When I worked in a huge office in the middle of an office park wasteland over 10 years ago, the only place I had to turn for mid-afternoon snack cravings was our cafeteria. They were pretty good, all things considered, they made a breakfast wrap I still hold as a benchmark of the best breakfast wrapped in a tortilla. The day the bags of sweet and salty kettle corn appeared next to the cashier, though, that was a moment of joy. No more bags of substandard mini chocolate chip cookies, oh no. It was a revelation.
Ever since, I have been a seeker of the balance between salty and sweet. I love baked kale chips with tamari and maple syrup, Chinese doughnuts with red bean paste, and when every sweet thing seemed to contain salted caramel a couple years back, I was in heaven.
I was thrilled to discover that in British movie theatres, the popcorn comes in ‘salty’ and ‘sweet’ flavours. When you mistakenly ask for butter, the 12-year-old behind the counter first pretends they didn’t understand the word you said, but when your meaning is clarified, they can’t conceal a lip curl of disgust. Also, it’s cold. Besides all that, the nice thing is you can ask for half-salt and half-sweet. Yum.
Why it took me this long to recreate this experience at home, I’ll never know.
The first step is popping your own popcorn, rather than using a readymade microwave bag. I’m not asking you to drag the red-and-white circus-themed air popper from whatever corner of the attic you’ve put it in, nor figure out how to oil-pop corn on the stove. My mother-in-law turned me onto this crazy bowl with a lid that you can put in the microwave with plain kernels in it and approximately three minutes later proper popcorn comes out. Magic.
Finally – get some decent kernels. I went and bought a bag of popcorn kernels from our local shop, and they tasted okay. But when someone gave me some posh kernels, I realized the ones I had in the big no-name bag were not up to snuff. I like Fireworks Popcorn.
Rigourous testing ensued, of course. All the below topping ideas cover one-third of a cup of kernels (pre-popping). All salt mentioned is large-flake sea salt.
Thin out one tablespoon of Nutella with two tablespoons of melted butter. Mix with popcorn, then salt to taste.
Salted caramel corn
This is the best caramel corn I’ve ever had. Make a batch of David Liebovitz’ butterscotch sauce. He uses salted butter, which I find makes the resulting sauce a bit salty (perfectly so!) but do taste it and add more if you like. I’ve found North American salted butter much saltier than the ones I used in England. Make your popcorn, then spread it out on baking sheets lined with parchment paper (do NOT skip this step or you will cry later). Drizzle the warm sauce over the popcorn, then toss it gently. Let it cool, if you can manage it. You will have plenty of sauce leftover, thank me later.
Soy and parmesan
I saw this mentioned across the internet – it was alright, but nothing I’d bother with again. You have to sprinkle the soy carefully or it makes the popcorn soggy.
Peanut butter and maple syrup
This works best with creamy peanut butter. Thin two tablespoons of peanut butter with water, and then whisk with three tablespoons of good maple syrup, and two tablespoons of melted butter. Toss with hot popcorn, and salt to taste.
Salt and sugar
Our favourite by far for quick assembly and taste. Melt butter (I’ll leave quantities to you), and pour over popcorn. Toss gently with salt, and then a small amount of white sugar.