Popped kernels of popcorn

What’s the best way to make microwave popcorn?

Are there easy ways to make microwave popcorn taste better, or pop more completely?

Picking a popcorn? Start with the yum factor

For most people who think of popcorn in the context of movie theaters, only the buttery, salty richness of theater-style microwave popcorn will do. So that’s your first tip: Get the kind of popcorn you like.

Yes, it sounds really basic, but a lot of people buy the diet version and wonder why their popcorn tastes and feels like they’re eating packing peanuts. (On the other hand, some people like to keep it simple, which is certainly cool if that’s your preference.)

Why it pops

To get your popcorn right, it helps to know why it pops in the first place. The awesome science geeks at NASA once explained it like this:

“Each kernel contains a small amount of water stored in a circle of soft starch inside the hard outer casing. When heated to around 450 F, the moisture turns to steam, creating pressure within. As the pressure builds, the casing eventually gives way, and the kernel explodes and pops, allowing the water to escape as steam and turning the kernel inside out.”

Best microwave popcorn tips

Start by making sure that the bag of popcorn you’re going to microwave hasn’t passed its sell-by date. (If the date isn’t on the bag, check the box.) Having a fresh bag of popcorn will help ensure that the kernels haven’t dried out, making it impossible for them to pop.

Then you might want to consider prepping the microwave. Put 1 cup of water in a microwave-safe cup or bowl, and run it in the nuker for one minute, then take it out just before you start your bag of popcorn. This is thought to help add moisture to help more of the kernels to pop, but the logic isn’t entirely clear.

Be sure to follow the package directions — remove the outer plastic wrap, put the one bag at a time in the center of the microwave, and make sure you have the correct side up as indicated on the bag.

Before popping your corn, check the timing suggestions on your brand, but remember that not all microwaves are the same. Stand by as you cook the popcorn so you can shut it off when things slow down there’s more than second or two between pops. This might mean you microwave the bag for less time than the package suggests.

On the other hand, sometimes you might need a little more cooking time. If you think that might be the case, we recommend putting a little extra time on the timer before you start cooking it in case the bag is still actively popping when the oven was set to end. Once the popping stops, you can’t really restart it.

Shake the bag carefully when you get it out of the microwave, to evenly distribute all the salt and/or other flavor. And, of course, open the bag very carefully, because the steam can burn.

Bag of microwave popcorn
Photo by theunplannedcreative via Twenty20

Popcorn… a health food?

“Popcorn may be the perfect snack food. It’s the only snack that is 100 percent unprocessed whole grain,” said Joe Vinson, PhD, a professor of chemistry at the University of Scranton in Pennsylvania.

“One serving of popcorn will provide more than 70 percent of the daily intake of whole grain. The average person only gets about half a serving of whole grains a day, and popcorn could fill that gap in a very pleasant way.”

Researchers have discovered that the hulls of the popcorn — the part that has a tendency to get caught in the teeth — actually has the highest concentration of polyphenols and fiber.

“Those hulls deserve more respect,” said Vinson. “They are nutritional gold nuggets.”

How you prep and serve popcorn can quickly change the overall benefits, though — such as adding lots of butter (or the kind of fake butter used in many movie theaters), or pouring on the salt or sugary toppings.

While air-popped popcorn has the lowest number of calories, Vinson said, “Microwave popcorn has twice as many calories as air-popped, and if you pop your own with oil, this has twice as many calories as air-popped popcorn. About 43 percent of microwave popcorn is fat, compared to 28 percent if you pop the corn in oil yourself.”

Popcorn ratings

The choice of brands is completely a matter of personal taste, but if you’re interested in some ratings and reviews…

Microwave popcorn ratings from Real Simple:

  • Best Butter Microwave Popcorn: Orville Redenbacher’s Old-Fashioned Butter
  • Best Low-Fat Microwave Popcorn: Orville Redenbacher’s Organic Smart Pop! Butter
  • Best Plain Microwave Popcorn: Bearitos Organic No Oil Added Lightly Salted

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