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Alimentary, My Dear

Popcorn Blowout Popcorn Blowout

By Tamia Nelson

March 15, 2011

When I was a girl, popcorn was a special treat reserved for weekend sleep‑overs at my grandparents' house. By the time I was a teenager, however, it had become a regular Friday night tradition, to be enjoyed with a glass of soda and a favorite television program. Later on, as a young woman, I often turned to popcorn for a midnight snack after coming home from a late shift on the ward. It was therapeutic as well as tasty. The mingled aromas of popping corn and melting butter helped drive the lingering stink of urine and disinfectant from my nostrils. Then, many years later, the Friday night tradition of popcorn and a movie reentered my life, as a shared pleasure in a little shack on the 'Flow, where windstorms sometimes brought pine branches raining down on the metal roof, winter ushered in week‑long sieges of subzero temperatures, and the nights often reverberated with the cries of hunting coyotes.

Today, though, popcorn has become an infrequent indulgence. Now that I no longer haul water from a spring in six‑gallon carboys or clear snow and ice from a quarter‑mile of rutted road with a pick and shovel, I have to watch what I eat. But I still look forward to occasional popcorn nights. And what better time than on a paddling trip? So it should come as no surprise that popcorn occupies a place near the top of my list of staples whenever I plan backcountry menus. In fact, I've come to think of it as …

The Quintessential Camp Fare

But before we get popping, we better make sure we're calling things by their proper names. This isn't just fussiness for fussiness' sake. Knowing the right words for things makes it easier to talk about them. So here goes: Kernels are the individual seeds of unpopped corn. Once popped, they're called flakes, though a heated kernel that fails to pop, or which splits open without yielding a flake, is known as an old maid.

And what makes popcorn pop? Steam pressure, that's what. In addition to oil, starch, and protein, each kernel contains a tiny amount of water. When heated, this water vaporizes, and the resulting steam eventually ruptures the kernel's hard, impervious hull. The sudden release of pressure then converts the now gelatinized starch and protein into an "airy foam," which blossoms out and cools, yielding the familiar flake. When everything goes well, the resulting popped corn has a mild, sweet flavor, and the flakes are both fluffy and tender, with very few old maids left in the bowl to crack a tooth.

It's easy to see why popcorn is an ideal camp treat. It travels well and — if protected from moisture and mice — keeps just about forever. I've discovered bags of popcorn in the recesses of my pantry that had languished there for years, yet they still popped up flawlessly. Moreover, while you certainly wouldn't want to live exclusively on popcorn, it isn't without real food value, being high in both fiber and carbs. Nutrition aside, it's an unsurpassed filler‑up of odd corners, just what's needed when the typical calorie‑dense camp meal leaves you feeling hungry even after you've eaten. (Popcorn's fiber won't come amiss on long trips, either. Your gut will thank you.)


Speaking of feeling hungry, writing about food always makes me a little peckish, so what do you say we …

Pop Up a Pot?

If the displays in the HyperMart are any indication, popping corn in the old‑fashioned way — heating a pot of kernels on top of the stove — will soon be numbered among the lost culinary arts. Many smaller stores don't even carry bulk popcorn now, preferring to devote their shelf space to bags of pre‑popped, flavored corn and boxes of microwaveable stuff. Don't get me wrong. Microwaveable popcorn isn't necessarily bad — provided you don't inhale — but it's not much use in camp. Current bushes are hard to find in Canoe Country, after all. And I've seldom had microwaved corn that measured up to the real thing. Luckily, though, making popcorn the old‑fashioned way is plenty easy. Here's all you'll need:

Starting Out

What are you looking at? Just this:

  • Popcorn kernels
  • Cooking oil
  • Salt
  • Butter (or some substitute)

You can use as much salt and butter as you like, or as little. (I prefer coarse kosher salt, but that's a matter of taste.) Even with these two optional ingredients, it's a short list, but there are a few questions still to be answered:

White, Yellow, or Something Else?  You can buy popcorn with white kernels or yellow kernels, and if you're willing to pay a bit more — sometimes quite a bit more — you can even get black, blue, or red kernels. But whatever the color of the kernel, the flake will be more or less white. Are there differences in flavor? Yes. But they're pretty subtle, and I'm just not that fussy.

What Size Pot?  The bigger the pot, the bigger the batch. I use the same three‑quart aluminum billy I use to boil pasta — or to heat water for post‑meal clean‑up (and laundry). The lid is domed, as you can see in the photo above, and it also has convenient hinged wire grips. A single "charge" of kernels yields between two and three quarts of popped corn.

Which Oil?  Corn, canola, safflower, and peanut oils are best. These refined oils can all withstand high temperatures before starting to smoke, and popcorn needs very high heat if the kernels are to pop properly. Don't substitute extra‑virgin olive oil or butter, by the way. Their smoking points are too low.

Once you've assembled your ingredients and readied your pot, you're good to go. A few tips:

Test the Oil First.  Drop two or three kernels into the oil as it heats. Now watch the uncovered pot. (Wear glasses. Heated oil sometimes spatters, particularly if there are any drops of water in the pot.) Little bubbles will form around the kernels first, followed by the characteristic pop. These test pops may be a bit on the feeble side, though this doesn't matter. The pop's the thing. Once you hear it, it's time to add the rest of the kernels, but …

Don't Overload the Pot.  Cover the bottom with a single layer of kernels. Period. More is not better! Then put the lid on the pot, taking care to leave it slightly ajar to …

Let Off Steam.  Steam is your enemy. If it's allowed to build up in the pot, the flakes will be tough, rather than tender. And don't forget to …

Shake It Up!  Begin shaking as soon as the pot lid is in place. You'll need to hold the lid to prevent it from closing tight and steaming the corn. Protect your hands with a couple of folded bandannas or a pair of leather gloves. Be careful that you don't tip your stove over, too. A gentle, continuous shake is all it takes, but keep at it until …

The Popping Falters.  You don't want to hold the pot over the flame until the very last pop, however. As soon as the popping slackens — when the intensity drops from rapid to sustained fire, so to speak — remove the pot from the heat and let it sit for a minute or two with the lid ajar while the popping stops. I use this time to melt butter (or some substitute) in a steel cup. Once the last kernel has popped, I drizzle the butter over the corn, sprinkle on a little salt, and give the pot a few shakes to mix things up. (Hold the lid in place!) That's it. You're done.

What did I tell you? Making perfect popcorn is easy — if you follow the rules. But what if a batch falls short of the ideal? The usual suspects are too little heat or ancient, desiccated kernels. And the remedy? Hotter oil or a new batch of popcorn. If you have any doubts about the corn you bought last year — or the year before — just pop up a test batch at home. If it's good, it's good. Pack it up. But if it's bad, you've got time to hit the HyperMart.

Now let's take a closer look at the process. To begin with, use just enough oil to coat the bottom of the pot, though if you're in doubt, it's better to use too much than too little. Next, drop in two or three test kernels. Then, as soon as the first of these pops, add the rest — till you have a one‑kernel‑deep carpet of corn:

In the Pot

Remember to tilt the lid to let the steam escape. Now shake the pot as the kernels pop, keeping it moving till the rate of fire declines noticeably. Once that happens, it's time to remove the pot from the heat and set it to one side to finish popping. This test batch of white popcorn yielded nearly two quarts of pump, tender flakes.

All Het Up

In camp, I add butter and salt right in the pot, but in this kitchen demo, I decanted the popped corn into a large mixing bowl before seasoning. Can you see the black spots in the bottom of the pot in the picture below? They're relics of an earlier batch, when I used too little oil, allowing a small number of flakes to stick and burn. Learn from my mistakes!

Buttering 'Em Up

A word about storage: As I've already mentioned, popcorn keeps a long time if protected from water and mice. But popcorn can also get too dry. While the hulls are pretty watertight, kernels lose moisture if they're stored where temperatures are high and humidity is low. And that's not good. Trapped water is what puts the pop into popcorn, after all. So store your bulk popcorn in an airtight container, and keep this container in a cool, dark place. Unless you're going out in the backcountry for many months, however, storage requirements while under way are less stringent. Doubled freezer bags are all you'll need, though you may want to put the bags in a hard container of some sort to discourage little four‑legged foragers from robbing your stores. They like popcorn, too.


Pretty simple, eh? But maybe it's still not simple enough, or maybe your largest pot is just too small to pop up a good‑sized batch of corn. If so, you're in luck. There's one solution that even "man cooks" can learn to love:

Popcorn in a Jiffy

Aka Jiffy Pop.This popcorn‑in‑a‑pan combo goes back a long, long way. When my grandparents made popcorn for us kids, that popcorn was Jiffy Pop, and we never tired of watching the aluminum foil cover on the pan expand to accommodate the popping corn. It tasted good, too. Which may explain why I yielded to impulse some time back and picked up a Jiffy Pop pan. But then I stuck it in a cabinet and forgot about it. Until recently, that is, when I unearthed it while looking for something else and figured I'd give it a try. I didn't hold out much hope. It had been sitting in the cupboard for at least two years, and the sell‑by date had long since passed. Still, nothing ventured, nothing gained. So I popped it up.

The result? Perfect popcorn. I was pleasantly surprised, of course, but I also realized I'd stumbled on a useful addition to my quick‑and‑easy camp menus. So I bought a couple more Jiffy Pops, just to make sure the first one was no fluke. It wasn't. And popping it couldn't be easier. Here's how it's done:

  1. Pull off the cardboard cover. Do not remove the cardboard tab beneath, however.
  2. Fire up your camp stove and throttle back the flame, if possible. (Though the instructions warn against it, you can make Jiffy Pop over a wood fire, but you'll need to be especially careful if you want to avoid scorched kernels — and hands.)
  3. Place the Jiffy Pop pan on the burner and … listen.
  4. When the contents start to sizzle, begin shaking the pan from side to side, throwing in circular "stirs" from time to time for good measure. Soon you'll hear rapid‑fire popping. Keep shaking.
  5. Then, once the popping starts to slacken somewhat and the dome has expanded to its fullest extent, remove the pan from the flame. (Unless you're a fan of Salvador Dalí's art, don't set the pan down on an overturned canoe.)
  6. Shut off the stove.
  7. Pierce the dome to release the steam. (Jiffy Pop suggests using a fork to do this, but your knife will work just as well.) Lastly, peel back the foil to expose the contents. Serve out or pass around.
  8. Pack out the empty container. Do not try to burn it.

Now here's the Jiffy Pop story in pictures, beginning after the removal of the protective cardboard cover:

The Art of Jiffy Pop

There's a whole lotta shakin' goin' on below, and the corn is starting to pop. Be patient. It takes a bit of time.

Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On

Impressive, no? When the dome gets as big as it is in the next picture, it's time to remove the pan from the flame and pierce the foil.

Bigger and Bigger

And here's the result:

Ready to Eat

Then, just for fun, I added some old‑fashioned popped‑in‑a‑pot popcorn, for a side‑by‑side comparison:

Side by Side

The old‑fashioned popcorn is on the right; the Jiffy Pop, on the left. You can't see much difference can you? Both samples have large, fully formed flakes. You can't taste much difference, either — you'll have to trust me on this one, I'm afraid — though the old‑fashioned popcorn is a bit chewier and just a tad drier. Both were delicious. More, please!

A caveat: As of this writing, each 4‑cup serving of popped Jiffy Pop contains 3 grams of trans fat, most likely from "partially hydrogenated soybean oil." If this troubles you — and it probably should — you'll want to reserve Jiffy Pop for those times when making old‑fashioned pop‑in‑the‑pot popcorn would be a real drag. The old‑fashioned way is cheaper, too. And there's no aluminum foil pan to throw away when you're done. Bottom line? Jiffy Pop may be convenient, and it certainly tastes good, but these virtues come at a price.

Now We're Cooking

When I draw up menus for paddling trips, one item is almost always on my list of staple foods. It's high in carbs and fiber, it travels well, and it keeps almost forever. It's also perfect for filling any empty corners. And what is this miracle fare? Popcorn, that's what. It's cheap, tasty, and easy to make. Simple and good, in other words. So why not give it a try on your next outing? A popcorn blowout is a great way to bring a day on the water to a close.

Copyright © 2011 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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