Toilet paper and hand sanitizers are not the only products that have seen mind boggling increases in demand during the pandemic. The sales of guns, alcohol, backyard pools, Bibles and popcorn have all skyrocketed. I either have enough or don’t care about the other things listed, but when I heard that there might be a possible run on popcorn, I immediately added it to my shopping list.
As snacks go, popcorn is relatively benign, which cannot be said for the Little Debbies and Pop-Tarts that my husband might otherwise sneak into the house. Consumer Reports reminds us that popcorn is a whole grain, and a number of studies have shown a link between eating whole grains and a reduction in the risk of diabetes, cardiovascular disease and cancer. It provides antioxidants and manganese, too, all for only about 31 calories per cup if air popped; prepare it with oil and the calories per cup double. Or, to put it as Consumer Reports did, “You can have 3 cups of the air-popped snack for slightly fewer calories than you’ll find in one sourdough pretzel.” (You can find out calorie comparisons for some popular popcorn favorites at bit.ly/3gaAxPk.)
When I finally made it to the store, the popcorn shelves were not exactly barren but choices were limited. The exception was the shelf with bags and plastic jars of loose kernels, meaning not microwave ready. I was staring at the 30-ounce jar when my mind finally registered the prices: my jar was $4.49 but the box of three packets of the cheapest microwave popcorn was $2.79 for three bags, each containing 3.2 ounces. Could boxed popcorn really be nearly double the price of loose? Yup, 29 cents per ounce for 9.6 ounces of microwave ready, versus 15 cents per ounce for the 30 ounces of container popcorn.
That led me to this edition of Buy It or Make It, where I try to figure out if hassle, taste and price make it worth purchasing premade foods over making your own. I went home with the least expensive box of microwave popcorn and a canister of loose popcorn and set to work.
The boxed popcorn required opening the box, taking the cellophane off the individual packet and putting it in the microwave. For the loose kernels, I took out a lunch bag and a tablespoon, measured out 3 tablespoons of popcorn, put it in the bag and scrunched up the open end to keep the contents inside; no oil involved. Really, not much different in terms of effort.
Did you know that kernels can pop into one of two shapes? Neither did I until I read a food magazine complaint column where someone was whinging that the stuff they made at home was not as pretty as the popcorn they got in a gift box of the caramel coated stuff. It turns out there are mushroom shaped kernels, which are rounded on top and sturdier so they are normally used for commercial caramel corn, or the butterfly or snowflake kernels that you find in movie and grocery store popcorns. They taste the same and, in fact, you have to search out and pay more for the mushroom shaped ones.
Anyway, the cheapest (actually, the only) microwave popcorn I could find was butter flavored so it did have more taste to it than the plain container popcorn. Like so many other things, it comes down to individual preferences, not right or wrong, bad or good. I don’t care much for the chemical taste of buttered microwave popcorn, but millions of people do so I would say it is a wash. The essential texture and crunch were the same and there was nothing objectionable about the microwave popcorn — I know from past purchases of plain microwave popcorn that had both the box and the container brands been unflavored, I would not have been able to tell one from the other. (I do have to say that I have read complaints that elderly boxes of flavored microwave popcorns can get rancid, but no box has ever lasted long enough in our house for me to personally experience that.)
I gave you the numbers earlier, showing that the microwave ready was about twice the price per ounce. I do have to add a few pennies for the paper lunch bags, which cost me four cents a bag when I bought them in a 100 count package. But even with the bags, the bulk purchase was cheaper.
Looking at the price tags left on the empty shelves, except for premium brands, the microwave popcorns were all about the same price — buttered or not. So, if I want to make the loose kernels into butter flavored popcorn, I should add the price of melted butter to the equation.
As you can see from the comparison pictures, I got approximately 3.3 times more out of the bulk than I did out of the microwave brands (I ran out of glass jars, but you get the point). We buy butter only when it is on a steep sale and then freeze enough to get us through the winter holiday cooking; the last time I bought butter it was $2 per pound. I would have to use almost an entire pound of butter to make the price of the bulk popcorn more than the microwave version. If you used that much butter, and we don’t, the bulk would be slightly more expensive but you’d be tasting real butter instead of the artificial colorings and palm oil you will find in most microwave ready packages of the buttered product.
There is another downside to microwave ready popcorn, and that is the environmental cost. Unlike my brown bags, which can be composted, the commercial bags and cellophane cannot. If I am making a lot of popcorn for a movie night with friends, as I used to do before the world turned upside down, I can empty and reuse the same bag for up to four times; in my experience, after that the seams start to disintegrate.
In short, the biggest difference between microwave ready and bulk was the price, which sort of disappears if you drizzle on your own butter. But if you are fine with unadorned popcorn, or you are using it as a basis for one of the flavorings in the sidebar, then go for bulk to get the biggest bang for your buck.
Linden Staciokas is a freelance writer, gardener and cook who lives in Fairbanks. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Toasted Almond Caramel Corn
I have enjoyed all of the popcorn variations listed in the other sidebar (well, I must confess that the flavored Jell-O version left me cold), but in our house, this deluxe version of Cracker Jacks is king. It is so beloved that we only make it once a year, around my husband’s birthday, because we don’t have the discipline to stay away from it. (Please don’t email, suggesting I put it in small sandwich bags to limit the amount because I learned long ago that it is as easy to open a half dozen small bags as it is a gallon-sized one. The only way is to make it once in July.)
12 cups fresh popcorn
2 cups almonds, roughly chopped
1 cup dark brown sugar (if you have only light brown, then use that but put in two teaspoons of molasses)
6 tablespoons salted butter
1/4 cup honey
2 tablespoons water
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1½ teaspoons vanilla extract
1½ teaspoons of almond extract
(If you don’t like or have one of these two extracts, it is fine to use 3 tablespoons of only one of them.)
Preheat the oven to 250 degrees.
Meanwhile, combine the sugar, butter, honey and water. Bring it to a boil, and cook until it reaches 250 degrees. You cannot guesstimate this; you’ll need a candy thermometer.
Remove from the stove and carefully but quickly stir in the baking soda and flavorings. I always have these ingredients already measured out and waiting to add so the sugar mix does not cool down too much.
Pour the final result over a very large bowl (I use a soup pan, actually) holding the popcorn and almonds, moving quickly so the caramel does not start to solidify too much. Coat the kernels as best you can and then spoon it out onto a cookie sheet that is well oiled or covered with parchment paper or a silicone baking sheet. Spread it out into an even layer and bake on the center rack in your oven. Start checking it for doneness at about 50 minutes, so it does not burn. Take it out and once it cools break it up into reasonable serving pieces.
— Adapted from the blog foodinjars.com.
How to dress up plain popcorn
Popcorn is the chameleon of foods, its mild flavor easily sassed up into something sweet or spicy. Here is a baker’s dozen of ways to flavor your kernels:
• Make plain popcorn the backbone of your trail mix, adding the nuts, chocolate chips and dried fruits that you love.
• Mix up your favorite garlic bread recipe (butter, garlic salt, melted butter or grated garlic swirled into melted butter and salted to taste).
• Instead of putting sugar and cinnamon on toast, sprinkle it into your freshly buttered popcorn.
• Stir curry powder and the zest (not juice) of a lime into your melted butter before adding.
• Mix your favorite flavor of Jell-O (the 4-ounce size) with 1/4 cup of melted butter before drizzling it on. (Don’t blame me for this combination, a friend of mine served it to me.)
• Top with browned butter for a much richer taste than ordinary melted butter. Simply cook butter until it goes beyond melted to a light toffee brown color; anything beyond that will leave a bitter taste. (Go here if I am not explaining well enough bit.ly/2Q3Ox2V.)
• Sprinkle some ranch seasoning, taco seasoning or onion soup mix into your melted butter. It is easy to overdo all three of these flavors, so add and taste and then add some more if it is too bland.
• Everything Bagel mix makes you feel like you are eating, well, a popcorn bagel. I can usually find it locally, but if you want to see the enormous varieties available, Amazon is a good resource. Depending on the ingredients, the flavors can vary enormously. There are also many recipes for DIY versions, but that usually means buying larger quantities of the various ingredients. In that case, the end product becomes pretty expensive unless you will use a quart of the stuff before it gets too old and loses its flavor.
• Instead of salt, use one of the many varieties of cheese powder. My favorite is Vermont Cheddar Cheese Powder, by King Arthur Flour, but there are a lot of others on the market. Some of specifically made for popcorn, but the ones I have tried are inferior in taste to powders initially designed for baking. I always feel like a traitor to our town suggesting Amazon, but they will introduce you to the many cheese powders on the market, some of which are available locally.
• If you are a fan of buffalo wings, melt some buffalo hot sauce into butter and toss it with your popcorn. Then mix in some crumbled blue cheese (although I like feta better).
• I sneered at this recipe from thekitchn.com until I had some at a potluck. Toss some popcorn with 2 tablespoons melted butter, mixed with 2 teaspoons flavorless oil. Then sprinkle with a spice mix of 1½ teaspoons vinegar powder (not vinegar), 1/2 teaspoon ground coriander, 1/2 teaspoon dry mustard powder, 1/2 teaspoon garlic powder, 1/2 teaspoon onion powder, and 1/4 teaspoon dill seeds. Sprinkle over the popcorn and toss to coat completely. Thekitchn.com recommends salt, but I found that adding more salt was too overwhelming.
• I have lost the original source of this recipe, but if you like sweet and spicy this may be a winner: 2 tablespoons oil, 2 tablespoons honey, 1 teaspoon paprika, 3/4 teaspoon salt, 1/2 cayenne pepper and 1/4 teaspoon fresh ground black pepper. Nuke until the honey is thin and drizzle over your popcorn.
• Sriracha popcorn is easy: mix a tablespoon of Sriracha into 2 tablespoons melted butter and drizzle it over the popcorn. This is another recipe where some lime zest really amps up the flavor.