What is it about popcorn that makes it the least respected of snacks? Outside of the culinary temples that are, uh, movie theaters, it’s always thought of as kid’s food, or, even weirder, it’s always typecast for old-time Americana. Potato chips never have to deal with the baggage of being thought of in the same vein as carnival barkers, greasers at drive-ins, or child sailors. Chips get to be themselves—crisp, salty, relentlessly addictive—and can wear all kinds of flavors with confidence. (I worry a lot about the emotional state of my snack foods.) But popcorn waddles along, shyly stuck with the same old same old—caramel, the occasional cheese, squirts of butter-flavor.
I might blame the microwave for this sorry state of affairs. The fact that most of us only know how to make popcorn by pressing buttons on a metal box means, in part, that we forget that it’s real food—food you can actually cook, season, and customize. It’s not just not some weird magical poof-and-it-appears treat for kids and movie nights.
So, as a small corrective, here’s a popcorn that stands up tall and says hello while looking you in the eye. It starts with duck fat—the most noble of fats—and it ends with rich puffs of flavor that fill your head with duck’s favorite friends: mellow garlic, fragrant thyme and bright orange. And if you’ve never made popcorn on the stove, it’s quick, and kind of mesmerizing fun if you have a pot with a glass lid. Respect is due.
Garlic-Thyme Duck Fat Popcorn
This brilliant stovetop method for popping corn—which prevents burnt kernels and reliably pops damn near every single one of them—I cribbed from Elise Bauer at Simply Recipes.
If you’re alarmed by the amount of duck fat in use here, that’s ok. You have options, and I won’t judge. You can air-pop the popcorn, and only use duck fat to dress the popped corn. You can substitute butter for the duck fat flavoring, if you’d like. (Don’t pop the corn in butter, though, since it burns.) You can cook the popcorn in pure vegetable oil and save the duck fat just for the dressing. Or you can simply use less dressing – up to a tablespoon less.
But if it’s all up to me, I’d just go full-on with the recipe and eat in moderation; it’s rich, so you don’t have to munch on fistful after fistful to be satisfied.
Makes 2 quarts, enough for 2-4 people as a serious snack
5 tablespoons duck fat, divided
7 fresh thyme sprigs, leaves stripped and chopped (about 1 tablespoon leaves)
1-2 garlic cloves, smashed (1 is lovely and balanced, 2 is more heady)
1 1”x2” strip orange peel
1 tablespoon vegetable or peanut oil
1/3 cup popping corn
Fine salt, to taste
Grated orange zest, to taste, for garnish
Heavy 3-quart saucepan with lid (The size is important; bigger is ok, smaller is asking for trouble)
Infuse duck fat: In the smallest saucepan you have, melt 3 tablespoons of the duck fat over very low heat. Add about 2/3 of the thyme leaves, the thyme stems, garlic, and orange peel and gently infuse for 12-15 minutes. If the fat gets hot enough to start sizzling more than just a whisper, take it off heat for a minute or two, then place it back on the heat.
Heat poppin’ oil with “testers”: Heat the remaining 2 tablespoons duck fat, the vegetable oil, and 4 kernels of popcorn over medium-high heat in the 3-quart saucepan. Cover the pot. (If you’re making more popcorn than in this recipe, you’ll have to use a bigger pot, or cook it in batches.) These kernels are your canaries in the coal mine. When they pop, it’s time to add the rest of the corn.
Add rest of corn and count: Once the tester kernels have tried to jump out of their boiling oil bath, add the rest of the corn and shake the pan so that they’re laying in one layer. Add a few pinches of salt, cover the pan, take it off the heat, and count to 30. This is the key to Elise’s brilliance – this lets the corn get just about as hot as it can stand without popping, but without threat of burning.
Back to the inferno: Put the pan back on the heat, and wait for some hot popping action. As it starts to go, gently shake the pan to let unpopped kernels fall back to the bottom, and every few seconds lift the lid ever so slightly to let some steam escape. Once the popping slows to a few seconds between pops, turn off the heat and uncover the pot.
Season the popcorn: Dump popcorn into a big bowl, and taste a few pieces for salt. Sprinkle on some more salt, if needed. Remove the garlic cloves, thyme stems, and orange peel from the duck fat, and evenly spoon the “dressing” onto the popcorn, stirring and tossing to get an even coat. Taste the popcorn 2/3 of the way through the dressing; you may like it less dressed. Add remaining dressing if you’d like.
Finish: Finish popcorn by sprinkling the remaining thyme leaves all over the top. Grate on a little more orange zest (I like the fineness of a Microplane for this), and serve. It keeps in a covered container for 2-3 days. If you like, you can refresh it in a warm oven for a few minutes before serving.
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