Thursday, October 23, 2008

Recipe: Dutch Oven Popcorn

A batch of dutch oven popcorn ready to eat

Making popcorn in your cast iron dutch oven is easy and fun.  Compared to microwave popcorn, it's also healthier, less expensive, and keeps nasty chemicals out of our water and air (and your body). Most importantly, it is hands-down the best tasting popcorn you'll ever eat.

My journey with non-microwaved popcorn began as a kid growing up in Michigan.  Whenever there was a tornado warning, we'd head to the basement and wait for mom to come down with blankets and pillows, and dad to come down with the popcorn popper.

Sometimes it was tough to tell the difference between the sounds of branches and garbage cans hitting the sides of the house, and mom and dad rummaging around in the cupboards for the popcorn popper.

As I grew older, I came to understand that meteorologists measured tornadic severity on the Fujita (F1 to F5) scale.  But in our house, tornado severity was measured by how many batches of popcorn we could bust out before the power lines went down.

In the summer we'd go to Minnesota to visit relatives. I remember the first time I saw my Grandpa Frank making popcorn on the stove in a pan. I was at once horrified and awed. It didn't involve the colored plastic contraption I was used to, so I was pretty sure I wouldn't like it. But I was also fascinated by the ease with which grandpa whipped up a batch of corn without any special equipment. While the popcorn could have used more salt (Grandpa Frank had high blood pressure, so most of the salt had been removed from the house), the flavors were rich, earthy, and untrammeled by any unnecessary additions.

In middle school, we were introduced to microwave popcorn. It was quick, salty, and full of God-knows-what. It always tasted a little off to me... but it did the job during the teen years for a quick snack.

When my wife got pregnant with our first child, I banned all microwave popcorn from the house.

People were dying left and right from "popcorn lung" due to the chemicals used to create butter flavoring (is plain old butter really that bad?).  As if that weren't enough, the plastic in microwave popcorn bags had been shown to leach PFOA—a known carcinogen—into the popcorn as it cooked.

I recalled the way grandpa Frank used to do it, and began experimenting with the dutch oven method.

I thought I had it perfected, but recently my brother let me in on his enameled-dutch-oven-low-heat method.   When I lowered the heat from medium-high to medium in my normal dutch oven popcorn recipe, the results were outstanding. Enjoy!

  • 1/3 cup Canola oil and Walnut oil mix, 50/50 mix
  • 2/3 cup Popcorn
  • Salt (to taste)

Heat canola and walnut oil (or any other high-heat oils like peanut, corn, grapeseed, etc.) in a cast iron dutch oven over medium heat.  The oil should be a little less than a quarter inch deep in the pan.

Toss in two "test kernels" of popcorn, place lid on the dutch oven, and wait until they pop. This will probably take 6-9 minutes.  Once they both pop, your oil is hot enough.  At this point, add enough popcorn to cover the bottom of the dutch oven entirely (about 2/3 cup), and replace lid.

Shake pan gently while kernels pop to keep from burning, and keep the lid slightly ajar (half inch or so) to help steam escape.

Stay near your stove while the popcorn pops, it will go pretty quickly (5-7 minutes), and you should shake the pan every 30 seconds or so.

You'll want to dump the popcorn out of the dutch oven once most of it has popped to avoid burning the popcorn on the bottom.  The popping will usually slow down once you get near this point.  The dutch oven will also get full.

After a few times making dutch oven popcorn, you'll be a pro.  Your stove, kitchen, and dutch oven will influence the exact timing for this recipe... and you'll quickly learn to strike the perfect balance between popping most of the kernels but not burning it.  The lower heat of this recipe gives you a bit more latitude, but be sure to err on the side of unpopped kernels.  It's important to point out that 2-3% of the kernels just won't pop no matter what you do to them... so don't try to pop them all!

I like to dump the finished popcorn into a large stainless steel bowl, and then I use a butter knife or single chopstick to mix in salt or other seasonings.  In my house, we had special "popcorn salt" that had been through the blender to make it very fine.  This does help it stick to the kernels, but isn't necessary.  Kosher salt doesn't work too well since it tends to fall off the kernels to the bottom of the bowl. Regular table salt works just fine.

Care of Cast Iron Cookware

Cast iron clean up involves: hot water, a plastic scrubber, heat, and oil

Caring for cast iron is pretty simple once you get the hang of it. Your cast iron skillet or dutch oven wants to remain seasoned. The best way to keep your cast iron cookware seasoned is to use it often and follow these simple steps afterwards:

1. Wash the pan with hot water
2. Scrubbing off any stuck-on crust with plastic bristles
3. Dry the pan with heat
4. Lightly oil the pan while it is hot

Here are the steps explained in a bit more detail:

Washing with Hot Water
Some folks keep their cast iron dirty. They finish cooking in their skillet, and literally throw the thing—full of food residue—into the oven until next time. This doesn't make sense to me.

For starters, in our house we use a cast iron skillet for something every day. When I'm getting ready to cook the boys scrambled eggs at 7:00 am the last thing I need is to start with a skillet reeking of last night's pan-seared salmon. I get lots of questions about flavor carryover from one dish to the next in cast iron, and failing to clean up your skillet makes this problem worse.

Second, cast iron is made of iron. It is susceptible to pitting and other damage from acidic foods. Most human food is acidic. After all, one of only five flavors the human palette is capable of detecting is acidity or sourness. Leaving this acid sitting in your cast iron skillet for days, weeks, or months is just plain silly.

Wash your pans with hot water!

Plastic Scrubbers
I use a Dobie scrubber pad for my cast iron
I wash my cast iron using a "Dobie" plastic scrubber pad. Some folks claim that steel wool or green "Scotch" pads are the cat's meow. To my mind these scrubbers just erode away your hard-earned seasoning and leave little bits of steel or plastic embedded in the seasoning that's left.

Steel wool and Scotch pads can be useful if you've ruined your cast iron through neglect, and need to rescue it. Otherwise stick to plastic.

For heavy soil or for the good of the planet, you can also use the plastic mesh bags that produce comes in to clean your cast iron.

Soaking Cast Iron Pans
If you have encountered sticking while cooking (this is tough to avoid in the early years of your pan with scrambled eggs), it is perfectly acceptable to soak the pan for a few hours. Do NOT soak it overnight or it will rust. The more you use your pan, the more non-stick it will get—and clean-up will get easier and easier.

Using Soap on Cast Iron
Applying soap to a well-seasoned cast iron pan isn't the end of the world, but this course of action is generally frowned upon. The key to healthy cast iron is a deep coat of seasoning and a shiny non-stick surface. While soap won't harm your seasoning, it works against you in the second regard because it cuts grease. Soap can also contribute off flavors to your food at high heat, and adds unsavory chemicals to your culinary projects.

Drying with Heat and Oiling
Always dry your cast iron with stovetop or oven heat
Once cleaned with hot water and scrubbing, place your cast iron on the stovetop on low heat, or in the oven on 250 degrees F or so.

Once your cast iron pan has dried completely (generally just a few minutes on the stovetop, or 10 minutes in the oven), lightly oil it with some canola or other essentially flavorless oil using a paper towel or rag.

Leave it on the burner or in the oven until it cools... and put it away with its light coating of oil.

If your cast iron pan gets too hot during drying and loses that sheen of oil, simply turn off the heat re-oil it until the oil stays shiny and unblemished (no longer burns off or mottles). This heating and re-oiling helps contribute to the ongoing seasoning of the pan... so feel free to do this from time to time for the sheer sake of your pan's seasoning development.

My paper towel after oiling a skillet
To take this an extra step (not a bad idea periodically), follow the directions for seasoning cast iron to help bring your pan ahead of its peers, and a step closer to heirloom status.

Types of Cast Iron Cookware

Cast iron cookware comes in all shapes and sizes
Your cast iron skillet is a workhorse of cancer free cookware. This culinary standby has been in use on this continent since the beginning of Western colonization, and has roots going back over a thousand years in Europe and elsewhere.

A good cast iron skillet is ideal for steak, pork chops, chicken breasts, and fish. It is also your best friend for scrambled eggs, fried eggs, omelettes, and frittatas. It makes amazing pancakes, authentic quesadillas, insane cornbread, and positively ludicrous oven-baked home fries.

Your dutch oven, another storied member of the cook's healthy living toolkit, is out-of-this world for popcorn, and is solid gold for longer-cook dishes like chili, stew, and spaghetti. Lewis and Clark remarked that their dutch oven was one of the most valuable items in their cross-continent journey.

There are two main types of cast iron dutch oven: regular old seasoned (black) cast iron, and enameled cast iron. There are advantages and disadvantages to enameled and bare cast iron. Among regular cast iron (not enameled) dutch ovens, there are stovetop / oven models, and also models designed for outdoor open fire cooking. Camp dutch ovens typically have little legs on the bottom, and have lids designed to hold coals from the fire.

A dual use griddle/grill pan is dynamite for pancakes, fried eggs, and quesadillas, as well as a host of other meats and veggies that require a bit more real estate to sear off and/or could benefit from grill marks and flavor.

There are a number of lesser-known sizes and shapes of cast iron cookware, from corn cob-shaped cornbread forms to waffle irons and loaf pans. But the basics remain the same: care and regular use will make them last generations.