I came to kettle corn late. Although I had tried it a few times in the past I never embraced it until this summer when friends of ours brought a bag when they came to visit. They left the bag behind and I happily finished the entire thing in one afternoon, thereafter branding myself as "the one who ate all our popcorn" in their young son's eyes. Never-mind that they had already left and the popcorn was officially mine at that point, in Antonio's mind I will forever be the one who ate all his popcorn. Oh well.
I knew that keeping kettle corn at home was a very bad idea. Nevertheless a few months later I was on the hunt and bought a bag of kettle corn from the supermarket and a microwave version to try at home. Needless to say both of these were terrible. You cannot make kettle corn in the microwave, it is impossible. I have no idea what went wrong with the pre-made version though because it would seem to me that kettle corn would be even easier than say, Smartfood, to bag and sell commercially. (In creating that link I discovered that Smartfood makes Kettle corn. Who knew?) Real kettle corn is characterized by the fact that sugar begins to melt and caramelize on the corn so that when it's done the flavor is somewhere between a golden popcorn ball and caramel corn. Sprinkling sugar over popped corn creates a pale, sad imitation of the real thing. No cooked sugar means no complexity, no little burnt bits or toffee-like bites, no super crunchy goodness where every salty sweet mouthful is slightly different from the one before. Clearly it was time to hit the kitchen.
I read a variety of recipes online and the proportions and instructions are all pretty much the same. You start with 1/4 cup of vegetable oil in a large pot, 1/2 cup of popcorn kernels, 1/3 cup sugar and 3/4 teaspoon salt. Put three popcorn kernels in the pot with the oil, cover and set it over medium high heat. Make sure it's not too noisy in the kitchen so you can actually hear when the kernels pop. Once this happens add the remaining popcorn and pour the sugar and salt over the top. Cover the pot and begin to shake, keeping it over the heat as you do so. Once most of the popcorn has popped, pour it out into a bowl and serve. Sounds simple right? In reality not so much.
Let's start with the popcorn. The type of kernel matters. Bigger kernels mean a better bite. Mushroom and butterfly varieties are recommended. I use the mushroom myself because that's what I can get at my local Amish market but plain old white popcorn kernels will do in a pinch. Better to use what you have than go without. Speaking of kernels, they may look and feel dry but there must be moisture inside them in order to pop. So once you open a bag of kernels you are supposed to keep them in a sealed container in the refrigerator. It's a good idea to pull them out early and let them come to room temperature before you put them in the pot with the oil or you will be shaking your pan for quite some time before your kernels start to pop. It's not a bad workout but things move much more quickly if cold kernels don't drop the temperature of your oil.
Once the popcorn starts popping, shake harder. Do not attempt to get every kernel to pop. This results in burnt caramel popcorn, which I can tell you from experience is not delicious. Have a sheet pan lined with parchment paper nearby and once the popcorn slows down, remove from heat and immediately pour it out onto the sheet pan. Spread it out on the pan and let it cool for at least 5 minutes. If you the pour the popcorn out quickly, any burnt pieces will end up on top of the pile and are easily removed without contaminating the rest. The kettle corn crisps up as it cools and the flavors come together. While you may not be able to resist tasting it right out of the pot, I guarantee it will taste better once it cools. Break it up and serve. Kettle corn will keep in an airtight container for a few days. I've never had a batch last longer than two days but I feel certain that with that protective layer of sugar on the outside it will keep for up to a week. Now go and make your own. You'll never buy the fake kind again.
January 18, 2009
January 18, 2005