This is something of a departure from my usual blog posts, but after six weeks of experimentation, my Movie Theater Popcorn Recipe is finally ready to go live. This is absolutely as close as you can possibly get without driving to the multi-plex and buying a ticket. This is NOT an every day treat. It is high-calorie and decadent…but that is kind of the point.
To get real movie theater popcorn, you must follow ALL of the steps of the “Theater” version of this recipe (and use all of the recommended ingredients). However, you can come awfully darn close with the “House” version.
The secrets to movie theater popcorn are in the oil, the salt, the heat, and the topping. We will deal with each individually.
However, before you begin: Preheat your oven to 200 degrees.
Why? You ask. All will be revealed below. Just trust me!
Old school movie theater popcorn MUST be made with coconut oil. A lot of theaters have moved to canola or vegetable oils in recent years in an attempt to lessen calories and to address other health concerns (although recent studies have shown that coconut oil can be part of a healthy diet), but coconut oil is what they used to pop the popcorn that you remember. In actual movie theaters, they use “red” coconut oil. The most common brand for theaters to use is Paragon Coconut Popcorn Popping Oil, which you can purchase from Amazon for about $20. Yes, it is a GALLON of oil (theaters, obviously, don’t want to fool with tiny jars). It will last you FOREVER, however. You can store it at room temperature and it won’t go bad. If, however, you would rather try this recipe out before you invest heavily in popcorn supplies, smaller jars of coconut oil will do. You can purchase them at almost any grocery store. They are pricey, but essential. If you absolutely cannot/will not obtain coconut oil, my next recommendation is corn oil- but keep in mind, it won’t be “movie theater” that way (so don’t do like they do on Allrecipes and say something in the comments like “blah, blah, blah…I changed everything about your recipe, and…blah, blah, blah, I have to say this recipe stinks!”
The “red” coloring (actually a yellow) is beta-carotene (the same thing in your carrots), not something artificial and scary. It will “dye” your popcorn a gorgeous bright yellow, but it actually does NOT add any butter flavor. That comes later.
Coconut oil is a solid at room temperature, but it melts quickly. The amount of oil needed will vary depending on the size of your popper and the amount of popcorn you want to make. The general ratio, however, is 1:1. Yes, that is a lot of oil. Again, THIS IS NOT A LOW-CALL TREAT. If it turns out too greasy for you, please feel free to reduce the amount. The absolute minimum that you will be able to cook with is 1 tablespoon.
The second key ingredient is salt. Real theaters use a product called Flavacol Seasoning Popcorn Salt. Amazon has it. It is mega-cheap and one box will last you for a million years. I think that the Flavacol DOES add a hint of butter to the corn. However, for the “House” recipe, plain old popcorn salt (available in most grocery stores next to the regular salt) works fine. Also, if you have a spice grinder and some regular salt (kosher works best), you can make popcorn salt on your own. It is simply very finely ground salt. It looks like a powder and is able to coat a bigger surface area with less product.
The salt is added directly to the oil BEFORE popping. If using Flavacol, follow the amount recommendations on the box. If using regular popcorn salt, I would recommend a very full 1/2 teaspoon of salt to 1/2 cup popcorn kernels. NOTE: you can add more salt at the end if you feel that it is needed, but you can’t “un-salt” your popcorn. You don’t want to go to all this trouble and ruin it, so I would urge you to err on the side of “not salty enough” during this step (although it is essential to add SOME salt now because it gets coated so much better this way).
People can spend tons of money on popcorn poppers (even fancy, movie-theater-like ones), but my standby, until recently, was just a heavy pot with a lid. If you have a lid with a “vent” built in, so much the better- you don’t really need to invest in any new equipment. If you DON’T have a vent with a lid, or if you see yourself making a lot of popcorn in the future, allow me to be an evangelist for the Whirley-Pop Popcorn Popper. This inexpensive pan has a crank that stirs the kernels while they are cooking, resulting in more even heat and fewer “old maids”. This is a lot more like the movie-theater poppers.
In any event, pour the popcorn, the oil and the salt into your pan and turn the heat to HIGH. Don’t go anywhere. When the popcorn starts popping, the magic is going to happen FAST. If you let it go too long, it will burn- and the stench of burnt popcorn will linger in your house for days! Eww! Just stand by.
If you are using the Whirly-Pop, turn the crank slowly until things start popping (at which point, you have to crank like a madman to keep the gears from binding up when the popped corn piles up on top of it). If just using a regular pan, wait for it to start to pop and then shake it a little.
As soon as the corn slows down to 1 kernel per second or less, take it off the heat. IMMEDIATELY dump it onto rimmed cookie-sheets or into 9×11 baking dishes.
Huh? I hear you say. Well, remember when I told you to preheat your oven? This is the secret, magic step that takes your popcorn to the next level. Movie theater popcorn sits under a warming lamp while it waits for hungry patrons to come and gobble it up. This helps to dry out the kernels, resulting in crunchier, more “roasty-toasty” tasting corn. Bake the corn for at least an hour, up to three hours. Yes, this step is skippable for the “house” version, but you need to try it at least once!
You will note that I didn’t tell you what kind of popcorn to use. Honestly, I think it is personal preference. The Jolly-Time in the picture has rather small kernels, but seemed movie-theater authentic. Paragon is a supplier for lots of theaters, so those kernels work well too (however, unlike Flavo-cal and Coconut oil, the shelf-life of popcorn is only 1 year, so you may not want a HUGE bag). Orville Redenbocker, the store brand, fancy Amish popcorn, etc. all work just fine.
Note that I said “topping” instead of butter. This is the one area where I prefer the “House recipe” to the “real” movie-theater recipe. Most movie theaters use Odell’s Original Popcorn Butter, also available in a giant-size (O’Dells Popcorn Supur-Kist II Topping (Gallon)), which is butter-flavored, but not real butter. It is actually a blend of butter, butter flavor and oils. The reason that it is used is that 1) it lasts a kazillion years, and 2) it has a low water content, so it doesn’t make popcorn soggy like regular melted butter. Happily, there is a quick and easy way to get the water out of regular old butter.
What you need is CLARIFIED butter (also called ghee). You can buy this pre-made, but it is super easy to make. No, you CANNOT use margarine (and why would you want to? Eww.). If you try this with margarine, I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter, Country Crock, Light Butter or any other form of butter-like substance that is NOT butter, this won’t work. Consider yourselves warned.
I won’t get deep into the science of it, but butter is a suspension. When you melt it, it will separate into layers. The milk-solids and water are the heaviest part and will settle at the bottom. Just melt your butter in the microwave in a clear, microwave-safe container (I use a glass measuring cup). When the butter has melted, let it sit for about 3 minutes. The butter will settle into distinct layers that you will be able to see through the glass. The top, clear, yellow layer is the one we want to save. Being as careful as possible, pour the top layer through a layer of cheesecloth into another container (or, to get real here (Because we all have screaming kids/grumpy husbands/hungry roommates yelling in the background that they JUST WANT THEIR FREAKING POPCORN ALREADY), just pour off the top layer and try not to get any of the bottom. Nothing explodes if you mess up a tiny bit ). Google “how to make clarified butter” if you need pictures and/or video to help.
You will end up with this:
Incidentally, this is the same thing as “drawn butter” and tastes great on seafood.
Remove the popcorn from the oven and pour half of it into an oversize bowl. Drizzle some of the clarified butter or topping over the popcorn. Then “toss” the popcorn using a motion like a “sauté”. It is sort of a round wrist motion: back and up. When you have tossed in the butter, take a bite and make sure you have enough salt. If not, add a little bit of salt and “toss” the popcorn again. Add the rest of the popcorn, drizzle more butter on top and….voila!
Yes, I know that is a TON of work to go through for popcorn (actually, it isn’t as bad as it sounds. The ENDLESS waiting for the popcorn to come out of the oven is the worst part!), but it is SO yummy. You will impress everyone with your mad, popcorn skills and be elected to host movie night from now until forever.
Feel free to mix and match between the “Theater” and “house” recipes. If you uncover a new twist or trick, please let me know!
1) Add Oil, Salt and popcorn in desired quantities to Whirly-Pop popcorn maker or similar. Cook on high heat.
2) Put popcorn on baking sheets. Bake at 200 degrees Fahrenheit for 1-3 hours.
3) Toss with O’Dells buttery topping. Add additional salt and topping to taste.
Coconut or Corn Oil
Finely ground salt or popcorn salt
Clarified Butter or ghee
1) Add Oil, Salt and popcorn in desired quantities to vented pan with lid. Cook on high heat.
2) Toss with clarified butter and serve.