I do love popcorn, but usually don’t like to pop commercial microwave bags in the office. Although their contents are delicious when popped, commercial microwave bags release a cloud of buttery esters into the local environment for all to smell. They have a TON of added fat and salt, and one has no control over the contents.
There’s also a great deal of debate over the safety and stability of polyunsaturated fats in high-heat cooking, and corn popping is a very high-heat process.
Hot-air poppers aren’t suitable for an office environment, and anyway I haven’t found one that doesn’t eventually make the popped corn taste like it came out of a hair dryer.
I have used the Presto Power Pop corn popper ($16) for at least a decade, and found it to be an excellent solution to light snacking in the office. It doesn’t smell strongly of anything but the corn, and that can be controlled by keeping the lid on until I’m back at my cube. I can control the amount of salt or oil I use, if any. It acts as a serving bowl for the popcorn, and is easy to keep clean once emptied. It does an excellent job of popping most of the corn, even in lower-power microwaves. It typically will pop a batch in under two minutes, not three to four like commercial bags. (Which makes one wonder how much of the mass inside commercial bags is popcorn, and how much is just colored fat.)
Its construction is fairly simple: a bowl, a detachable base with a metal reflector disc inside it, and a paper/foil heater cup. The cups are replaceable, but last a long time for me. I’m just finishing my first 8-pack of them after 10+ years. Granted, using oil in the popper will make them deteriorate more quickly. Also, as microwaves have increased in power over the years, I notice the cups burn more quickly. Replacements are available in many big box stores and at Amazon.
About Corn Popping:
Use fresh popcorn, and keep it hydrated so it pops well. Every few weeks, if your bag of popcorn lasts that long, open the bag and sprinkle maybe a half teaspoon of water into it. Close the bag, turn/roll it over a few times to distribute the water, and then let it sit. You don’t want a lot of water: just enough to keep the corn from drying out, not enough to make it germinate.
The best salt to use is superfine salt, like the movie theaters use. There’s something about that initial super-salty hit from extra-fine salt, that quickly fades into the mellow sweetness of popped corn. That salt/sweet balancing act is a visceral trigger that has kept us coming back for more for centuries.
Don’t get the popcorn salt with yellow coloring, it’s just dye. Easiest and cheapest is to make your own fine salt in a coffee or spice grinder.
Salt doesn’t often stick well without a little oil. Very, very little oil is actually needed. So I made a recipe:
Popcorn Salt/Oil Mix
~1 Tbsp. Table Salt
~1 tsp. Oil (Coconut oil preferred, it’s most stable long-term and at high heat) Coffee/Spice Grinder
Put a few teaspoons of regular salt into the coffee grinder. Grind it for a few seconds until it is a fine powder. Repeat until you have a tablespoon or so. In a very small container (1 oz.), put the salt and about a teaspoon of oil on top. Let it soak in. If it’s coconut oil, it’s OK if it’s solid; it will soak in.
What you’re looking for is a dry crumble of salt/oil. Use ¼ teaspoon for a batch of popcorn. Just place it on top of the corn; the popping action will distribute it fairly well.
-- Bill Fleet
[The Nordic Ware Microwave Corn Popper, which we reviewed in 2008, gets equally high ratings on Amazon. It is less expensive than the Presto Pop, and doesn't require replacement cups like the Presto Pop, but other online reviewers complain that the Nordic leaves a lot of unpopped kernels. - Mark]