Choosing the right oil is a big question for popcorn connoisseurs. There
are certainly many to choose from, and all have their specific benefits and
detriments. So, here is your opportunity to take a moment and examine the
different oils, and then, of course, you will know more about popcorn oil
than 98% of the people on the planet! This is your chance to join forces
with the popcorn elite, so pay attention.
The process of making kettle-cooked popcorn requires oil to heat the kernels, activating the moisture within the kernel to expand and "pop". The oil will need to withstand a great deal of heat, which is why you cannot pop popcorn in butter, as it will burn. A rich tasting, quick heating oil is generally your best bet, so we should start with the most common oil for popcorn, coconut oil.
Yes, the reports you have heard about coconut oil are true. It is not very good for you. Generally, this has to do with the process of hydrogenating the oil, giving it a significantly longer shelf life (longer than the popcorn kernels, actually), and keeping you from having to refrigerate it. "Whole" or "Virgin" coconut oil can be used, and it is significantly less detrimental to your health, but it is normally difficult to find and must be kept cool, increasing your cooking time. This is one reason the hydrogenated oils rule the American market. The other main reason is because coconut oil makes the most tasty, yummy, crispy popcorn you will find. Which, of course, is why coconut oil is the theater standard for popping corn. That "theater flavor" is achieved with coconut oil. Yep, it is super yummy.
Canola oil is a healthier choice for popping corn, but you sacrifice that true "theater taste". However, the taste of canola-cooked popcorn is still pretty good, and your arteries will appreciate it. Canola oil is more difficult to find in the easy-to-use "portion packs", but can be purchased in bulk sizes. And, unlike coconut oil, it can be easily found at your local grocery store.
Cooking popcorn in sunflower, corn, palm, or vegetable oil is also an option, but the flavor is less rich. While these choices are healthier as well, they are often reserved for popcorn that will receive added flavors like cheese or caramel. Sugared recipes like popcorn balls or traditional kettle corn work well with these types of oil.
Other oils with a more pronounced flavors can be used in conjunction with other oil types to give a specific flavor. For example, in Seattle there is a theater that uses canola oil to pop their popcorn, but infuses a bit of peanut oil into their recipe, giving it an uncommon, but very flavorful and welcome taste experience. These types of rich-flavored oils include olive, peanut, sesame, truffle, grape seed, mustard, and even walnut (yum!).
So, you are now classified as a popcorn oil expert! Go forth and share this valuable knowledge. Feel free to tell folks you discovered this all on your own with hours of original research. We will keep it our little secret. Oh, and the meeting for the popcorn elite is on Thursday evening. You are in charge of snacks this week.