Timers, thermometers, and measuring tools help when learning a new technique, or cooking something precise, like candy. But most of the time, I want to just walk into the kitchen and make something good to eat. This might seem intimidating if you're just learning to cook, but soon you'll find it's not so hard. Your senses tell you what you need to know.
How do you know when the pot starts to boil if you're across the kitchen chopping vegetables? You hear it. How do you know if you've pan toasted spices long enough? You smell them. You see onions caramelize, you feel bread dough get smooth as you knead it, and you taste when a dish needs more salt. You look at a plate and see that a sprinkle of fresh herbs will brighten it.
The best-written recipes will tell you not just how long something takes, but how it will look, smell or feel. Hearing is least often mentioned, but I find I cook by ear a lot. I listen for crackling rice when I don't want to remove the lid and lose steam. I monitor what's happening behind me or in the oven. And one thing I cook almost completely by ear is popcorn.
Here are instruction for cooking popcorn that will help you hone your skills for cooking with your senses.
Stovetop Popcorn By Ear (and eyes and nose)
- popping corn kernels
- neutral oil, such as safflower or grapeseed
A lightweight pot is best, and a lid is essential. Have a big bowl ready. Pour a skim of oil into the pot, enough to cover the bottom, but not so much that the kernels will be swimming. Put the pot over medium-high heat so the oil shimmers but doesn't smoke. Drop a few kernels in: when one pops, the heat is good. Add enough kernels to cover the bottom of the pan. Cover the pan and shake it back and forth. You may need a dish towel or potholder to protect your hand from the heat and hold the lid down.
Continue shaking. Take note of the sound the unpopped kernels make. Listen as the corn pops faster, and the pops overlap. (Adjust the heat if they're not popping rapidly, or if you smell burning). When popping slows and you can no longer hear unpopped kernals rattling around, the popcorn is done. Quickly transfer it to the bowl, so it doesn't burn.
Drizzle the popcorn with olive oil or melted butter, sprinkle it with salt and other seasonings, or just enjoy it as is.
Note: if you can get popcorn from a farm or farmers market instead of the grocery store, it's worth it! I was amazed to learn how flavorful popcorn can be. You'll need less seasoning if you start with good corn.
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