05/31/2010 11:54 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Joy of Popcorn

Is there anyone, save Professor Hathaway from the 80s cult film Real Genius, who doesn't love popcorn?

Despite a quick online search turning up such non-sequiturs as Jiffy Pop being listed in the gourmet food section at, the best popcorn is still made from scratch, over a stove or open flame, and never, ever in a microwave oven. Granted, it is true that the microwave stuff only takes three minutes, and many of us have children who stand in front of said microwave screaming "hurry up" as the LED timer ticks past 1:30. It can be said that there is tradition behind microwave popcorn as well, since according to the Popcorn Board (a nonprofit promotional organization) popcorn was the very first use of microwave heat. Nonetheless, for flavor and yes -- nutrition -- you can't beat the real thing. And the real thing takes 10 minutes; worth it by anyone's measure.

I live in Iowa, after all, and if anyone knows anything about corn it would have to be us. One of the most famous companies to produce the prodigious snack is Jolly Time, of Sioux City, which has been selling popcorn for more than ninety years, but it goes back much further than that. It was a staple for the Aztecs and Incas, used as a food, as decoration and jewelry, and as an offering to the Gods.

The moldboard plow made the planting of corn much easier by the mid 1800s, and by the end of that century popcorn was popular all over the United States, a popularity that would grow for 70 years unabated. Popcorn companies did well during the Depression because their product was cheap -- until the advent of television. Movie attendance declined and with it, the consumption of popcorn. But as people began to make popcorn at home, its popularity resurged. Of course, it is still a virtual requirement in movie theatres.

To make great popcorn start with fresh corn kernels. The best way to assure this is to buy straight from the farmer who grew it, perhaps at a farmers' market, or find another local source, such as the delightful little kernels from K & K's "Tiny but Mighty" in Shellsburg, IA.

I used to recommend corn oil for popping, but these days so much of it is laced with genetically modified corn that I can't recommend it. I now use another Iowa product, called Iowa Naturals, which is soy bean oil that contains no GMOs, has a very light (almost nonexistent) flavor and a very high smoking point, so it won't burn easily.

In a large stockpot with a tight fitting lid, heat three tablespoons of oil. Add just two or three kernels of your favorite popcorn. Meanwhile, in a separate pan, melt real butter (not margarine) until just liquid -- do not boil.

When those first couple of kernels pop, the oil is hot enough. Add one-third of a cup of popcorn, then cover tightly with the lid. Hold the lid down using hot pads and shake the pan vigorously, once every 10-15 seconds. Do not leave unattended.

Listen for the popping to subside to one pop every few seconds, then carefully remove the lid, watching out for steam. Pour into a very large bowl and dress alternately with the melted butter and kosher salt, mixing between each addition. Serve immediately with your favorite movie.