Today's post is about serendipity and discovering a better way to pop popcorn. It could be this is just common popcorn knowledge, but I did some low key Googling, and feel like I might have something new here, so I'll share. The punchline is that by tipping a flat bottomed wok at an angle, you create a pool where the oil collects in the corner of the pan. Kernels tend to roll back into the oil pool, while popped corns tend to explode out of the pool and to the cooler parts of the wok. The result is fewer unpopped kernels and lower likelihood of burning the popcorn.
The Popcorn Gauntlet
Of course, the popcorn problem is well known: How to get all the popcorn kernels to pop, while also avoiding burnt kernels. (And yes, I'm keeping microwave popcorn out of the mix here. I have nothing against it, I just have a full jar of popcorn kernels in my house to work with. Waste not.) I've seen various tricks and techniques on the internet, including using different types of oil, mixtures of oil and butter, different amounts of oil, different shaking techniques, different temperatures, and use of sacrificial kernels to test the oil temperature. Regardless, my 4 year old issued the statement that "Mommy's popcorn is better than daddy's popcorn, 'cause daddy's popcorn tastes burnt."
The gauntlet had been thrown.
Serendipity, The Library, and The Wok
It turns out, the solution had been under my nose for a while, but the string of events that lead to it is what I find interesting.
It started at the library, where I normally request books online (thank you Minuteman Library Network!) and then do a quick pickup when they arrive. The whole experience is fantastic, and in my view, totally superior to buying books on Amazon, not to mention much more free. The downside, like any online experience, is that browsing and discovery isn't quite the same.
This is where the "return to shelves" cart comes in. Here, in effect, was a curated list of what people from my community actually thought was worth reading, waiting for restocking. Rather than browse all the aisles, this is where I do a quick check to see if anything catches my eye.
And indeed, something caught my eye. J. Kenji López-Alt had a new cookbook out called simply, "The Wok", and true to it's title, it was about cooking with a wok.
Quick aside, the cookbook is fantastic, and I learned how to use cornstarch to "velvet" meat, which is a game changer.
Anyway, the book had a recipe for a fried egg which involved tilting the wok to create a deeper pool of oil, which didn't click right away, but was lingering in my brain somewhere.
So after reading The Wok, I was super excited to cook anything I could in it. Naturally, you can use it to stir fry on high heat, but the steep walls of the wok add some versality, and it's still a metal pan, so you can saute, sear, braise, stew, steam, and deep fry as well. Part of my "cook anything and everything in the wok" phase including popcorn, which admittedly including a few burnt batches.
After rigging up a steam basket for dumplings with a wire rack one day, I wondered if I could figure out some sort of arrangement with a cooling rack, similar to what I'd seen at a fairground kettlecorn popcorn stalls. Basically, the exploding kernel passes upwards through a net, but the fully expanded kernel can't pass back through and down into the kettle.
After some puttering about trying to fit a square peg into a round hole with a rectangular cooling rack in the round wok, leaving the wok somewhat askew, it occurred to me to try tipping the wok at an angle.
The angled wok worked wonders! All the kernels rolled into the pool of oil, and the explosions of popping popcorn would jostle them and keep them moving. The popped popcorn would either stay out of the pool, or get blown out by the next kernel. And any kernels that got knocked out of the pool just rolled back in. It was the best batch of home cooked popcorn I had ever made! No burning, with just a single unpopped kernel left!
Finally, for the bonus: salting the popcorn and giving it a stir-fry tossing motion in the wok is incredibly satisfying. Highly recommend.
aka THE Awkward Engineer