It doesn’t just save fat and calories—it allows the popcorn’s natural flavor to shine.
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Credit: Dave Long Media

When I tell people that I make popcorn on the stove with water rather than oil, the reaction is pretty predictable. There's an initial bristle: Why are you doing this?! Are you trying to skimp on oil? Being fussy about calories? Then it morphs to wonder: But, like, how?

First the why. Because I want to should suffice, but yup, it does also cut down on fat and calories, which I then may go back in and gleefully add in a more flavorful way with a little dusting of aged cheese, curls of my favorite butter, or all sorts of spice blends. With the corn popped so cleanly, its own appealing flavor shines through, and plays perfectly with toppings—including plain old salt—and doesn't run the risk of imparting any off or burnt flavors from the oil.

I started making popcorn this way some years ago after half-skimming a tip from The America's Test Kitchen Healthy Family Cookbook some years back, and adapting it depending on the results of each batch. I don't have a microwave or a hot-air popper because I can't spare the counter space, so I was bound and determined to make this work. I beg of you, do not pursue me with digital pitchforks if this doesn't work for you the first time. It takes practice and diligence, and once you master it, unpopped and scorched kernels will be but a distant memory.

Here's how: Take the heaviest, lidded pot you have (cast-iron is ideal) and cover the bottom with a single layer of kernels. Pour water over top of the the kernels until they're covered, but not floating. Put the covered pot on the burner, and turn the heat on medium high. Periodically shake the pan. When it seems as if the water has evaporated, but the kernels have not popped or burned, carefully lift the lid, add 1/4 cup of water, replace the lid quickly, turn the heat up a little, and back away. The lid will rattle furiously and steam will pour out, but once it subsides, periodically shake the pot. You should start to hear popping, and when it's more than a couple of kernels, reduce the heat as low as it will go, and slide/shake the pot every 10-20 seconds. When most of the kernels have popped (you'll be able to hear, because they'll no longer be sliding against the bottom), remove the pot from the heat and leave the lid on until the popping is complete.