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The world's most frugal snack

A quart of popcorn costs less than a dime. But don't limit yourself to butter and salt. Chipotle-lime corn, anyone?

By Donna_Freedman Apr 5, 2012 12:16PM

Image: Man reacting to a film at the cinema, popcorn flying (© i love images/Cultura RF/Getty Images)Last week at an ethnic market I found a 4-pound bag of popcorn on sale for $3.69 (normally it's $3.99). That's less than 8 cents per ounce, and an ounce of kernels pops up into a quart of corn.

By itself, popcorn is low in calories: 31 per cup for air-popped and up to 55 calories if oil-popped (more on that in a minute). You can keep it low-cal by going easy on the butter and flavoring it instead with items like garam masala, dill, Italian herbs or onion powder.

Let's see: cheap, reasonably healthy and easy to make. Why do so many people buy popcorn only at the movies, where it costs a lot more?

Maybe they think popcorn is hard to make. It isn't. (Post continues after video.)

The directions are written on the bag, and they're pretty simple: Heat oil and a couple of kernels in a large, covered pan. When the kernels pop, pour in some more. Shake the pan constantly until popping slows. Dump it in a bowl. You're done.

Use a vented pan or a pan with a loose-fitting lid, lest moisture drip back down on the corn. I keep the lid slightly tilted so more steam can escape. Sometimes I get hit by an escaping kernel, though.

Old Bay or dilly lemon?
An industry group called the Popcorn Board suggests using one-third of a cup of oil for each cup of kernels. Personally, I cook a quarter-cup of kernels at a time and use just enough oil to coat the bottom of the pan. Thus I don't know exactly how many calories the corn contains.

Nor do I know how much the oil adds to the cost. I'm betting I'm getting a quart of corn for less than a dime, though.

 

You can skip the oil altogether if you use an air popper or a microwave popper. Or do it the way New York Times writer Mark Bittman does, in a brown paper bag.

 

The industry group's website offers lots of popcorn recipes, such as Bombay Popcorn, Cheesy Popcorn (actually made with nutritional yeast, so it's vegan-friendly), Dilly Lemon Munch, Bacon and Cheese Popcorn, Black Sesame Mustard Popcorn and Chipotle Lime Snack Mix.

I've heard other flavor suggestions, including garlic salt, Old Bay Seasoning, cinnamon and sugar, seasoned salt and the orange powder from the mac 'n' cheese box.

Lately I've been using "popcorn salt," also from the ethnic market (99 cents) -- finely ground salt with imitation butter flavor. It's probably not very good for me, but it makes the snack taste like movie corn.

A few tips, courtesy of the Popcorn Board:

  • Mix popped corn with chopped dried fruit.
  • Use popcorn instead of croutons on salad or soup.
  • Don't salt the product until it's cooked.
  • Try seasonings instead of salt. (I’m on it. Dilly Lemon, here I come.)

More on MSN Money:

20Comments
Apr 5, 2012 1:04PM
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I bought a microwave popcorn bowl for 7.99 - definitely one of the best kitchen purchases I have ever made.  It makes great popcorn with no oil for a fraction of the cost of those microwave packages which I try to avoid (too many chemicals !).  Enjoy !!
Apr 6, 2012 1:13PM
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I've got an air popper, and I love it. I'm not really a fan of microwave or theater-style popcorn - too greasy for my tastes. I like my popcorn either plain or with just the lightest amount of spray butter and popcorn flavoring. (Usually white cheddar) I also like the fact that I can get a 2 lb bag of kernels for only $1.50 at my local store. It's much healthier AND cheaper than chips!
Apr 6, 2012 3:54PM
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I also buy my popcorn at a local bulk food store run by some Amish people. They have different types of popcorn (white kernel, yellow kernel, etc.) and depending on the type and the size bag you buy (the larger the bag, the less per pound it costs) you can get a lot of popcorn for the money. I got a bag that was a little over 3 pounds that cost me about 65 cents a pound! Star
Apr 5, 2012 1:51PM
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I love, love, LOVE popcorn!  I received a micro popper for Christmas (per my request for our Secret Santa drawing).Open-mouthed

 

And, there was a recent article online about how the antioxidants in popcorn give veggies a run for their money.  It's a win-win.

 

When popping it on the stove, like Donna, I also use just enough oil to coat the bottom of the cast iron skillet for 1/3 cup not yet popped corn.

 

Try it with shredded cheddar sometime.  Delish!

Apr 6, 2012 11:58AM
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If you want the pure clean taste of popcorn, cook it in a brown lunch sack in the microwave. Best results are achieved with the highest grade of popcorn. Put 1/4 cup of kernels in the bag, add a pinch of sugar and fold the top down a few times. Listen for the slowing of the pops as it could burn easily. Add salt, seasonings, and butter after you dump it in a bowl. Or omit the butter for totally fat free popcorn. Delish!
Apr 5, 2012 12:51PM
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Oh sounds yummy! I know what I'm having for a snack! Thank you for another helpful article!
Apr 5, 2012 8:36PM
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CLEARLY THE BEST WAY TO MAKE WONDERFUL HOMEMADE POPCORN IS BY USING

AN OLD PRESSURE SANS THE RUBBER AND JIGGLER ON THE TOP.  BOTH STEAM AND MOISTURE EASILY LEAVING ONLY DELICIOUS, FLUFFY ,COMPLETELY POPPED  CORN.

WELL THAT IS IF YOU USE ORVILLE REDDENBACHERS ORIGINAL POPPING CORN.

 

Apr 5, 2012 11:44PM
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I have a Stir Crazy popper, which I love. It says to use only oil, but I have used a bit of butter with the oil, and sometimes a few dashes of hot pepper sauce (like Tabasco) with the oil. The popper has a non-stick surface, so it cleans up well. My very favorite seasoning is a little bit of Molly McButter and a seasoning called Spike. (It has a version with salt, and a version without. I usually buy the kind without, I figure I can always add my own salt if I want.)

Apr 6, 2012 11:07AM
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    Iam hip, like  your ideas and will try them out. The popcorn instead of croutons sounds great, thanks, jim
Apr 13, 2012 3:06AM
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Best tasting popcorn- follow Donna's instructions, but coat the bottom of the pan with a small amount of smoked bacon drippings instead of flavorless oil.  You probably won't be tempted to add excessive salt or drench with butter.
Apr 6, 2012 6:18PM
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Use the Air Popper and smother it in butter with the calories you save from not using oil
Apr 6, 2012 11:16PM
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No need for a micriwave popper...just use a brown paper bag.  Use about 1/3 c of pop corn, fold the top twice (don't staple or tape) put in the microwave upright and run untial popping slows to a couple per second.

 

Search google for how to use a paper bag if you think you need more info.

Apr 9, 2012 5:35PM
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I had recently read about using paper bags folded over without oil to make popcorn. I have a bunch of small paper bags and know what to do with them now!
Jul 26, 2012 9:35AM
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We generally cook our popcorn in (food-safe) lunch size paper bags in the microwave, just fold the end over twice and put in with fold side down. Sometimes will do a big pot on the stove but the other way is simpler for me. I put a few drops of oil in measuring scoop with the popcorn and stir it around to coat the kernels before putting it in the bag.

Sometimes we'll add flavorings - curry or spicy cheese etc. but usually just pour on a little butter after putting it in bowls. Instead of salt I add a handful of mini pretzels or pretzel sticks, gives just enough saltiness for my taste.  My husband likes toffee peanuts in his!

Aug 16, 2012 12:58PM
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Popcorn kernels can get stuck in your teeth and gums.  I had a trip to the dentist so they could remove a kernel from my gum, that was stuck in there and causing my gum to swell up.  I would not recommend popcorn.
Apr 6, 2012 6:10PM
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just buy stuff that doesn't go bad
Apr 5, 2012 8:36PM
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OOPS I MEANT TO SAY AN OLD PRESSURE COOKER.
Apr 5, 2012 7:29PM
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Clearly I need to order a microwave popper. That way I can eliminate the oil entirely. Besides, my Amazon GCs that I got free from Swagbucks are going to pay for it.
If you're not familiar with the Swagbucks rewards program, see this Frugal Cool post on the subject:
http://money.msn.com/frugal-living/post.aspx?post=11c39299-2b04-4c47-9371-82de78​03ff2c
Thanks to everyone for commenting, and for reading Frugal Cool.

Apr 6, 2012 3:37PM
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Here at the theater in my town you can get a large pop corn for 7.99 (very cheap) and you can go back and get free refills soda refills are 50 cents.
Apr 6, 2012 4:06PM
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Quite possibly the dumbest article I have ever read.
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Donna Freedman

Donna Freedman, a writer based in Anchorage, Alaska, writes the Frugal Nation blog for MSN Money. She won regional and national prizes during an 18-year newspaper career and earned a college degree in midlife without taking out student loans. Donna also writes about the frugal life for her own site, Surviving and Thriving.

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