What is all the fuss about popcorn? So were my thoughts when I arrived in America as a young adult from Germany. It’s fair to say I didn’t appreciate popped corn at all, let alone ever made it. I just remembered having eaten some boring bagged dried-out kernels in my teens.
Suddenly, I was surrounded by people who seemed to be eating popcorn all the time. And who sprinkled the aisles in movie theaters with kernels as if they were trying to find their way home in a forest. So I tried some. But the kernels those ultra-cool machines heaped into giant containers never popped for me. Instead, when I tried the “butter-flavored” type I thought this is how car oil must taste. Forgive me, people — I love butter but this flavor just didn’t cut it.
The biggest surprise came a few years later when I became a food writer and learned that you can actually make popcorn at home. In minutes. Without special equipment. And it is cheap, even if you buy good-quality organic popping corn. Still, I never tried it. But then came Trader Joe’s with its olive oil popcorn in a bag. It has three ingredients: popcorn, olive oil and salt. That really got me going. I can do this, I said. I can. And I tried. And tried, and ultimately came up with this super-simple olive oil popcorn what I now consider the best of all popcorns, in all modesty. My version is sprinkled with Aleppo pepper which adds intense fruitiness and a touch of heat, and a bit of precious flaked Maldon sea salt, crushed between your fingers.
Along the way I studied at least two dozen recipes, and tried different techniques. And struggled. The biggest problem: lots of un-popped stone-hard kernels left in each batch to break your teeth. At least that’s what it feels like when you bite into on one by mistake. The most valuable advice came from the tireless tinkerers at Cook’s Illustrated who taught me a couple crucial steps. This includes the use of 3 “test” kernels to indicate the optimal popping temperature of 380°F, and the even more important 30-second wait in step 2 of my recipe below. This heats the kernels to the same temperature which means they will pop at about the same time. The result: not a single un-popped kernel in batch after batch. Now go pop your own!
Popcorn with Olive Oil and Aleppo Pepper
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1/3 cup plus 1 tablespoon (75 g) popcorn kernels, preferably organic
1/2 teaspoon Aleppo pepper, more to taste (see note below)
1/4 teaspoon flaked sea salt or fine sea salt, or to taste
1 Add the olive oil and 3 of the popcorn kernels into a heavy-bottomed 4-quart pot. Cover and heat over medium heat until the kernels pop, 3 to 4 minutes.
2 Remove the pot from the heat, add the remaining popcorn, cover, and wait for 30 seconds. Return the pot to medium heat. Once you hear the first kernels pop, start shaking the pot—be sure to keep the lid slightly ajar to allow steam to escape but not too much so the kernels don’t fly out. Shake the pot constantly until the popping slows down noticeably, to 1 or 2 seconds between pops, about 1 minute.
3 Immediately dip the popcorn into a large bowl and sprinkle with the Aleppo pepper. Crush the salt flakes between your fingers and sprinkle on top. Eat warm, or store in a container with a tight-fitting lid if you can restrain yourself.
Aleppo pepper: If you have never tried Aleppo pepper get ready to get addicted to its rich character—from intensely fruity to smoky with just the right kick from heat, more subtle than spicy hot. This coarse dried chile from Turkey, locally known as pul biber, is named after the city of Aleppo in Syria. Ever since I had my first taste, Aleppo pepper is the first spice I reach for almost every day.