business.)
In short order, Kern learned which varieties and colors of kernels work best as conveyances for combinations such as Sriracha with lime sea salt, Tex Mex and salted caramel.
“Popcorn is the perfect vehicle to carry flavors,” she says.
A mix of snowflake or butterfly-type kernels provides a variety of textures in one bite and affords nooks and crannies for cradling a shower of mix-ins. Mushroom popcorn, so named for its cloudlike formations, is airy enough to melt in your mouth but sturdy enough for drizzles of infused oils or dark chocolate.
Through testing, Kern discovered that virgin coconut oil works best for popping mushroom kernels, while canola is her choice for other varieties. She uses fine rather than coarse sea salt, so the crystals don’t simply fall through to the bottom of the bowl. Spiced or herbed popcorn that’s a few days old can be recrisped in the oven with a brief blast of 350-degree heat followed by a few more minutes of cool-down time with the oven off.
She works popcorn into a dinner party by setting small bowlfuls of various flavors on the table so guests can snack or add crunch to a first-course salad or soup — it’s popcorn as the new crouton. Her garlic ghee popcorn tops a grilled, herbed branzino.
Preparation tips and novel uses for popcorn are Wendy Boersema Rappel’s bread and butter. As spokeswoman for the Popcorn Board, a national commodity and research program formed in 1998, she’s used to dispensing information and correcting misperceptions about the whole-grain snack food whose consumption in America has risen in each of the past five years, to 4.8 billion “eatings” in 2012, according to market research firm NPD.
For best results, she says, store the kernels at a cool room temperature in an airtight container for up to 12 months; that is a change from the board’s official advice of years ago, when it recommended freezer storage.
When cooking popcorn on the stove top, heat a deep pot over high heat for one or two minutes, then add enough oil to almost cover a single layer of kernels. But before you pour in the lot, drop in two or three kernels. Once they start to pop, add the rest. Put on the lid — some people prefer a weighted splatter screen — and shake to make sure the kernels are coated and have contact with the bottom of the pot. Do not walk away.
The popcorn is close to being done when the popping sounds slow to two-second intervals. Turn off the heat, Rappel says, then let it rest for 15 seconds. No further popping sounds means the popcorn is done. Immediately transfer to a bowl and add salt or other flavor agents, shaking thoroughly to disperse them.
If there are unpopped kernels left over, toss them out. They probably didn’t have the moisture content needed to do their thing.
Sound like fuss instead of finesse? You might have been seduced by the ease of microwave popcorn, made safer some six years ago when major American popcorn manufacturers removed the flavoring chemical diacetyl from their products. But chemicals that are used to coat the bags still lurk within; so might trans fats. Rappel warns against popping corn in plain brown bags unless they are specifically designated food- and microwave-safe.
Calorie counters appreciate air-popped popcorn, cooked without oil. A whispery application of cooking oil spray on the still-hot popcorn will help spices and flavorings stick, Rappel says. And if oil is not an option, the popped corn can be coated with egg white, seasoned, then crisped in the oven.
Talk popcorn on today’s Free Range chat at noon: live.washingtonpost.
com. Share your best tips for making popcorn in this story’s online comments. To follow Stella*s PopKern on Twitter: @stellaspopkern.