How to Make the Most Delicious Popcorn Every Time

By: Kimberly Holland

It's quite possibly the perfect snack—filling, crunchy, salty, healthy—and it's a whole grain. In this guide, learn how to make popcorn on the stove, in the microwave or in an air popper, plus how to add your own flavors.

Popcorn is a universally loved snack. It's nutty and crispy, and it pops up quickly when a craving strikes. It's also inexpensive, which makes it perfect for feeding a movie-night crowd.

You can purchase premixed microwaveable bags of popcorn at the grocery store, but many of them are filled with ingredients and chemicals that aren't too appealing. Fortunately, popcorn is incredibly easy to pop at home. Multiple methods result in slightly different flavors and textures. You also get to control the ingredients you use, which is ideal if you want to avoid the fat and salt that often accompany packaged microwaveable popcorn varieties.

Try These: Healthy Popcorn Recipes

Keep in mind how popcorn pops up: a little goes a long way. Two tablespoons of unpopped kernels make about 3.5 to 4 cups of popped popcorn. That's one serving. If you have a crowd to feed, you may need to pop more, but it may be easier to pop in batches so you get the best results.

How to Make Popcorn on the Stove

Cranberry White Chocolate Popcorn

Pictured Recipe: Cranberry White Chocolate Popcorn

This classic popcorn-cooking method requires oil, unlike the other methods, so your final result will have more calories even without adding any for flavor at the end. However, stovetop popcorn is still healthier and lighter than the kind you'll find at the movie theater, and you can choose the ingredients you use, which makes it healthier than most microwaveable kinds.

1. Add 1/4 cup high-heat oil (see below) to a heavy 5-quart saucepan with a lid. (A Dutch oven also works well for this method.) Heat the oil to the point of shimmering but not smoking.
2. Add two or three kernels to the oil. If the kernels pop or spin, the oil is hot enough. If they don't, wait for them to pop, then add the remaining kernels in a single layer on the pan's bottom. Shake the pan to coat every kernel with oil. Return the pan to the heat.
3. Put the pan lid on, leaving it slightly ajar so some steam can escape.
4. Once you hear the first pop, shake the pan. Keep shaking for 2 to 3 minutes, or until the popping stops. Do not return the pan to the heat.
5. Remove the lid, being careful to avoid the steam and heat as they escape.
6. Add flavorings and toss to coat. Pour into a large bowl. Do not let the popcorn stay in the hot pan; the kernels may scorch.

What's the Best Oil for Making Popcorn?

If you choose to pop your kernels on the stovetop, you need to use an oil that has a high smoke point. That's because you will get the oil very hot before adding the kernels. You don't want to burn the oil before you even get the kernels in the pan.

High-heat oils include coconut, peanut, grapeseed, vegetable, sunflower and safflower.

Low-heat oils like olive oil, walnut oil and avocado oil are great for spraying or misting on the popcorn after the popping is finished for a bit of flavor. Just don't use them to pop the kernels, or you risk a burned flavor.

How to Cook Popcorn in the Microwave

Everything Bagel Microwave Popcorn

Pictured Recipe: Everything Bagel Microwave Popcorn

The store-bought microwaveable popcorn bags are easy because they don't create a mess or dirty up any pans or appliances. You can re-create that familiar method without the chemicals or other ingredients you want to avoid. All you need is a brown paper bag and some popcorn kernels.

In a Paper Bag:

1. Measure 2 to 4 tablespoons of popcorn kernels, and pour them into a paper lunch bag.
2. Fold the top of the bag down about 1 inch. Then fold it 2 more times. The extra folds will prevent the popcorn from popping out during heating, but the bag can still expand as the kernels burst.
3. Place the bag in the microwave, and set it for 3 minutes on High. Do not leave the bag unattended. There is a small risk of burning if the bag overheats.
4. Listen for the kernels to start popping. Once there is a pause of several seconds between pops, stop the microwave.
5. Slowly open the bag. Steam and heat will escape, so hold the bag away from you. Add any oil, butter or seasonings, and shake to coat the popcorn evenly.

In a Bowl:

If you don't have a stash of brown paper bags, you can also microwave popcorn in a large bowl with a makeshift lid made from a dinner plate.

1. Pour 2 to 4 tablespoons of kernels into a large microwave-safe bowl. Place the bowl in the microwave. Top with a large microwave-safe plate. Make sure the plate fits snugly. Loose-fitting plates will allow steam to escape, which may slow popping or prevent the kernels from popping.
2. Set the microwave for 3 minutes on High. Do not leave the bowl unattended.
3. Listen as the popcorn pops. When there is a pause of 2 to 3 seconds between pops, stop the microwave.
4. Remove the bowl from the microwave carefully. Remove the lid, being careful to avoid the heat and steam.
5. Add your desired flavorings, and stir or shake to coat the popcorn evenly.

How to Cook Popcorn with an Air Popper

Lemon-Parm Popcorn

Pictured Recipe: Lemon-Parm Popcorn

The hot-air popper has been around for decades, and it's incredibly easy to use and effective at creating light, fluffy popcorn. Plus, you don't need to use oil to pop the kernels, which can help you save calories for a topping.

1. Slide a large bowl under the popper's spout to catch the popcorn when it pours out.
2. Remove the top of the popper. Measure out 2 tablespoons of kernels, and pour them into the popper. Put the air popper's top in place.
3. Plug in the popcorn maker and switch it on (if necessary; some poppers start to heat up as soon as you plug them in). The machine will heat up and begin to pop the kernels. Carefully tilt the popcorn maker toward the bowl to empty out popped kernels if they don't come out of the spout easily.
4. When the popping slows, turn off (and/or unplug) the popcorn maker.
5. Add oil, butter or preferred seasonings to the popcorn while it's still hot. Stir or toss to coat.

Sweet Chili Popcorn

Pictured Recipe: Sweet Chili Popcorn

What Is Popcorn?

Popcorn is made from the dried kernels of a particular kind of corn. These kernels resemble the corn you see on corn-on-the-cob, but only a certain type of corn has the ability to pop when heated.

Popcorn kernels are made of three key parts: the endosperm, germ and bran or hull. The classic hull color is white or yellow, but popping-corn kernels can be red, black or any number of colors.

When heated, a small bit of water in each kernel turns to steam. This steam creates immense pressure, and the kernel explodes. The hull is torn apart as the endosperm, which is primarily starch, turns into the puffed starch we know as popcorn.

Is Popcorn Healthy?

Popcorn is an incredibly healthy snack. However, it can be prepared in ways that are less than healthful.

For example, 1 cup of air-popped popcorn has about 30 calories, 1 gram of fiber, 1 gram of protein and very little fat. But when you pop it in butter or oil you'll add calories. Every teaspoon of butter adds about 30 calories and a teaspoon of oil adds about 40 calories. Movie-theatre style popcorn can have lots of added calories in the form of buttery topping. Besides fat, popcorn is often flavored with salt. A little salt is fine, but don't go overboard.

Popcorn is also chock-full of polyphenols. These are compounds that have been linked to reduced rates of cancer, improved heart health and better blood circulation.

Popcorn is as healthy as you prepare it. Because you have control over the ingredients when you pop your own at home, you can make popcorn healthy and flavorful without adding too many calories or extra salt.

Confetti Birthday Cake Popcor

Pictured Recipe: Confetti Birthday Cake Popcorn

The Best Way to Flavor Popcorn

Don't add salt, spices or any other flavoring ingredients until after the kernels have popped. Some ingredients, like salt, may prevent kernels from popping properly. It's better to wait until after the popping is complete.

Plus, ingredients adhere better to hot, fluffy popcorn than they do to cold, hard kernels. This will maximize the amount of delicious flavor that reaches your mouth while you're snacking.

Try these flavor ideas: Parmesan cheese, cocoa powder, cinnamon sugar, everything bagel seasoning, honey-peanut.

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How to Make Popcorn Balls
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How to Shop for Healthy Popcorn
Is Popcorn Good for Weight Loss?