HEALTHIER HOME/MOVIE THEATRE SNACKS
Like most people, I was getting all my popcorn from the microwave, until sometime in the mid-nineties, while I was working on audience coordination for a TV sitcom. Behind the set was the usual craft services table, set up with a variety of the usual foods. Among the snacks was something unusual... but vaguely familiar. A bowl of white popcorn - that clearly hadn't come from a microwave! One nibble led to several, and it reminded me how great real popcorn could be, with none of the nasty hydrogenated gunk found in those dry microwave bags. It led me back to buying actual popcorn kernels and popping on the stove, but there are some essential factors for making popcorn come out right...
Stirring, like the big machines at the movies, is a key to better popcorn. It makes the popcorn less likely to burn, and it coats the kernels evenly so you need much less oil. I found a stove-top popper with a stirring handle. There are a several brands of stirring poppers around for about $20, and I've gone through nearly a dozen in about that many years. I bought a pricey mechanical model called "Stir-Crazy" that didn't reach the right temperature and the stirrer itself made an annoying noise as it scraped much of the nonstick coating off. I'm back to the stovetop kettle, which works better on an electric stove because of the ability to maintain...
The right popping temperature. Another key to good popcorn. Medum-high gets the best results: fluffy, butterfly shapes. Too much heat produces round, ball-shapes that are tough and chewy. Theatres like the butterfly shape, not just because it tastes better, but because the butterfly kernel shape takes up more space in a container when sold, ensuring a higher yield on their investment.
Oil Ratio: Have you noticed that some theatres have fluffy, light popcorn that has a light crunch and seems to melt in the mouth, while others make harder, extra-crunchy popcorn that tastes kind of deep fried? That's the oil content. A smaller amount of oil produces the fluffy, drier results that I prefer, and more oil gives you the deep-fried, extra (to me, excessive) crunch that makes more noise and is soaked in a lot more oil (with all the nutritional drawbacks that implies).
The popcorn itself. Boy, just try to find loose popcorn kernels in a store these days! Ask for it, and most people don't even know what you mean. The cheap stuff in bags at the grocery store is fine, but I gotta tell you, the premium hybrid popcorn from Orville Redenbacher's is much better. (many cinemas use it, too.) It's hard to find jars of Redenbacher's popcorn kernels at a good price. Their small jars in grocery stores are really expensive. I used to get bigger jars at a better price in big chain retailers, but haven't found an affordable good source for Redenbacher's lately and have taken to buying the store brand in bulk at the nearest supermarket.
Butter/Salt. Most commercially sold popcorn/oil/seasoning packets contain pretty much the same orange salty powder used in theatres. In fact, years ago, when I worked at the Cinerama Dome in Hollywood, those packets were exactly what we used. These days, theatres use orange colored oil with orange colored seasoning. That orange stuff has additives that make the popcorn look and smell more appealing, but it's a little heavy for my taste, and not the healthiest choice.
Topping. Most cinemas that advertise real butter are using Odell's Anhydrous Butterfat, a product that goes all the way back to the old Buttercup brand we remember from the sixties. This company has been making popcorn-related products for decades. Their Anhydrous Butterfat topping is real butter, minus water and milk, and it tastes great. But there is a substantial amount of (non-trans) fat in there, so for me it's just an occasional treat.
Healthier options. I tried a variety of oils before finding the perfect solution: Smart Balance - A vegetable oil blend with Omega 3, specially formulated with your health in mind. Popped in Smart Balance oil, Popcorn can now be a guilt-free, and even healthy snack! I was delighted to make popcorn that doesn't pad the waistline. But what about the flavor?
Smart Balance makes a spray called Buttery Blast. It tastes buttery and light - with NO calories or fat! (which could just be because they're measuring in too small a quantity - like one spray - to gauge the fat/calorie content) The big problem here is that Smart Balance products are hard to find. I talked a little store in my old neighborhood into carrying most of the line, and they have, but suddenly they have nearly doubled the price! The most expensive market chain in SoCal is Gelson's and though they have recently stopped carrying Smart Balance Buttery Blast, even they didn't charge as much for it as this little neighborhood grocery. Time to speak with Smart Balance and lobby all our local chain stores to carry the stuff. I have been relentlessly asking for Fresh & Easy to carry it, but it doesn't seem to be high in their list.
A company in Canada called Schneider's Gourmet World makes several tasty popcorn flavorings, including one they call "Theatre Spice." This is a yellow (not orange) superfine popcorn salt that you put in the kettle with the popcorn and oil. It mixes with the oil, leaves a light buttery/salty flavor, and seems healthier than the orange stuff.
Once accustomed to Redenbacher's popcorn, stir-popped in Smart Balance oil, with Schneider's Theatre Spice, I sometimes found that the heavy flavored oil and seasoning used in many cinemas can make me nauseous.
Seasonings. If you eat popcorn often, eventually you get a little tired of the butter flavor. Schneider's Gourmet World has some powdered toppings, including Salt & Vinegar, Pizza, and Herb & Garlic. Kernel Season's makes several fine flavors to shake over popcorn, and they also have a butter flavor, which doesn't taste overly salty. It's a nice compliment to the Schneider's in-popper seasoning and Smart Balance Butter Blast spray.
I've sampled a couple new products from the Kernel Season's company, and it's changed my preferences for popcorn, but it's also brought back some frustration about the good stuff being somewhat out of reach...
Kernel Season's has introduced their own variety of popcorn, and I have to tell you, it's my new favorite! This stuff pops bigger and tastes better than any other popcorn I know of, and I would be happy to switch over and never look back, but it's only available in little bags, which make popcorn an expensive commodity.
Ditto Kernel Season's' other new product: Popcorn Spritzer, a buttery flavor spray that adds a substantial amount of good taste without calories, fat or carbs, (which could just be because they're measuring in too small a quantity - like one spray - to gauge the fat/calorie content) and it also makes the Kernel Season's flavorings stick. The same drawback as the popcorn, however, is that it's more costly for only a 2.5oz aerosol can, as opposed to my usual Smart Balance Buttery Blast spray in a larger capacity plastic pump spray bottle. Also, the Smart Balance has organic soy, where the Kernel Season's Spritzer butter is a blend of sunflower, canola and corn oil. The price vs. volume statistics here make Kernel Season's Butter Spritzer an extravagant luxury.
I can only hope that Kernel Season's markets a bigger, more economical package of the popcorn, and maybe someday they'll repackage the butter spritz in something more cost efficient. I love the product, just can't afford to stock it. So for now I'm sticking with the Redenbacher popcorn and Smart Balance spray.
What I recommend as the best quality popcorn now would be Kernel Season's, (popped in Smart Balance oil) with Kernel Season's butter spray and shake-on butter flavoring. The final result tastes more buttery than salty, and is pure pleasure without much guilt. If you can afford to stock up on it, go for it, it's great stuff, just be sure to recycle the spray cans. If budget and logistics make that choice impractical, stick with Redenbacher's and Smart Balance and add any of Kernel Season's' flavorings.
Ingredients for guilt-free, healthier movie style popcorn:
Stove-Top Stirring Kettle.
Smart Balance oil, between a teaspoon and a tablespoon.
Schneider's Theatre Spice, about 1/6th to 1/4 of a teaspoon.
Kernel Season's Butter flavor powder.
Candy. There's a little East-Coast to West Coast debate: Twizzlers or Red Vines? I still have both now and then, but I'm partial to Cherry flavor Twizzlers - again, hard to find. I'm always trying to find lower-calorie or healthier options. I really like the Ginger Chew candy from Trader Joe's because ginger is good for digestion, and it just feels healthier. it's the closest thing to guilt-free candy that I know.
Sodas: There are now many brands of of flavored seltzer waters, with no sugar, and no calories. The brand I liked best was called Cascadia from Shasta, because it came in a good variety of flavors, sweetened with Splenda instead of Aspartame. When it vanished from the shelves at Ralphs, I contacted Shasta and found that they were only sending Cascadia to US military bases. I later saw a good supply back at my local grocery, so was still out there and worth the trouble to find...
Hansen's Natural Diet Sodas contain all natural flavors and have no sodium, caffeine, aspartame, preservatives, carbs - or calories! They are sweetened with Splenda, and it's hard to find all their diet flavors around my area. but we began to hear thet even Splenda wasn't the healthiest sweetener.
I eventually bought a Sodastream soda maker, and use a variety of flavor drops, but one new hero in healthy soda has arrived - Oogave, an actual vegan soda with fascinating flavors, and it's even ready for appearances in some movie theatres.
I Wish: Having said all that, it would be nice if the cinemas offered more healthy snacks. Popping Kernel Season's or Redenbacher's popcorn in Smart Balance oil, seasoning with Schneider's Theatre Spice, topping with Smart Balance or Kernel Season's Butter Spray and Kernel Season's or Schneider's flavor powders... adding healthy sugar free sodas to the menu... all it would take is for a few forward-thinking movie exhibitors to give it a try. Smart Balance currently doesn't package its products for industrial use, but that shouldn't stop thoughtful cinema management from making the switch. I once spoke with a Smart Balance rep about that very thing, and I'm sure if the demand was there, the supply would follow.
A blast from the past: Does anyone remember "Intermission Popcorn Chips" - from the late 60s-early 70s? They came in a dark bag, decorated in a movie theatre theme. I used to love them, but no one has even heard of them today... Sounds good, though, doesn't it?
- TJ Edwards