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How to microwave popcorn

The best popcorn is homemade. Disagree? Well, some years ago I worked at a cinema in London. The popcorn we sold came in pre-popped waist-high plastic bags, and was then shovelled into a popcorn warmer. Sound delicious? Thought not. Doing it yourself is better, and here we show you how to pop those kernels in the microwave.

Making popcorn on a hob can prove rather messy. Using a microwave is a cleaner and easier experience, provided you do the job correctly. Often, the issue is incorrect levels of moisture, which leads to kernels that won’t pop. Here’s what you need to know to get a perfect bowl of fluffy popcorn.

Related: Best microwaves

The quickest and simplest way to get your movie-time snack is to buy microwave popcorn. Corn kernels come in a sealed and folded paper bag, which has a special laminated surface that will absorb moisture and ensure proper heat distribution. Place the folded bag in the microwave, and let it work its magic.

While the general recommendation is to microwave for between two to four minutes, on your first attempt it’s wise to hang around and monitor its progress. Once the rapid popping has slowed – so that there are two to three seconds between each pop – your popcorn is ready.

Microwave popcorn is available in a variety of flavours. The most commonly sold ones in the UK are salty, sweet and a combination of sweet and salty. Sugar tends to burn faster, so ensure you shorten the cooking time of sweet popcorn accordingly. In addition, each microwave oven is different, too: in my 800W one, a bag of sweet and salty popcorn will take about 2mins 15secs, resulting in very few unpopped kernels.

However, buying pre-packaged kernels mean that you can’t control the amount of sugar, salt or fat you’re consuming. Furthermore, because of lamination, the bags aren’t recyclable; plus there have been concerns over toxic chemicals used in the material that coats these bags.

How to microwave popcorn

Buying bags of loose kernels is significantly cheaper than the pre-packaged type. You can choose to microwave plain kernels, or add some oil and seasoning. Just remember: anything sweet will result in the popcorn burning faster, so keep an eye on it as it cooks.

Related: Microwave power settings guide

How to microwave popcorn

To microwave popcorn kernels without a bag, you’ll need a large microwave-safe bowl and – preferably – a ventilated microwave-safe cover for the bowl. In theory, covering the bowl with a microwave-safe plate might be okay, but having no ventilation will mean the steam is trapped and the bowl or the plate may crack once the temperature gets too high.

If you don’t have a suitable cover, a few layers of clingfilm or a layer of baking paper attached with a rubber band on the bowl will do the trick – just remember to poke a few small airholes into the covering. If the clingfilm is too thin, some kernels may pierce it, filling your microwave with popcorn (see photo below). The same can happen if using baking paper that isn’t held down.

Making popcorn in this way will take longer. In my 800W oven, it took on average just over seven minutes for 50-60g of kernels, with little popping happening for the first couple of minutes. Patience is crucial here; try not to open the microwave as you want to keep any heat and steam trapped in there.

How to microwave popcorn

Steam is particularly important. Microwave ovens work by using microwaves to agitate water molecules in food. With popcorn, the release of water vapour inside the kernel will eventually cause it to explode. Sometimes, kernels can take longer to pop if they’re old or dry, or you may be left with crispy, brittle popcorn. In that case, it’s useful to create more moisture.

I tried microwaving a cup of water for a minute before placing the kernels in the microwave, and it resulted in a smaller number of unpopped kernels as well as fluffier, chewier popcorn. Extra moisture can also be achieved by soaking the kernels in water for at least 15 minutes – if you plan in advance or have time to spare.

Adding oil to the kernels before microwaving them is another way to get fluffy popcorn more quickly – a teaspoon or so should do the job. Adding oil means adding calories to your snack, mind.

Use oven mitts when removing the hot bowl from your microwave and be mindful of any steam when lifting the lid. Enjoy!

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