2011’s hottest snack trend (DIY recipes included)

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I'm here to report that the hottest snack trend for 2011 is…flavored popcorn! Walking the busy and delicious isles of the Fancy Food Show in Washington DC last week, I encountered popped corn in every imaginable combination, from bourbon to smoked almond, from chocolate caramel to bacon.

Popcorn is a great snack! It's (potentially) nutritious, it's inexpensive, and its neutral taste opens it to interpretation, so if you're tired of eating popcorn the old-fashioned (butter and salt) way and feel like trying something new, popcorn innovation is here!

Popcorn nutrition tips

Popcorn is not only tasty and fun, but can also be healthful. Popcorn is a whole grain, high in fiber, relatively low in calories and fat, and it does fill you up.

But just like a banana -- a perfectly good snack -- can become calorie-laden when transformed to a banana split or banana chips, so it is with popcorn, so look out for what's added to your popcorn.

Many microwavable popcorn brands contain either partially hydrogenated oil or have replaced those with palm oil, which is a highly saturated oil and not much better.

Many popcorn brands use butter flavor. A few years ago we learned that microwavable popcorn contains diacetyl, a natural flavor that imparts butter aroma. Heated diacetyl becomes a vapor and when inhaled over a long period of time inflames the small airways in the lungs and scars them. The severe form of the disease is called bronchiolitis obliterans or "popcorn workers' lung", which is untreatable and can be fatal. Since the news of popcorn lung spread, many popcorn makers, lead by Orville, announced they've replaced diacetyl with new, safer, butter substitutes. Recent studies have shown that these substitutes are similar to diacetyl and have produced similar health effects and are therefore just as toxic as what they've replaced.

So read the ingredient list and select a popcorn brand without unwanted additives, or better yet, make your own popcorn at home -- it's really easy, I'm sure you don't have diacetyl in your pantry, and since your popcorn will be devoured immediately you can use any healthy oil you'd like, and not worry about "shelf life".

Spice up your popcorn: DIY popcorn ideas and tips

Feel like making gourmet popcorn at home? Here's one of my favorites:

Sage popcorn

What you need:

  • A large, preferably heavy pot with lid
  • 1-2 tablespoons flavorless, high-temperature oil (I use canola)
  • 2 tablespoons fresh sage, finely chopped
  • ½ cup popcorn kernels
  • Salt to taste

Preparation:

  • Add the oil to the pot over medium heat.
  • Throw a couple kernels of corn in the pot and cover it. When those kernels of corn have popped, your oil is hot enough to start.
  • Add the rest of your popcorn, fine salt and the sage. Cover the pot and shake it to coat the popcorn with oil.
  • Continue to cook, covered, and shake the pot occasionally (every 20-30 seconds is probably sufficient). Keep this up until the popping almost stops.
  • Adjust salt to taste.

Substitutions and additions:

  • Rosemary, oregano or thyme- replace the sage.
  • Truffle oil- add 1-2 tablespoons of good truffle oil to the popped corn.

For crispier popcorn: If the pot is very tightly covered, the steam released by the kernels can make the popcorn less crisp. If this happens, set the lid very slightly ajar, or lift the lid a few times to let the steam out.

Homemade microwave popcorn

Don't feel like washing a pot? You can make your own popcorn in the microwave; all you need is a paper bag:

  • Put 1/4 cup popcorn kernels in a medium size paper lunch bag.
  • Fold over the top 3-4 times.
  • Put the bag in the microwave for a few minutes. It will pop fantastically and the bag will not burn. Turn microwave off when popping slows down significantly.
  • Add butter and salt, or try one of the flavors below:
    • Lime zest, olive oil and chili powder or go up in spiciness and add anything from cayenne to chipotle to habanero powder - see if you dare! Mix together, then add to popcorn.
    • Finely grated parmesan, paprika and olive oil -- mix together, then add to popcorn.
    • Cinnamon powder, orange zest and olive oil -- mix together, then add to popcorn.

Popcorn popping tip

Rejuvenating reluctant popcorn: If your popcorn doesn't pop into fluffy, crunchy kernels, it may have lost some of its moisture. Those unpoppable kernels are called "old maids", a most politically incorrect term. Popability depends on water; as the kernel heats up, water inside it releases steam, putting more and more pressure on the kernel until it explodes. Revive "dry" popcorn by putting it in a closed jar and adding a little water. Cover and shake occasionally until all the water is absorbed. In two to four days popcorn should be perfect for popping.

Enjoy! And please do add your popcorn innovations below.

Dr. Ayala

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