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The easier, cheaper way to make air-popped popcorn –

Air poppers: Convenient if you have the space

  Photo: Michael Murtaugh
Photo: Michael Murtaugh

Pros: virtually no unpopped kernels or burnt popcorn, requires no babysitting, faster than stovetop methods, little to no cleanupCons: a single-use appliance that takes up extra space, less crunchy kernels, in some cases must unplug the appliance from the wall to stop the process

Dozens of air popper models are available, but most look and work basically the same as the trusty Presto PopLite that I’ve used for years: Hot air pops the kernels, and a fan blows the popcorn out of the machine and into your bowl. With an air popper, the popped kernels find their way into your bowl without any effort on your part, unlike stovetop methods, which require you to constantly shake or stir the kernels, or microwave methods, which produce the best results when you actively listen for the popping to stop. And since the machine blows the kernels out after they pop, they don’t run the risk of burning. Almost all air poppers come with a removable plastic lid that you can use to measure the amount of kernels you should add; the lid also acts as a receptacle for melting butter or coconut oil as the corn pops. (You may prefer melting butter in the microwave, though; the machine usually runs for only about two minutes, and I’ve found that if the butter is very cold or not cut into small pieces, it usually doesn’t all melt properly.)

 Even when disassembled, an air popper like the Pr
Even when disassembled, an air popper like the Presto PopLite takes up a lot of space for a single-use appliance. Photo: Michael Murtaugh

The downside to air poppers is that they require some space and can’t do anything besides pop popcorn. They’re not huge—roughly the size of a standard drip coffee maker—but an air popper is yet another single-use appliance that you’ll have to store. Because I eat popcorn nearly constantly, I think my Presto PopLite earns its precious cabinet real estate, but in smaller kitchens or for less voracious popcorn appetites, it may be less worthy of such space. And although you don't need to stand by and turn it off as soon as the popping stops, you shouldn’t leave it running endlessly; some people have reported that the removable lid has distorted in such circumstances. The machine is also rather loud. Sure, any popping method produces the noise of exploding kernels, but air poppers add the whirring sound of circulating air.

Cleaning out an air popper is an easy (or rather, a nonexistent) task. Occasionally one errant kernel will escape the fan, and you’ll just need to take it out before you return your popper to the shelf. But even if you don’t, hopefully the kernel will just pop up next time. Other than that, since the machine removes the popcorn itself and requires no oil, there’s nothing else for you to clean (unless you use that lid to melt butter, which again, we don’t recommend).

Popcorn Recipe: Asian

Ingredients: Popcorn kernels, coconut oil, ginger, sea salt.

When you add the kernels, instead of putting butter in the top tray, put a scoop of coconut oil (semi-solid in its natural state). After the popcorn has popped, mix in the coconut oil, then add ginger and a little more sea salt than normal (since coconut oil is seldom salted). You could also add a few flakes of red pepper and coconut for a light, spicy Thai flavor.

Asian ingredients: coconut oil, ginger, sea salt.

Susette Horspool, CC-BY-SA 3.0

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What to look for when Choosing an Air Popper

The first question I would ask myself is: How much popcorn would I typically need to pop at a time? If it’s for two people, any of these poppers will do just fine. If it’s for three or more people, I’d make sure the air popper I pick can handle popping for that many in one or two cycles.

As a side note, if you will be popping regularly for a large family or groups of people, I would recommend taking a look at a bigger popcorn machine. They are not air poppers, but are specifically designed to handle popping large amounts of popcorn in one go.

Next, where will I be storing it? If it’s going to remain on the counter, I would want to make sure it is aesthetically appealing. Whether that is a an R2-D2 design or a fine looking plain color machine, I’d want to make sure it matches my kitchen at least somewhat.

Step 9: Add Kernels

powered by hot air so the top will get hot. if you did keep the top on, use an oven mitt to remove it. other wise poor kernels in and put the top on. it’ll take a minute for the action to start but you can watch them spin while they heat up.

Tip 2: The right amount of kernels

The great thing about the paper bag method over an air popper is the amount! You don’t need that much popcorn, so the brown bag is great for 1 serving.  Tip #2 though, is don’t overfill the bag. It will lead to burned kernels or kernels that are stuck too close to each other and can’t pop properly.  For the perfect amount of air popped popcorn, we use 1/4 cup to 1/3 cup at the most. No more than 1/2 cup of kernels.

How To Make Air-Popped Popcorn

While bagged air-popped popcorn avoids many of the harmful chemicals and added flavorings microwave popcorn contains, it is still often loaded with salts and oils, which equals high calories and saturated fat. To get back to basics and eat some actually healthy popcorn, you have to make it yourself!

To make your own air-popped popcorn, you have a few options. You can purchase specialty equipment, such as a hot air popper. An air popper is a device that uses heat to pop popcorn kernels, sending them up into the plastic guard and out into the bowl. Simply pour the kernels in the air popper and let them pop out into the bowl!

You can also prepare air-popped popcorn by getting your own paper bag, putting some kernels inside and microwaving it, just like microwave popcorn (minus the additives). While this approach is simple, it does involve a bit of trial and error, as well as throwing paper bags in the garbage.

For most people, the best and easiest way to make air-popped popcorn is on the stovetop.

Air-popping popcorn on the stove is incredibly easy, and I guarantee you already have everything you need to make it. The main and most important item you’ll need is a non-stick pot with a lid.

The following recipe is as simple as possible, with no oils or seasonings. After all, it’s called air-popped popcorn, not oil-cooked popcorn. You can add ingredients like olive oil or butter as part of the cooking process, but they are not necessary. If you do want to add butter to your popcorn, put it in the microwave and pour it over the freshly popped popcorn.

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Energy Use Comparison

Air poppers save energy—kinetic (human) and gas or electric, whichever you would otherwise use to make popcorn with if you cooked it over a stove. If you would otherwise use a microwave you will not save energy, but you will have a much better tasting popcorn with the air popper that is also healthier. In what way? You can choose your own toppings (see below) to replace the microwave's fake butter.

The model I use is the West Bend Poppery II. I've been using the same popper since 1989 and have never had any problems. I've been told you can use it to roast coffee, too. West Bend still makes air poppers, even after all these years.

How to Make Air-Popped Popcorn in the Microwave

You’ll need ¼ cup popcorn kernels to start. Add the kernels to the bowl and cover it with a lid. Place in the microwave and set for 6 minutes. Cook until the popping slows to 2-3 seconds between pops. Stop the microwave. The popcorn usually takes around 4-5 minutes to cook, but the time could vary with different microwaves. Listening to the popping is the easiest way to know when your popcorn is finished.

Sidenote – there will still be unpopped kernels in the bowl. If you cook for too long, the popcorn will start to burn, and your house will smell like burnt popcorn.

Once finished, remove the popcorn from the microwave using potholders or a kitchen towel. The bowl will be very hot. Carefully remove the lid and drizzle with olive oil or melted butter. Season with salt or your favorite seasoning blend.

What Is Popcorn, and Why Does It Pop?

Photograph: Shutterstock

Popcorn is one of several types of corn grown and harvested throughout the world. Although other varieties of corn, such as flint and dent, can pop into a crunchy puff, nothing becomes a fluffy snack quite like proper popping corn. This is due to its unique combination of a tough exterior, a densely packed and starchy interior, and 14 to 20% moisture by weight.

Underneath the hull of any kernel of corn, regardless of type, are the corn germ and endosperm. Endosperm is the collection of mostly starch and some proteins that exists inside a seed.* It provides the nutrients and energy for germination.

*Guess what? Corn is considered a seed, a grain, a vegetable, and a fruit!

The endosperm in each variety of corn has a particular ratio of two different forms of starch—amylose and amylopectin—and protein. It’s this ratio that determines the qualities of the corn and, most importantly for our purposes, whether or not it’ll pop.

Amylose is a molecule made up of a long and straight chain of sugars that easily pack into dense and tight configurations, while amylopectin molecules are branched and form weaker clusters. Because popcorn contains a high percentage of amylose relative to other types of corn, it is more densely packed and harder.

When a kernel of popcorn is heated up, the moisture inside it quickly transforms to steam, exerting pressure on the seed from the inside out. Luckily, the tough outer hull is so strong that it can withstand forces up to seven times that of the atmosphere before bursting, giving the dense collection of starches inside plenty of time to soften and hydrate.

Once the hull finally breaks, the tightly packed slurry of high-amylose starch and protein quickly expands due to the dramatic change in pressure, much like whipped cream being ejected out of a pressurized canister. The starch then immediately cools into the crisp, crunchy, and light foam that has us coming back for more.

According to Harold McGee in On Food and Cooking, the ideal temperature for popping corn is around 380°F (190°C). What we need for the best results is a method that gets as many of the kernels as possible to that ideal temp, as evenly as possible. If the popcorn is unevenly heated, any kernels that pop early are likely to burn before the whole batch pops, while also leaving behind too many tooth-cracking un-popped or semi-popped suckers.

Because the outer hull isn’t completely impermeable, timing is also of vital importance. Heating up the kernels too slowly can result in the moisture escaping, leaving behind a surplus of un-popped kernels; heating too quickly means the starch inside won't have a chance to hydrate, resulting in less fluffy popcorn.

Conclusion

At the end of the day, I’ll take popcorn whatever way I can get it—stale, unsalted, even slightly under-popped. But I was surprised to see the great differences between the four methods. I’ve permanently put away my air popper and am now and forever a Whirley Pop believer.

How much oil is added during popping is what will determine whether or not you end up with light and fluffy or dense and crunchy kernels. I’m on #teamlightandcrispy all the way. When it comes to popcorn, I want quantity, and the popcorn popped in the Whirley Pop was light enough for me to easily munch through a full batch.

If you’re on #teamdenseandcrunchy, you may still want that Whirley Pop—you can use the lots-of-fat method in it (covering the Whirley Pop with a clean towel to avoid skin-searing pain) and still take advantage of the even heating offered by the hand crank for even better results.

But definitely don’t take my word for it. Do some popcorn testing of your own, 'cause that’s what Serious Eaters do.

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