Since late November, my friend Andrew Janjigian and I have made a total of about 55 batches of this popcorn. It’s his recipe, which he shared with me after I wrote about MSG in pho. When he realized that I was open to tinkering with monosodium glutamate in cooking, he sent the recipe to me. Yes, this popcorn contains MSG.
Andrew is a senior editor at Cook’s Illustrated Magazine, part of the America’s Test Kitchen (ATK) empire. We’ve known each other for years. He’s an avid bread baker (@wordloaf on Twitter and Instagram) who volunteered to test my bread recipe in The Banh Mi Handbook. (He approved it.)
When I visited Boston last May, Andrew invited me to give a Pho talk at and tour of the magazine’s storied headquarters. We also went out to eat fabulous Sichuan food in the suburbs. There are a stunning number of good Sichuan restaurants in Boston and its suburbs.
Andrew has a thing for Sichuan flavors. On that visit, he gifted me a jar of his crazy good Sichuan chile crisp – the recipe for it is posted at this site owned by illustrator and author Johanna Kindvall. He and Johanna collaborated on another recipe for mushroom confit, also published at her site.
Both the crisp and confit are foods that Andrew likes to make to gift people. The idea of gifting food to many people feeds his need to obsess and tinker with recipes. The popcorn brings together his love of big flavor and obsession with recipe development.
Over the years, as Andrew has worked on the popcorn, it remains a winner among his friends. This past holiday season, he made about forty batches as presents to some lucky folks.
But Andrew had some issues with the popcorn: He couldn’t get enough of the hot, numbing, savory seasonings to stick. He’d been adjusting and tinkering with it since the original version was made for a 2015 ATK in-house competition. The popcorn and peanut combo was inspired by Sichuan spicy peanuts (huang fei hong), a spicy fried peanut that’s also a beer friend. Andrew loved the peanuts and wanted to do something similar involving popcorn. When hot and just-popped, popcorn’s slightly spongy texture is a great vehicle for flavor.
By the time I got the recipe in November 2017, the peanuts were out of the picture. Andrew was focused on creating a spicy, numbing Sichuan version of Doritos done up with popcorn. That’s my description after making the first batch. It needed work, but I was intrigued by Andrew’s combination of seasonings. I burned a few batches trying to get the seasonings to stick while the popcorn was popping in the pot (don’t try that at home).
Why the flavors works
This popcorn is addictively good due to the usage of MSG, nutritional yeast (“nooch”), and salt – an umami bomb of a combination. Many people love nooch and salt with popcorn, but adding MSG sends it over the top in the world of savoriness. Balancing those flavors is the numbing spicy heat of the Sichuan peppercorns and Korean gochugaru (its mild heat is very similar to Sichuan dried chile pepper I sampled in Chengdu). The paprika adds warm color and sweet chile heat. It’s all slightly sweetened by sugar.
Andrew popped his light caramel popcorn in a Whirley Pop and combined it with the seasonings in a big lidded tub, which he vigorously shook. I lacked both implements so I made half batches of his recipe and employed a heavy-duty pot and rimmed baking sheet.
Our Popcorn Madness
Emailing across country for many rounds, we tweaked the spice blend formula and discussed how to get more of the stuff to stick. The MSG and nooch were present but not well distributed enough to get the kind of savory umami burst that you’d expect. Going into Christmas, we weren’t satisfied. I put the popcorn on a back burner.
At a New Year’s Eve party over at my neighbor Dan’s house, a light went on. I was eating Doritos and realized that the seasonings on Doritos are powdery, like dust. Andrew and I were just stirring together pre-ground spices and nooch granules. The MSG crystals remained big. We needed to grind.
On January 1, I grounded the spices and seasonings in my spice grinder and the problem was fixed. I reported back to Andrew and he revealed that he had the same revelation. We had a bi-coastal mind meld in our respective kitchens!
Andrew doubled the paprika to have more material to stick to the popcorn, but I found that to mute the zing of the Sichuan peppercorns, which my husband and I love. You may follow his lead and use more paprika.
Popcorn happens quickly, so I made this video to guide you:
After making the video, my husband and I ate most of the batch with ice-cold beer. I’ve had it with crisp white wine as well as a slightly chilled light bodied red. You should make this popcorn at least once. But we hope you make it again and again.
Don’t want to use MSG? Make the recipe without MSG. It’ll be shy of brilliant as Andrew devised it, but you may like it just fine.
- Curry Popcorn Recipe – Another flavored popcorn to try. It’s from my brief stint as a line cook.
- Joyce Chen’s Golden Egg Fried Rice — If you want to tinker with MSG, this is a classic, fabulous dish.
- MSG in Pho and What to Do about It – The role of MSG in many favorite foods, from pho to Doritos and KFC. And what are your options as a cook, eater and consumer?
- MSG discussion on the Sporkful podcast – Host Dan Pashman engages me, Kevin Pang (a lead food writer with the Onion), and Dr. Aaron Carroll (a pediatrician and NYT contributor) in conversations about one of his favorite kitchen seasonings.
Sichuan Magic Dust Popcorn
Yield 2 to 4 servings
If you do not have gochugaru, substitute Aleppo pepper, which as a similar coarse texture and heat level. Or, toast some dried chiles de arbol, then stem and seed them. You'll need about 2 or 3 grams.
When doubling this recipe, use a 6-quart pan to pop the corn and two rimmed baking sheets (or a large roasting pan) to combine the popcorn and spice blend. Get a friend to help.
- 1 1/2 teaspoons gochugaru (coarsely ground Korean red pepper)
- 1 1/4 to 1 1/2 teaspoons Sichuan peppercorns
- 1/4 plus 1/8 teaspoon MSG
- 1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt
- 2 tablespoons nutritional yeast (the coarse, flakey kind)
- 1 1/2 teaspoons paprika
- 2 1/2 tablespoons neutral oil, such as canola 1/4 cup popcorn
- 2 tablespoons sugar
- To make the spice blend, use an electric spice grinder (a coffee grinder dedicated to spices in my kitchen). Put the gochugaru and Sichuan peppercorns in the grinder and whirl as finely as possible. Shake the grinder as it’s working to move things around. Add the MSG and salt, then whirl to a finer texture, like a powder. Add the nutritional yeast and paprika. Grind more to create a very fine, orange blend.
- Sprinkle about 2/3 of the spice blend onto a large, clean rimmed baking sheet (line the baking sheet with parchment first, if yours looks questionably unclean). Reserve the remaining 1/3 of the spice blend. Set the baking sheet near the stove.
- Put the oil and 3 popcorn kernels in a heavy 3 to 6-quart pan. Cover with a lid. Set on medium-high or high heat. Have the remaining popcorn and sugar nearby.
- After you hear all 3 kernels pop, uncover and pour in the popcorn and sugar. Cover and vigorously shake the pan to distribute. Set back down on the burner. In about 1 minute, the popcorn will start popping. Pick up the lidded pan and shake up and down or side to side to facilitate even cooking. Then replace on the heat. Frequently repeat until the popping slows down and you hear 3 to 5 seconds between pops.
- Slide to a cool burner. Remove the lid, tilting it away from you and setting it aside. Pour the hot, gently sizzling popcorn onto the baking sheet, evenly distributing it. Sprinkle the reserved spices on top.
- Use a silicone spatula or metal spoon to stir and combine the popcorn to coat it with the spice blend. In about 1 minute, or when you feel the popcorn is cool enough, start using one of your hands, too. You can now toss and turn the popcorn to coat it even more thoroughly. (You can use both hands, but it’s not as efficient as having the spatula or spoon in one of your hands to scoop up popcorn and spices.) Keep moving the popcorn and spices for about 3 minutes (longer than in the video because your eyes would have glazed over if I had kept going). Eventually, nearly all the spices will have coated the popcorn. Transfer to a bowl and eat up. Or, store in an airtight container (Andrew uses ziptop plastic bags).