For many, popcorn is the essential movie theater snack; unnaturally yellow and pumped full of salt and artificial butter, it’s basically a requirement for enjoying a show on the big screen. But as our home entertainment centers improve, our Netflix to-be-watch lists grow longer and the idea of paying $30 to see a sub-par Marvel movie becomes less and less appealing, the ubiquity of the classic popcorn-and-a-movie combo seems like it’s beginning to fade. Maybe now is the right time to rewrite the script, to elevate the simple snack to the pedestal on which it deserves to be placed. Maybe now is the right time to declare that relegating popcorn to the realm of the movie theater was a huge cultural mistake.
There are so many ways to use the ingredient, from a dinner enhancer to dinner itself to dessert, that can transform it from a bland snack into something seriously special. And since it’s such a cost-effective pantry staple, it’s an inexpensive way to add more texture to your meals. Let’s take a closer look at how you can incorporate popcorn into your dishes—you may just learn how to appreciate the old standby in a whole new way.
Popcorn as a Soup and Salad Topper
Yes, popcorn is a delicious snack food, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be incorporated into actual meals. One way I love using the ingredient is as a crouton-like topper for soups and salads. Like croutons, popcorn adds crunch to a dish, giving it a textural element that contrasts with creamy soup bases and highlights the crisp greenness of your favorite salad recipes. But unlike croutons, popcorn doesn’t tend to be too filling, so you can really pile it on to take advantage of that textural element without getting too full on toppings alone. Popcorn works well with all kinds of soups and salads, but I especially love it on top of a corn chowder.
You know those days when you finish work late and the idea of actually putting together any kind of coherent meal makes you ponder just going to bed hungry? We’ve all been there at times, and if you’re like me, you may have scarfed down an entire bag of popcorn just to fill the hole. But what if there were a way to make a serving of popcorn into a meal? That’s just what Sarah Jenkins from Front Range Fed suggests. She adds deli meats and cheeses to her popcorn, giving them not just flavor but some bulk and nutritional value. With the addition of some cheddar or Parmesan and pieces of salami or prosciutto, she transforms an average snack into a meal that I actually want to eat. If you have leftovers from your last charcuterie board and can’t be bothered to cook, try this recipe to experience just how delicious popcorn for dinner can be.
Popcorn Snack Mix
Ultimately, most people are always going to regard popcorn as a snack food, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t deserve the time and attention we’d put into a real meal. The plain stuff is simple and delicious, of course, but what if it just served as a base for the other ingredients you add to the mix? By combining popcorn with pretzel twists, chocolate candies, dried fruit and a variety of nuts and seeds, I often make a trail mix sort of situation that’s infinitely more interesting than plain popcorn on its own. You can always make this snack in bulk so you don’t have to keep re-mixing small portions every time you want a snack, but keep in mind that popcorn will often go stale faster than the other ingredients you might add to the mix.
Popcorn for Dessert
Yes, popcorn deserves its due at the dinner table, but there’s also a place for it during dessert. Unless you’re making kettle corn, it’s generally regarded as a savory snack, but you can keep things salty and sweet at the same time. Melt some chocolate chips and coconut oil together to create a chocolatey coating for your popcorn, or simply mix your favorite chocolate and gummy candies into the mix right before you get ready to serve it. Trust me when I tell you that dessert popcorn is better than any plain buttered version you’ve ever tried.
Popcorn may be a widely beloved snack, but few of us utilize it to its full potential. Before you stash those unpopped kernels in the back of your pantry until your next movie night, consider the ways in which you can incorporate popcorn into your daily meals—it could become one of your favorite crunchy meal-enhancers.
Samantha Maxwell is a food writer and editor based in Boston. Follow her on Twitter at @samseating.