Stovetop popcorn protocol
March 13, 2017 8:01 PM   Subscribe

When making popcorn on the stove, I always pop in a couple "tester kernels" with the oil while it is heating. I was taught that once those kernels have popped, the oil is sufficiently hot and the rest of the kernels can then be added. Why is this necessary? Doesn't the act of adding a bunch of room-temperature kernels bring down the temperature of the oil anyway, causing the oil to have to re-heat? Can't I just add all the kernels in at once and let everything heat up together? The testers never appear to taste burnt or off to me- in fact it's impossible for me to tell which ones they were once all the other kernels have popped.

this post written while stuffing my face full of popcorn
posted by btfreek to Food & Drink (18 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I am a popcorn obsessive. I use a Whirly-pop. I dump in the oil, dump in the seeds and let it rip at slightly less than full blaze on a gas stovetop. Comes out perfect every time. So put me down for not believing in the 'tester' method.
posted by erebora at 8:19 PM on March 13 [1 favorite]

You can add them all at once, and still use a regular pot with glass lid. What I do is put all the popcorn in, add oil and toss it gently for a bit by kind of a wrist flick with the pot. Then (wearing oven mitts), turn the power burner up as high as it will go. Put lid on the pot and hold it an inch or so above the burner. Wave it in figure 8 type pattern, just so the hot spot is more or less constantly moving. Gently toss kernels every 30 seconds or so. When I do it this way I can pop 97% of kernels with none burned.
posted by powerbumpkin at 8:22 PM on March 13

I know that there are other ways to prepare popcorn on the stove. Mine works fine, thanks. To clarify, my question is about why or how the "put a couple kernel in first" idea ever came about.
posted by btfreek at 8:31 PM on March 13 [8 favorites]

I don't have a cite for specifically why, but I suspect it's largely apocryphal (like boiling pasta in "lots and lots of water" or how one person says you absolutely must start boiled eggs in cold water and the next person says you absolutely must start them in boiling).

It was certainly my mother's strategy, and she definitely believed that if all the kernels sat in the warming oil they would do that weak-ass half-pop thing (which apparently some people are into but she and I are not) so you wanted to wait and add them to the hot-hot oil.
posted by Lyn Never at 8:52 PM on March 13

For me, it's helpful to bring me back the moment when​ those test kernels pop. Good idea to stay focused when oil is heating up. Otherwise I'd wander off or get distracted.

So ... Do it for safety.
posted by rw at 9:12 PM on March 13 [1 favorite]

My opinion on this is twofold:
1. If you let the oil heat up with the popcorn, you might end up with more unpopped kernels, as some kernels may be prone to popping more quickly on lower heat. Alternatively, if you keep the popcorn on longer to try to pop more kernels, you're more likely to burn it.
2. Related to number one - if you do the test kernel method, you know exactly when all the kernels went in and how long they've been on. If you dump everything and leave it, I would personally be likely to lose attention because it takes longer to cook, increasing the chance of burning the oil, the pot or the popcorn.

Sorry if you were looking for an official word on this. That's all theory, burned popcorn and no specific testing on this issue.
posted by cnc at 10:32 PM on March 13 [1 favorite]

Cooks Illustrated is my go-to for well thoughtout recipes. About the stovetop popcorn test they say:

"Preheating the oil with “test” kernels indicates when the oil has reached the optimal popping temperature (around 380 degrees), and the 30-second off-burner wait allows all of the kernels to gradually heat to the same temperature—so they pop almost simultaneously."
posted by artdrectr at 10:54 PM on March 13 [2 favorites]

What is the 30 second off burner wait?
posted by furtive at 12:38 AM on March 14 [2 favorites]

The 30 second off burner wait is as such:

When test kernels pop, add the rest to the hot oil and remove from element. Wait 30 seconds, return pot to element and all kernels pop almost simultaneously. OK, maybe that's an exaggeration but it's an even, fast pop with very few unpopped kernels. Whether this a necessary or the best method doesn't really matter to me because it's crazy satisfying how fast all the kernels pop.

So to answer.. I guess in my mind the kernel test is tied directly to the method as described by Cooks Illustrated. It's all about that 30 seconds and then the insta-popping.
posted by Lorin at 1:12 AM on March 14 [13 favorites]

If you use a fair amount of oil and don't do the tester kernels and some pop a lot sooner than others you end up with some popcorn that is just wet from sitting in the oil while the others were still heating up.
posted by raccoon409 at 2:44 AM on March 14 [3 favorites]

I use the one-kernel method. My spouse uses the dump-it-all-in-like-a-caveman method. My popcorn has consistently fewer unpopped kernels and burnt pieces. When I pointed this out, my spouse shrugged and said it didn't make enough of a difference to bother, like a caveman would.

So maybe it started when we came out of the caves.
posted by Etrigan at 2:54 AM on March 14 [26 favorites]

I use a Whirly-pop. I dump in the oil, dump in the seeds and let it rip at slightly less than full blaze on a gas stovetop. Comes out perfect every time. So put me down for not believing in the 'tester' method.

My Whirly-pop's instructions pretty specifically say to not do tester kernels. Maybe there are inferior stovetop methods where testers are worth doing.
posted by LionIndex at 3:02 AM on March 14

Sorry to "pop" in again, but this is weird to me. A tester kernel will tell you when the oil is hot enough to pop one, but once you dump in a load of room-temp, essentially cold, kernels, that will dramatically drop the temperature of the oil. So then you've got popping going on at the same time the stove is working to raise the temperature again. If you put cold oil and kernels in at the same time, both have their temperatures raised and once you reach popping temp the game is on. Certainly popped kernels are in the pan, exposed to oil for a longer time with the add-cold-kernels method.
posted by humboldt32 at 3:40 AM on March 14

You don't have to do the tester kernel thing. I never knew to do this until only recently. Previously I would heat the oil a bit and then dump in all my kernels.

I learned to use tester kernels, though, when I looked up what to do to keep my popcorn from being chewy and wet. Because that is what was happening, I was popping sub-optimal popcorn where some of the kernels were small and chewy and it was not good.

Now I put 3 kernels in the oil first and when one of them pops I add in the rest of the kernels and my popcorn has been perfect ever since.

When the oil isn't hot enough, you end up with chewy and/or oily popcorn. If the oil is too hot, you get burnt popcorn.

The tester kernels help prevent this. They are not a science. And dumping in room-temperature kernels after the oil has heated is not going to drop the temperature of the oil that much, especially not so much that you may as well not have done it.
posted by Polychrome at 3:56 AM on March 14 [2 favorites]

I was popping sub-optimal popcorn where some of the kernels were small and chewy and it was not good.

Chewy and wet comes from not allowing steam to escape during the popping. I use the all-at-once method and my pot's lid is made in such a way that steam can escape. Lovely, fully popped corn almost all the time.
posted by Dolley at 5:22 AM on March 14

Alton Brown had a "perfect popcorn" episode. If I can remember correctly, he explained the 'test kernel' reason. I think it had something to do with sitting in the oil too much. Looks like I need to Google that episode again.
posted by PJMoore at 7:23 AM on March 14 [1 favorite]

My chewy and wet kernels were from sitting in oil, not steam.
posted by Polychrome at 7:32 AM on March 16

I got a Great Northern popcorn maker (like a Whirly Pop but I am told much nicer) four months ago. It is SO much better than any other popcorn method that I am agog. Anyway, I put in oil and 2/3 cup of popcorn and crank the burner and gently stir and everything pops in less than thirty seconds from first to last pop. (Probably takes three minutes overall?) I believe that the gentle agitation makes every kernel heat at roughly the same rate. I rarely have an unpopped kernel and even more rarely a burned one.

I know this is a fairly old thread, but I can't believe I didn't drop $25 on one of these years ago!
posted by Gilgamesh's Chauffeur at 8:21 PM on March 24

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