A healthy, whole grain snack, popcorn is quick and easy to make on the stove top. All you need is a pot, a lid and some oil. Once popped, season the popcorn to taste -- with salt and sugar for kettle corn or with dried spices for a savory, low-sodium treat. Carefully control the heat so you don't end up with charred kernels, and consider the type of oil you use, as it affects the flavor of your popped corn.
The Pot and the Oil
Choose a heavy-bottomed pot with a well-fitting lid. The larger the base of the pot, the more popcorn you can make at one time. Because all of the kernels need to be heated to pop, too small a pot will lead to overcrowding and many unpopped kernels. Try to fit all of the kernels in one layer in your pot. Use 1/4 cup of oil for every 1 1/2 cups of dried kernels. Choose any type of oil -- olive, vegetable or even bacon grease -- but avoid butter, as the milk solids burn during cooking.
Adjust the Heat
Heat the oil on high until it is just shimmering. You want the temperature to be between 400 to 460 degrees Fahrenheit to start the popping, which means that the oil is very hot but not smoking. Test the heat of the oil by adding one or two kernels to the hot oil. If they pop quickly or spin, the oil is ready. Add the kernels to the oil and shake the pot to evenly coat all the kernels. Place the lid on the pot and lower the heat to medium or medium-high to avoid charring the popcorn.
To ensure that all of the kernels are exposed directly to the heat of the pot, toss the popcorn after every minute of cooking. Holding the lid on tight, give the pot a shake and place it back on the burner. This minimizes the amount of unpopped kernels and reduces the chances that popped kernels burn from prolonged exposure to the heat of the pan. Remove the popcorn from the heat as the popping slows down. When there is a space of two seconds or more between pops, your popcorn is done and should be removed from the heat. On an electric stove, it can take two to three minutes for a 1-cup serving of popcorn to finish popping.
Kettle corn seasoning is added during -- rather than after -- cooking. For kettle corn, add sugar and a small amount of salt. Use a 1-to-2 or 1-to-1 ratio of white sugar to unpopped popcorn, with no more than a teaspoon or two of salt. Add the salt and sugar, to the pan along with the unpopped kernels. Stir the popcorn quickly to ensure even distribution, cover the pot and place it on the burner. Pay very close attention during the popping process, as the sugar can easily burn. For the same reason -- to prevent sticking and burning -- toss the popcorn more often. Pour the finished popcorn onto a baking sheet to cool immediately after it is finished popping. Leaving it in the pot will lead to sticky, clumpy kernels that may become stuck to the pan.
Season popcorn as soon as it is finished popping. The heat of the kernels makes it easier for the seasonings to stick. While salt and pepper, along with clarified butter or olive oil, are classic choices, be more adventurous by raiding your spice cupboard. Smoked paprika, roasted sesame seeds, curry powder, garlic powder and steak spice make for tasty, easy add-ons. Grind dried herbs, such as rosemary or thyme, into a powder before sprinkling it over the popcorn. Or use fresh minced herbs, like sage, and toss the popcorn to ensure even coating.