Perfect Popcorn

Uncle George was my father’s older brother. He had a farm near Orchard, Nebraska and came to visit Grandma and Grandpa Rang every couple years when I was growing up. He raised corn, hogs and beef cattle. When we visited Uncle George and Aunt Alice and their family in Nebraska one time, my cousin Vernon took me out to see all the piglets. I was seven and Vernon was five.

We climbed over the fence into the farrowing pen and watched the piglets nursing on the biggest sow I had ever seen. I am still impressed by that massive sow. Vernon then showed me the bull, the grain bins and his father’s big John Deere tractor, which also impressed me. It was an exciting introduction to another way of life that I shared with everyone when we came back into the house for supper.

Vernon’s mother was not pleased to hear that we had gone into the pen with the sow. I remember her saying that we could have been attacked and killed. But, young as he was, he had been taught to be careful around the sow. We did not go too close and so we lived to eat a good supper and have a ride around the fences on a wagon pulled behind the tractor.

One time Uncle George brought us some popcorn from his garden. For some reason it had never occurred to me that farmers like Uncle George could grow popcorn, and it prompted me to start begging my father to plant popcorn. When he explained that northern Wisconsin was not a good place to grow popcorn, I just kept saying that maybe if we tried we would have all the popcorn we wanted.

We planted two short rows of popcorn the next summer, and I hoed it with special care. I even carried water in buckets on my wagon to irrigate the rows during a bad dry spell in July. A frost in August before the kernels were hard ended my hopes, and we never tried growing popcorn again. Today I understand that some varieties have been developed that mature in a shorter time.

So we kept buying our popcorn at the A & P or Co-op, and my mother popped lots of it, especially in the winter. Watching “Gunsmoke,” “Dragnet” or “The Red Skelton Show” was even more fun with popcorn fresh from the pan and I think I saw my first Shakespearean play on “The Hallmark Hall of Fame” while chomping away. Mom first popped it in her large frying pan until she got an electric popper.

Our cook at Blair School, the one-room school I attended for three years, popped gallons of popcorn for us about two weeks before Christmas. She and our teacher showed us how to make ropes of popcorn and cranberries that we used to decorate the school Christmas tree. On the day before Christmas vacation, the janitor would show up early, and we would all help move the tree outside so the birds and rabbits would have a special Christmas treat too.

Once I entered college I graduated to an electric popper that was actually a multifunction food cooker used for everything from frying fish to warming soup. Over the years we have used at least two different electric poppers, a popper designed to be held in the fireplace or over a bonfire, many different frying pans and skillets and even those handy little packets you put in the microwave. The one thing that all these devices have in common is that they always leave a bunch of “old maids,” unpopped kernels, in the bottom of the bowl.

When a neighbor gave us an ice cream pail full of premium popcorn kernels last fall, I decided to search the Web for a popcorn recipe that might solve this problem. In a few minutes I found one on a wonderful food blog called “Simply Recipes.” I followed the instructions and am happy to report that it works. The ice cream pail is nearly empty, and I have had fewer than four old maids in any batch. Here is what you do.

INGREDIENTS:

3 T canola oil or other high smoke point vegetable oil
1/3 cup high quality popcorn kernels
Salt to taste

PROCEDURE:

Heat the oil and four kernels of popcorn over medium high heat in a three or four quart covered saucepan or skillet. When the kernels pop, remove the pan from the heat and add the corn. Cover the pan and swirl the kernels in the hot oil for thirty seconds.

Return the pan to the heat. The kernels will begin popping in a few seconds. Gently shake the pan over the burner. After the corn has been popping a few seconds, you can lift the lid slightly while shaking the pan to release any steam.

When the popping slows to a couple of seconds between pops, take the pan from the heat and dump the popcorn into a large bowl. Salt lightly and serve immediately.

NOTES: Popcorn pops because the moisture in the kernel expands when heated. Like any food product, popcorn dries out gradually. When I popped some from a partial bag of popcorn which had been hiding on a shelf for several years at the cabin, only half of the kernels popped, so buy good quality popcorn and try to use it within a year.

Some folks like to add melted butter to their popcorn, and until theaters started using imitation butter I used to order it when we went to movies. I love butter, but it makes my fingers greasy when I am eating popcorn. Besides, popcorn is one healthful food that I like as is. I do have some cheese-flavored salt that is pretty tasty, however.

Elise Bauer has a good explanation of why this method works so well. You can visit her site at simplyrecipes.com.

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About Chuck Rang

Born in Ashland, Wisconsin, grew up near Hayward, lives in New Richmond, messing around in kitchens more than 60 years.
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