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12 Mistakes Everyone Makes When Cooking Popcorn

Updated: Mar. 07, 2022

Movie night is incomplete without a steaming tub of buttery popcorn—here's how to make sure yours is the best it can be.

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Pouring olive oil onto frying pan on stove

You use too much oil

You may be not worried about cutting calories, but if you pour too oil much into the pan you’ll have a mess on your hands. Kernels that are saturated with oil won’t pop properly. And when they do pop, they’ll explode right into a pool of oil, which will leave them soggy and sad.

Less is more when it comes to oil-popped popcorn. Add enough to swirl around the bottom of the pan, but not more. Two tablespoons of oil per half cup is usually efficient. Eat up—here’s why that popcorn is healthy for you!

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Corn of popcorn
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The kernels are old

Stale, outdated, or just plain bad kernels will never deliver delicious popcorn. “There are plenty of good brands of popping corn that are available online or at most supermarkets. But once the packaging is opened, air and moisture are the enemies to those kernels,” says Susan Sellani-Hosage, co-author of The 40-Year Old Vegan: 75 Recipes to Make You Leaner, Cleaner, and Greener in The Second Half of Life. “Ideally, the corn you don’t pop should be vacuumed sealed to maximize its shelf life.”

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sugar crystals on black background macro

The salt is too big

Popcorn salt is sold separately on grocery store shelves for a reason. It’s nothing like typical salts. “One of the biggest mistakes people make when popping their own popcorn is to try to use salt that’s too big to stick to the popped corn,” says Katie Moseman, food blogger and author of Gluten-Free World Tour Cookbook: Internationally Inspired Gluten-Free Recipes. “You don’t need to buy ‘popcorn salt,’ though. All you have to do is grind your favorite salt down with a mortar and pestle to make it fine enough to stick to the popcorn. This works with any salt, whether it’s sea salt, kosher salt, pink salt, or smoked salt.” Believe it or not, you can make your own microwaved popcorn at home.

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Corn seeds in a bowl on dark background. Vegetarian organic food.
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You try to be too efficient

You can’t get every popcorn kernel to pop, at least not the first time. You might make a mess if you try. “True popcorn aficionados are willing to sacrifice a few for the benefit of the many,” Sellani-Hosage says. “Attempts to pop every kernel of corn, regardless of the method used, result in burning the ones that popped earlier in the process.”

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Popping popcorn the old fashion way in a red iron pot.
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You don’t watch the pot

A watched pot might never boil, but if you walk away from your popcorn, your snack will be ruined. “Popcorn burns so easily, but you can avoid it by standing and watching the pot,” says Beth Nydick, a clean cooking guru and founder of Blue Barn Kitchen. “Try a glass cover so you can actually watch it. Start at high heat, and when the kernels get going, turn it down to medium. It will allow more kernels to explode into the white fluffy goodness.”

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You add too many toppings

Popcorn is naturally nutty with a just-right hint of saltiness. If you overdo the toppings, you’ll ruin the snack—and potentially the health factor, too. “Nothing destroys the fluffiness of freshly popped corn like disproportionately adding too much salt, butter, or other seasonings,” Sellani-Hosage says. “High-quality popcorn actually has a delicate texture and taste. The purist will add only enough topping to complement, not overpower, the corn’s natural flavor.”

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timer set with 6 minutes to go
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You rely on a timer

The popcorn button on your microwave is not your trusted friend. Most microwave memory settings are programmed to run too long, which will leave you with charred bits or worse, a flaming appliance. Instead, follow the time suggested on the package and listen for the cadence of the kernels. When you hear two to three seconds between each pop, your snack is ready. Believe it or not, there once was a ban on eating popcorn during movies.

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Popcorn in bowl food on black background

You pop too early

When you let popcorn sit around a bit before you season it and start eating, you’ll be disappointed with the results. “Room temperature and moisture are not friends of freshly popped corn,” Sellani-Hosage says. “There’s a sense of urgency about eating popcorn. Perfect popcorn waits for no one!” For prime popcorn flavor and texture, pop just before you plan to eat it. If you need to keep it warm, throw a thick towel over the top of the tub to keep heat in.

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Wooden spoon with coconut oil in frying pan on table
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You try to cut fat by cutting oil

Popcorn is among the healthiest snacks for nearly every type of diet. It’s a whole grain and packed with fiber, and you can have several cups for one serving. Adding oil can increase the calories and fat, but a bit of oil is necessary to make the kernels pop. If you use water, as The Kitchn tried in one experiment, your pieces will likely burn, if they even pop at all. Use just enough oil to get the kernels primed for popping, and split the big serving with someone else to keep your portions in check.

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Levitating popcorn around a ceramic bowl. Appetizing still life.
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You don’t shake the pot enough

If you’re popping kernels on the stovetop, make sure you remember to shake, shake, shake. If kernels sit on the hot surface of the bottom of a pan, they can burn; even if only a few pieces get a hint of char, the smoke and smell may be enough to taint the whole batch. Once kernels start popping, give a shake every few seconds. Shake more often as the popping intensifies. Burning popcorn kernels in your pans is only the start of the 36 kitchen appliances you’ve been using wrong.

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Delicious popcorn with caramel in bowl and candies on wooden background, top view
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You add the toppings while the popcorn is in the hot pan

Hot popcorn may be able to capture toppings more easily than they do at room temperature, but a hot pan will rob your kernels of flavoring. Salts, powders, and other popcorn toppings will adhere to the oil that’s still covering the surface of the pan and remain behind when you dump the kernels into a bowl. Instead, season the snack in the bowl and give it a few shakes to distribute the flavor evenly.

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Backdrop of three olive oil glass transparent bottle with cork stand on white table on kitchen space room, on dark black background Empty space for inscription
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You use the wrong oil

Popcorn pops at high temperatures, so you need an oil that can take the heat. Instead of olive oil or butter—both of which have low smoke points and can burn. Opt instead for oils like canola, corn, grapeseed, or sunflower. These oils can withstand the high heat from a microwave or stovetop without creating off flavors. If you like the flavor of butter, sprinkle it on the popcorn after it’s popped. Popcorn isn’t the only food you’re cooking wrong; these 25 cooking mistakes are ruining your food.

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