How to pop popcorn safely
October 19, 2008 9:02 PM   Subscribe

What's the safest way to make popcorn -- air popper or microwave popper?

My microwave popcorn popper just fell on the floor and broke. I'd replace it, but I've grown increasingly skeptical of microwaving a plastic container to make popcorn. The alternative seems to be a hot air popper, but I suspect that also results in heating of plastic. What's the safest way to make popcorn, without ending up with all sorts of plastic leaching? Popcorn is very important to me.

Note: The Silicone Zone popper is reputed to be safer, but it is too tall for my 9" high built-in microwave. And I don't want to pop my corn in oil, since that's not exactly healthy either. I also wonder if microwaving popcorn in a paper bag results in any weird melting of glue and thus some sort of adhesive leaching. It seems I can't win.

posted by acoutu to Food & Drink (22 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
I know people who have made their own microwave popcorn using brown paper bags, corn kernels, and, uh, some other stuff I don't remember. Maybe a little oil but possibly not. They didn't use any special kind of contraption in the microwave.

The Alton Brown method involves a stove with 2 metal bowls, as I recall, one upside down to make a sphere. Uses very little oil. I don't remember that much about it but it's worth looking up to check out his thoughts.
posted by RustyBrooks at 9:08 PM on October 19, 2008

Response by poster: Thanks. I should note I have a smooth top stove, so I can't do anything fancy (such as the Alton method). And I have used brown paper bags before, but I'm not sure how safe they are either.
posted by acoutu at 9:15 PM on October 19, 2008

2 tbsp of canola or olive oil, 3/4 cup of kernals in a covered wok on the stove.

Healthy and delicious.
posted by artdrectr at 9:22 PM on October 19, 2008 [2 favorites]

You can microwave it in a bowl (covered with a paper plate) as described here

I've been popping my corn with that method for a while. I put only the corn in the bowl and add butter after it's popped. It's cheap and easy; the only drawback is that the bowl can get ridiculously hot.
posted by stefanie at 9:23 PM on October 19, 2008

i use a wok with a little oil.
posted by Xianny at 9:24 PM on October 19, 2008 [1 favorite]

buy an old pressure cooker at the thrift store. Remove all gaskets. Pour in about 1 cup kernels. Pour in enough oil to coat these kernels. Cover. Put on high heat burner. listen for popping. When it starts to pop quickly, loosen lid and peek inside. Shake a couple of times. When the popcorn inside gets close to the top, remove lid and dump some of it in a bowl. Shake again and return to burner. When popping slows to almost nothing, remove from heat.
This makes very moist and delicious popcorn. It's hell on the pan though. Use this pan just for popcorn.
posted by cosmicbandito at 9:40 PM on October 19, 2008 [1 favorite]

If you consider a Tbs of oil to be detrimental to your popcorn experience, well then, I guess you are stuck with a hot air popper.

Otherwise, I currently use this in the microwave; it does get pretty hot, but the popcorn is great, and you don't need oil. I've also used a paper bag in the microwave. But the best popcorn is made in a big heavy pot, with oil, on the stove, like Mom made.
posted by TDIpod at 9:43 PM on October 19, 2008

The brown paper bag method does work too. No oil required. You put 1/4 cup of kernels in a brown paper sandwich bag. You then fold the edge of the bag over twice and staple it shut in two places. (The distance between the staples, and their small size, prevents arcing.) Cook in the microwave until popping slows, yada yada.
posted by cabingirl at 9:44 PM on October 19, 2008

Whirly-Pop Popcorn Popper. Hands down the best way to make popcorn. Trust me on this.
posted by blue_beetle at 9:48 PM on October 19, 2008 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks. I know how to make popcorn. But I want to know the safest options for making popcorn, in terms of avoiding plastic leaching and the like. (I do love oil popped corn, but it's high fat and I'm trying to avoid that.)
posted by acoutu at 10:13 PM on October 19, 2008

I am no expert on plastic leaching, but fwiw, I have an air popper (nothing fancy... Presto! brand, bought at a department store for around $30), and although the body is made out of plastic, the middle column where you pour the kernels is made out of metal. The spout that "guides" the popped corn into the bowl is made out of plastic, so hot popcorn is briefly touching plastic, but it would seem that through most of the popping process, the corn is surrounded by metal. Maybe this is what you need. Plus, it's healthy! (Unless you pour butter and salt all over it after it is done popping like my fiance and I do!)
posted by rebel_rebel at 10:36 PM on October 19, 2008

With most hot-air poppers (I'm thinking of this style), the heating/popping chamber itself is metal. The plastic does get hot, but the plastic piece is sort of a combination shield/chute and the popcorn doesn't spend extended amounts of time touching it, so I don't think there's much opportunity for leaching. Melting butter in the plastic butter-melting-thing that some air poppers have would be a different story, but I imagine that's not an issue here since you say you don't even want to use oil.
posted by needs more cowbell at 10:37 PM on October 19, 2008

My hot air popper has a metal interior, not plastic -- it seems to be some kind of nickel/steel stainless metal, too dark and heavy to be aluminum. The only plastic part is the hood that "steers" the popped kernels down into my giant size party bowl.

I'll be shocked if anything other than hot air will turn out to be safest and healthiest. Zero oil, no plastic, no radiation... popcorn + air!
posted by rokusan at 10:37 PM on October 19, 2008

(or what rebel_rebel said...)
posted by needs more cowbell at 10:38 PM on October 19, 2008

A little canola or olive oil won't be bad fat and that Whirly-Pop popper only requires a tea-spoon of oil, so you could use very little of a healthy oil and consume almost no oil yourself.

Probably the best/safest/healthiest option.
posted by batmonkey at 12:20 AM on October 20, 2008

Using a paper bag in the microwave is both safe and simple. I have done this for years and have never seen, felt or tasted any melted adhesive.

A modest amount of good quality oil in something like that Whirly-Pop popper shouldn't be a deal-breaker, unless you eat vast amounts of popcorn every day. If you really only need one teaspoon of oil for 6 quarts of popcorn, you're adding very, very few calories to a typical serving. If popcorn is important enough to you to justify buying a unitasker, this seems to be the unitasker for you.
posted by maudlin at 5:08 AM on October 20, 2008

You should get the sort of popcorn maker that Needs More Cowbell describes, and modify it by replacing the plastic top with a new one that you fashion out of thin sheet tin, like the stuff that people make ducts out of. Some pop-rivets and tinsnips, and maybe some J&B Weld, and you could have a new, largely non-plastic popcorn maker. And if you did it right it would look fetchingly steampunky.

AND you could even use the leftover tinfoil to make a handsome hat to wear while eating this very very safe, low-fat popcorn.
posted by dirtdirt at 6:36 AM on October 20, 2008 [2 favorites]

Dirtdirt, though I LOL'd and favorited, my husband tells me that the poster should make sure that the tin is not galvanized, or heating of said tin can cause release of fluorine gas, so maybe your wonderful answer isn't quite as very very safe as the OP desires.
posted by thebrokedown at 9:13 AM on October 20, 2008

Response by poster: Thanks. I will check out some of the hot air poppers and Whirly Whisk things.

Also, thebrokedown, I'd actually quite happily use my NordicWare if I was sure that it wasn't a major plastic leaching hazard. I live in Canada, where the goverment has just been one of the first countries to name BPA as a health hazard. I'm unsure as to whether it is okay to keep microwaving plastic for popcorn, when I would never do it for any other purpose.
posted by acoutu at 9:23 AM on October 20, 2008

I just ordered our second Whirly Pop machine after wrecking our old one with almost daily usage for years. It's the best thing ever, hands down. All metal, so no danger of plastic issues, and, as said above, not much oil needed!
posted by dpx.mfx at 10:15 AM on October 20, 2008

Best answer: I have some experience with this topic (I have a degree in Chemistry and studied plastic additives, among many other things, at a non-profit think tank in the mid-90's.

I honestly think you are significantly overestimating the dangers of additives leaching from plastics, particularly in the context of popping popcorn where there is little direct interface between the container and the food (as opposed to the situations where the most concern has been generated, which is heating a liquid). I am completely convinced that in the worst case scenario (using a BPA containing polycarbonate container) popcorn is not going to absorb significant amounts of BPA or any other additive chemical from the container.

Because Nordic Ware's Gemstone material is a proprietary material it's hard to say with certainty that it does not contain BPA, but given its properties I would be very surprised if it did. You could try looking for contact info on their website and seeing if you could get someone to talk to you about whether they are tracking this issue (as they really ought to be).

I assume you know that there are plastics (PET or PETE, US recycling code 1, and low- and high- density polyethyline, PE, LDPE or HDPE, codes 2 and 4) that never contain BPA and are widely considered safe in the microwave, and that polycarbonate (one of several collected under code 7) is the only plastic generally advised against for microwaving. (I don't know if the codes are equivalent in Canada).
posted by nanojath at 10:38 AM on October 20, 2008

Response by poster: Thanks. That's exactly the kind of answer I needed.
posted by acoutu at 9:17 AM on October 21, 2008

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