Food tastes better when you have to work hard for it—same with drinks. This phenomenon manifests itself in a number of ways. Ice-cold lemonade is never as refreshing as after you’ve spent all day working outside under the baking sun; produce from your own garden is always better than what you buy in the supermarket. And food that requires physical labor even after it hits your plate isn’t nearly as satisfying when somebody else does that work for you.
I am a sunflower seed fiend. For awhile, Amazon sent me a a box every month, before I decided that consuming a pack every three days was destructive behavior. I don’t buy pistachio nuts very often, because I am wholly unable to restrain myself from eating the entire bag, and at Japanese restaurants, I always order a bowl of edamame. If there’s a little seed, nut, or bean to eat out of a shell, I am all about that shit.
But sometimes I’ll have one of these treats shelled. (Can we talk for a minute about how confusing it is that shelled means “shell taken off” and unshelled means “shell not shelled yet”?) Once or twice, in a fit of inspiration, I’ve made baklava and been left with ninth-tenths of a bag of shelled pistachios; sometimes on a road trip, a gas station will only have shelled sunflower seeds. Don’t get me wrong, I’ll still eat and enjoy them, but they just aren’t as good as their unshelled brethren. Throwing 100 shelled sunflower seeds into your mouth and swallowing them 15 seconds later feels like cheating.
Which brings us to partially popped popcorn.
You know how at the bottom of a bowl of popcorn, there are a bunch of unpopped kernels, and amongst those unpopped kernels is a handful that popped, but only a tiny bit? One day, it seems, somebody asked the obvious next question: “Can I just make an entire bag of these?”
The corn kernels grown for popcorn typically contain between 16 to 20 percent moisture, but if this much is allowed to remain, the kernels are at risk of rotting before they even get to you. So after they’re removed from the husk, popcorn kernels are heated and dried to 14 percent moisture. When you eventually cook them—in a microwave, on a stove, in a popcorn popper—the moisture inside heats up and turns into steam, bursting through the shell of the kernel in a violent explosion, creating popcorn.
A patent, granted in 2009, explains how partially popped popcorn is created. Instead of reducing the amount of moisture inside of the kernels, it is increased to between 20 and 40 percent. The best way to do this is by boiling the kernels, which does two things: It increases the amount of moisture inside of the kernel, and can also create “cracks or fractures,” which both serve to suppress the force of the eventual popping. The kernels still pop when cooked—just not as forcibly.
Are they any good in bulk?
Yes. They are really fucking delicious, given that partially popped popcorn is coated in butter, oil, and sea salt—i.e., wonderful and traditional popcorn toppings. Sometimes the butter is caked onto the kernels a bit thick, but overall it adds a richness to the popcorn flavor that you don’t normally taste in bagged junk food. The kernels also have a great variation in texture, with some soft and almost melting in your mouth, while others require a satisfying crush from your molars. It’s at once novel and comfortingly familiar.
That said, there are quickly diminishing returns with each handful. Like the aforementioned snacks in shells, a sizable amount of satisfaction derived from partially popped popcorn comes from the hunt. There are no more than 10 to 15 kernels in each bowl, and they’re covered in popcorn you have to eat your way through. The change of texture from fluffy popcorn—and pleasure in spotting a partial specimen hiding beneath the unpopped kernels—makes each piece taste like a reward. This gets to be too much of a good thing very quickly, but it’s still a great snack—just don’t pig out all by yourself. That’s what Kettle chips are for.
Welcome to Bougie Food Reviews, an irregular series where we review the most highfalutin products available in the grocery store. If you’ve got an idea for a future review, email the author here.