Skip the expensive concession stand and make buttery, delicious movie theatre popcorn at home with this simple step-by-step tutorial.
Ready in 5 minutes
Popcorn gets a bad rap a lot of times as far as snack foods go. I understand why—the stuff that comes in the bags from the vending machine or from the concession stand at the movie theatre is packed full of nasty chemicals, artificial colors and flavors, and more hydrogenated oils and salt than anyone should be consuming in a snack.
And don’t even get me started on the microwave bags of popcorn. While there are some natural and organic options out there, the vast majority of microwave popcorn is loaded with a laundry list of chemicals and general nastiness.
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).
To air pop in the microwave, all you need is a small brown paper bag and some popcorn kernels. Put a couple of tablespoons of kernels in the bottom of the bag. Fold over the top of the bag twice. Place on its side in the microwave and zap on high for 2-3 minutes, or until the popping slows. Eat. Easy, peasy.
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.
It sounds complicated, but clarifying butter is actually a breeze in the microwave, and it removes enough of the water to leave you with buttery, perfectly crunchy popcorn. Let me show you how I make my movie theatre popcorn at home on the stove.
First up, gather those ingredients. For a large batch of popcorn (enough to satisfy 2-4 movie snackers or one pregnant lady who is eating popcorn for dinner), you’ll need a 1/2 cup of kernels, 1 stick of butter (salted or unsalted, either works), salt, and two tablespoons cooking oil.
I like to use coconut oil for one big reason: many movie theaters use a coconut oil blend to pop their popcorn. It doesn’t really add a coconut flavor to the end result, but it does add a layer of flavor that other cooking oils just don’t quite match. It’s what makes popcorn taste like the stuff from the movies.
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).
Microwave on high for 30-40 seconds, or until the butter is all melted and foamy.
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.
Take a spoon and skim off as much of the foam on top as you can. Again, no need to be perfect. Just get as much as you can.
You’ll be left with a very clear, very yellow layer of clarified butter, with a layer of milk solids underneath. Awesome work! Set that aside.
Now onto the actual popping process. You’ll want a big pot with a lid for this. Why? Well, popcorn expands (duh)! I don’t recommend using a heavy pot (like a Dutch oven), because you’ll need to shake the pot throughout the popping process. And man, cast iron is hard to shake.
Put your pot on high heat and add in the coconut oil.
Once the oil is completely melted, toss in your popcorn kernels.
Swirl the pot around so that each and every kernel gets a nice little coating of coconut oil, and is more or less in a single layer.
Every now and again, give the pan a good shake to mix up the kernels and keep them from burning.
Soon enough, you’ll have the very exciting moment where your first kernel pops. After that, things happen quickly! Action shot.
Hurry up and put on the lid of the pot, slightly ajar to release steam, because if you don’t you’ll have popcorn flying all over your kitchen. I’ve had kernels fly 15 feet—no exaggeration. You want to save all that popcorn goodness! But you also want to make sure to release the steam, because that’ll also make your popcorn soggy.
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.
Within a few minutes, you’ll hear the popping slow down to almost a crawl. Turn off the burner and just let it sit for a few minutes. Because you’ll have some slow-pokes still popping. Even still, trust me, the second you take off the lid, a straggler will pop right into your eye. Not that I know from experience or anything.
You’ve got yourself a beautiful pot full of popcorn! Now, grab your measuring cup of butter and start to slowly stream it onto the popcorn. At first you’ll see nothing but clear, bright yellow clarified butter.
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.
Stir up your popcorn really well to make sure every kernel gets a touch of butter.
Sprinkle on your desired amount of salt (if you use salted butter, you might want to go light on the salt at first). You can also feel free to add other flavorings (garlic salt, ranch mix, etc.) during this stage—but I’m a purist.
And then go pop in a movie, get cozy and enjoy your much healthier, much tastier (in my opinion) movie theatre popcorn! The popcorn tastes even better if you serve it up in some mega cute popcorn boxes.
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.
Here’s a full recipe for the movie theatre popcorn, for easy printing!
- ½ cup (1 stick) butter, unsalted or salted
- 2 tablespoons coconut oil
- ½ cup popcorn kernels
- Salt, to taste
- Place the butter in a glass measuring cup with a spout. Microwave on high for 30-40 seconds until foamy. Using a spoon, gently scoop off the foamy top on the butter and discard (no need to be perfect, just get as much as you can). Then set the butter aside while you make your popcorn.
- In a large soup pot with a lid, melt the coconut oil over high heat. Add in the popcorn kernels and swirl to coat all the kernels.
- Shake the pot frequently to avoid burning. Once the first kernel pops (about a minute or two), immediately place the lid on the pot, but leave it ajar so steam can escape.
- Continue shaking the pot frequently until the popping slows down. Once it does slow down. Remove the pot from the heat and let sit for a few minutes while the final kernels pop.
- Once all the kernels are done popping, slowly stream the butter over the popcorn, stopping when you reach the opaque part of the melted butter (see photo). Discard the remaining butter or save for another use
- Stir the popcorn, and then season with desired amount of salt.