How to make movie theatre popcorn at home – wholefully

Popcorn itself is actually a crazy delicious, crazy healthy snack food. If you air pop your kernels (in either the microwave, a popper or on the stove), you can eat a whopping three cups of the stuff for less than 100 calories. And in that 100 calories, you’re getting a hefty dose of healthy whole grains, vitamins, minerals and a very satisfying crunch.

If you’re strapped for cash, it’s hard to beat the affordability of air-popped popcorn. By skipping the boxes of microwave popcorn and heading straight for a bag of kernels, you can save a boatload of cash. Bagged kernels cost about 400% less on average than the microwave stuff (and, obviously, a ton less than the concession stand variety).

But let’s get real here—sometimes air-popped popcorn is boring.

And the truth is, microwave and movie theatre popcorn is freakin’ delicious (especially when mixed with Reese’s Pieces—try it next time you’re at the movies—my gift to you). It’s buttery, it’s salty, and it evokes such awesome memories of date nights at the movies as a teenager and watching Friends re-runs with my girlfriends in the dorm.

Sometimes, you just want some butter on your popcorn! But if you’ve ever tried to use straight melted butter on homemade popcorn before, you know it has it’s issues. Namely, because butter has such a high water content, it makes the popcorn almost instantly soggy. No one wants soggy popcorn! To avoid this, movie theaters actually don’t user butter at all, and use butter-flavored oils (yuck), but you can use butter at home, just as long as your clarify it first.

The first step in my movie theatre popcorn process is actually to clarify the butter. If you have ghee kicking around (which is more or less a version of clarified butter), you can skip this part and just melt your ghee and use it straight on your popcorn. But for those of us ghee-less folks, here’s how to do a quick and dirty clarification. Put stick of butter in a glass measuring cup (you’ll need to use the spout later).

You should start to see the butter separating into three layers—foam, clarified butter and milk solids. Don’t worry if the layers aren’t super clear when you first take it out of the microwave, the layers will settle more as the butter cools. Plus, we’re not looking for perfection here, just to get rid of enough water to keep our popcorn crunchy.

While the popcorn is popping, keep shaking the pot frequently. For the most part, the cooked kernels float to the top of the pot, which keeps them from burning, while the unpopped kernels stay at the bottom. It’s a good system, and means that I almost never burn popcorn on the stove (I can’t say the same for in the microwave), but it’s still good to give the pot a little jiggle every now and again.

But as you get to the end of the clarified part, you’ll start to see that third opaque, white layer—the milk solids. Stop right then! We just want the clarified butter on our popcorn—not the milk solids. Go ahead and reserve those milk solids for something else; they’re a great addition to pasta sauce, omelets and baked goods to give a bit of creaminess. Lots of folks just toss them, but I’m way too cheap frugal to do something crazy like that.

If clarifying your butter seems like an annoying step to do each time you make movie theatre popcorn (it really isn’t, it’s probably a two-minute process), you can actually make large batches of clarified butter and stash them in the fridge for months at a time and then just melt a little bit as you need it. Because most of the water and milk solids are removed from the butter when it’s clarified, it keeps for much longer than standard butter.

Clarified butter is also great to have kicking around because, unlike regular butter, it has a really high smoke point. Meaning you can add lots of buttery flavor to dishes that cook at a high temperature (think: pan frying). Here is a great tutorial for making larger quantities of clarified butter on the stove. If you do want to stash your clarified butter in the fridge for extended periods of time, it’s important to be a bit more persnickety with the amount of moisture and milk solids you remove than what I describe here. The tutorial I linked to recommends straining through multiple layers of cheesecloth.