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!


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

Procedure
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.

28 comments:

  1. So good!

    I used 1/2 canola and 1/2 peanut oil, which gave it a subtle nutty flavor.

    The finely ground salt really made a difference--I've been making air popped popcorn for my whole life and I've always had that problem with the salt falling to the bottom. I just used a mortar and pestle to grind the salt while the first two kernels were popping (they popped more quietly than I expected!)

    I'll definitely have to experiment with different oil to see what kinds of flavors I get!

    Thanks!

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  2. Thanks for the report from the field, Kira.

    Glad to hear it turned out tasty.

    Sesame oil is kinda fun, too... but a bit non-traditional. Have fun!

    -D

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  3. I quit the microwave popcorn several months ago and started popping it in my old dutch oven. It is the best popcorn I've ever ate in my life, no going back to the microwave bag for me! I mostly use Canola oil but have had success with extra virgin olive oil for a healthier version. I know it has a lower smoke point but it works fine on a medium heat setting.

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  4. Hi Pat! Congrats on ditching microwave popcorn. Yeah, using medium heat you can use lots of fun oils to add flavor. And the taste of dutch oven popcorn is unbeatable! Thanks for stopping by.

    -Derek

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  5. You have to try this with better quality popcorn, it makes this excellent popcorn recipe even better. I use popcorn that is heirloom from Amish country; you will never go back to the regular store stuff.

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  6. How does a guy in Colorado get his hands on heirloom Amish popcorn? Would love to try it. Thanks!

    -Derek

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  7. http://amishcountrypopcorn.com/ is where I buy mine. There are a lot varieties, some are heirloom, some are not; all are steps above the the regular store brands. Anyways, love your site, great info.

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  8. I'll check it out. Thanks for the info... and kind words.

    -Derek

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  9. Thanks for the lower heat advice.

    I add the salt to the oil so it starts to coat the popcorn before it's in the bowl.

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  10. Hey Ranee,

    You're welcome! Great idea on the salt. Thanks for your comment!

    -Derek

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  11. Try adding a tab of butter right after you add the kernels. Gives it a nice, slight buttery taste.

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  12. Hey Max,

    Thanks for the tip! Sounds like a sensible idea. I'll give that a try next time.

    -Derek

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  13. I raised my daughters on stove made popcorn. We always used a tall 8 qt Revere Ware stockpot. but the bottom of the stock pot is kind of thin, and so it doesn't hold an even heat -- especially on a solid surface stove that cycles on and off -- so to keep the pan from cooling and the popcorn popping, the temp just keeps getting turned up, and then more kernels burn. I really like the idea of the cast iron, and can hardly wait to try using a heavier pot, and the lower, more consistent heat!

    By the way, Morton Nature's Seasons blend (regular or low sodium -- both GF) and a bit of nutritional yeast make a dynamite flavor combination on popcorn! and a great way to get some B vitamins with your snack! We like the flavor so much, it doesn't even need butter.

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  14. Howdy,

    I do think you'll have an easier time maintaining even heat and avoiding burned kernels with cast iron. Let us know how it goes! And thanks for the tip on the Morton's. Have to try that out.

    Thanks for stopping by!

    -Derek

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  15. Awesome website! I recently bought a bare cast iron dutch oven have been looking for recipes and found your site. So last night after cooking dinner in it, my kids and I cooked some popcorn and it was great. We used coconut oil and after it was done and in a bowl squeezed some fresh lime with some sea salt and a touch of butter. Looks like a repeat tonight! Thanks - Jerry

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  16. Hey Jerry,

    Thanks for the kind words... and welcome to the ranks of dutch oven popcorn converts. Fresh lime, sea salt, and butter sounds outstanding!

    Thanks for stopping by.

    -Derek

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  17. I want to do this in the mountains with my Dutch oven using briquettes instead of a stove. I think it would be hard to "shake" it while it's popping. Anyone tried that? If so, how many briquettes on top/bottom?

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    Replies
    1. I have not ever cooked with briquettes, but I would guess 8 or so would provide about the right heat.

      I bet you could gently shake the dutch oven using heavy leather gloves (recommended campfire cooking equipment!). For more on that, see my post on campfire cooking with a dutch oven.

      Hope that helps!

      -Derek

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  18. Derek, I ran some experiments and found out what you have to do to cook over charcoal briquettes. All tests were with a 12" camp dutch oven and used peanut oil. One of my favorite hamburger places (Five Guys) uses peanut oil to cook the fries so I figured that would be a good high temp oil. Test #1-used 12 coals in a ring under the oven, no coals on top. Did NOT create enough heat. Gave up after 30 minutes. Test #2-14 coals evenly spaced under the oven. Once again NOT enough heat. The oil bubbled a little around the test kernals but they never popped. Test abandoned after 30 minutes. Test #3, decided to ramp up the heat all the way. 25 coals (full compliment) under the oven. It worked and I got popcorn. In fact I was able to cook 2 batches over the same coals. I bet I could have done a third. It takes about 10-12 minutes (give or take a minute or two) from putting the oven over the coals with oil to finishing. I used my big Lodge leather gloves and shook the oven frequently. It's not hard to shake the oven. I lifted it up off the coals and shook and then set it back down. I did keep the lid ajar to vent steam. Oh, I did get hit a time or two with hot oil droplets. Also got a fair amount of unpopped kernals. It seemed like I "ran out" of oil so rather than burn things I called it good. Summary: It works over coals, I used 25 under the oven (none on top). From starting coals to first batch being done it's about a 25 to 30 minute process (15 minutes to get coals really going plus 10-15 or so minutes cooking time). Hope this helps!

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    1. Well played, sir! This is great. Yeah, it's really hard to translate between coals from a blazing wood campfire and charcoal briquettes. This is a seriously awesome bunch of research into the matter...

      Hope the popcorn was tasty.

      Thanks for posting!

      -Derek

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  19. hey all...
    for me there's not better down time then popcorn and a movie...been doing it since my first job at 15 when i was a snack bar and ticket attendant...i never made my own though because up until recently I've been using Micro or Hot Air, both of which are less appealing then stove-top...the big problem I'm having is burn burn and not much popping...also, i love my popcorn slightly buttered and sweet...the butter seems to always ruin the texture and shape, is there a way to correct this as i have tried putting butter in the dutch oven but it always burns...as a matter of fact, every oil i've used burns-canola, olive oil, butter, peanut oil and what up with the popcorn-it must be too old?? does anyone know if the Amish is GMO or know where I can purchase GMO popcorn??...Help!! what a rookie i am ... tonight no popcorn with movie..sad face ... thanks in advance for all the feedback
    badpopcornmaker

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    1. Howdy,

      Sorry about all the trouble you've been having! I think the key is to stick with medium heat. It takes quite a while to heat the dutch oven up on medium heat... hence the two test kernels. Once it gets going, however, it may even be necessary to lower the heat further to avoid burning. Grapeseed oil is known for its high-heat characteristics, so if you're still having trouble, you could try that. Hope that helps!

      -Derek

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  20. Yum! This worked brilliantly. We ground the salt in a mortar and pestle, as was suggested.

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    1. Glad to hear it. Thanks for stopping by!

      -Derek

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  21. Hey Derek... Cool site! I have read online that some people claim that cooking popcorn inside a Dutch Oven like the Le Crueset is not good because they claim that the popping of the kernels inside can potentially damage the enamel, and thus ruin your pot.

    In your years of popping popcorn inside a Dutch oven, have you ever noticed this to be true?

    Thanks.

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    Replies
    1. Howdy,

      First off, sorry for the late reply (long story).

      I have never had any trouble with my enameled dutch oven due to popping corn. I can't imagine that the percussion of the popping kernels is anything in comparison to the normal banging around that most cookware receives during cooking, cleaning, and storage.

      I did a little googling on enameled dutch ovens being damaged by popping corn, and everything seemed to be related to burning the heck out of the popcorn with overly-high heat... which subsequently stained the enamel.

      If you can dig up any stories/anecdotes about chipping or cracking enamel, please share!

      Thanks.

      -Derek

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  22. Over years of great popcorn making in nearly every vessel in my kitchen, I've found no use for shaking. The thin pans burn regardless and the thick ones are fine. I've also found no benefit or detriment from venting. Just add enough (not too much) heat to enough metal then add popcorn and oil together. Replace the lid. Dump immediately upon completion of popping.

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    Replies
    1. Howdy! Thanks for stopping by.

      Perhaps strangely, when I had an electric induction cooktop, I didn't need to shake the pan when making popcorn in my bare cast iron dutch oven... but on my gas range, the outside edges get much hotter than the center due to the flame pattern, and I get burning if I don't shake. But I agree on venting... the popcorn pretty well dries out a minute or two after you dump it out (which, I also agree, should be done immediately!).

      Thanks! Happy popping.

      -Derek

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Howdy! Thanks for visiting, and thanks even more for leaving a comment. I'll respond as soon as the kids are asleep.