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As you walk the aisles of your favorite supermarket, you’ll undoubtedly see shelves lined with bags of popcorn. Plain popcorn. Cheese popcorn. Even dill pickle-flavored popcorn.
Americans consume 17 billion quarts of popcorn each year, according to the National Popcorn Board of Chicago.
Interestingly, 90% of that 17 billion quarts is sold to consumers in kernel form.
Another fun fact: about 70% of all popcorn is consumed at home.
The folks who buy these bags and boxes of ready-to-pop kernels need a way to transform them into fluffy, crunchy goodness.
Some choose the old-fashioned method of heating oil in a large pot and waiting until a few test kernels pop. The next step is to add a cup or so of additional kernels and let the popcorn do its thing. This pot-on-stove technique is certainly cheap, but it requires a deft hand, lots of patience, and a willingness to accept burnt kernels alongside some uncooked ones, which are often called “maidens.”
For as little as $10, popcorn lovers can get their hands on a more foolproof piece of technology: the popcorn popper.
In this shopping guide, we examine the pros and cons of different types of popcorn makers and answer some FAQ.
At BestReviews, we want you to be well-prepared for your movie night or day-long football game gathering. We’re proud to endorse each of the popcorn makers in our product matrix, above. Our reviews are honest and unbiased; we never accept “free” samples from manufacturers. We perform our own research and buy our own products off of store shelves and online.
Love popcorn? There’s a good chance the popcorn you eat has its origins in Nebraska, the state that produces 250 million pounds of kernels each year.
So you want a popcorn maker. Which type should you get? The range is vast, and it includes the following:
These models are generally made of BPA-free silicone, but some include other microwave-safe materials, like gemstone. A microwave popper can quickly prepare your popcorn with or without oil. Kernels are poured into the bottom of the unit and cooked in the microwave for approximately three minutes.
Silicone models have a lid or flaps that fold over to keep the finished product in place. We like the fact that silicone models are relatively inexpensive, easy to use, and dishwasher safe. On the downside, however, the microwave method tends to yield more unpopped kernels than some other methods. The reason for this is lack of stirring; unlike the stovetop method, you don’t touch the kernels at all while they’re in the microwave.
These are a fixture in college dorms and in the homes of folks who eat on a tight budget. An electric stirrer features a heating element base and a separate lid. The base holds a rotating metal strip that keeps the kernels stirring during cooking. A tablespoon of oil, along with about ½ cup of uncooked kernels, is placed in the base.
The more basic units don’t have an on/off switch. To start and stop these machines, you must plug and unplug the unit. The lid’s air vent keeps the popcorn light and fluffy during cooking. On the plus side, this process is more efficient than manual methods, fairly foolproof, and can render up to six quarts of popcorn at a time. However, an electronic stirrer must be monitored carefully, or the finished product could burn.
In general, it’s time to turn off your electric stirrer when you don’t hear any more popping sounds.
If you have a hungry crowd clamoring for their popcorn in a hurry, your best option is the Presto PopLite Hot Air machine. This unit pops 30% faster than comparable machines. During the Big Game or movie night, you don’t want to keep your guests waiting!
Here, old school meets new tech. Hand-crank models like the Wabash Valley Farms Whirley Pop Popcorn Maker operate in a similar fashion to their electric cousins, but instead of an electronic base, the pot sits on the stove. The process resembles the old-fashioned test-kernel way mentioned above, but the pot features a crank and a stirring rod to keep the kernels moving while they are popping, and a built-in lid keeps the goodies in the pot.
One advantage of the hand-crank method is the ability to add seasonings and flavors at the end of the process and use the stirring motion to spread the goodness throughout.
One of the advantages here is that when popping is done, the artisan chef can add cheese, spices, chocolate, caramel, or other flavoring and stir it into the popcorn to create a “gourmet” product.
Quite simply, these models use air to heat the kernels and send the finished product out of a chute in the front of the appliance. The forced air separates the kernels while poppin, eliminating the need for fat or other cooking oil.
Air poppers gained their initial popularity with dieters looking for a way to create a snack with no oil. By the same token, however, air poppers produce popcorn with a rather bland taste.
For those who want the best of both worlds, select a great air popper like the Cuisinart EasyPop Hot Air Popcorn Maker. This machine cooks without any fat but allows you to add a bit of butter or flavoring via a small vent at the top of the machine. The vent melts the butter during the popping and spreads it throughout the final product.
If you use oil, be sure to select one with a high smoke point, such as unrefined corn, canola, sunflower, or peanut oil. The right oil will ensure fewer burnt popcorn kernels.
If you want a popcorn popper with a nostalgic look, you have many options. A showtime popper is a larger unit suitable for a den, man cave, or entertainment center.
While showtime poppers are cool to look at, they produce some of the least-healthy popcorn around. They operate via a cylindrical unit near the top into which you pour either oil and kernels or, more likely, a carefully measured commercial package that already has the oil, popcorn, and flavoring in one small bag.
Not all showtime poppers are the size of small trolley cars. While the versions you see at a fair or carnival can weigh up to 60 pounds, newer models built to sit on a table are no more than 10 pounds.
Even the best popcorn maker will disappoint if you don’t select your popcorn kernels carefully.
While you’ve been busy digging into your giant tub of movie snacks, chances are you never realized there are two kinds of popcorn kernels: butterfly and mushroom. Butterfly kernels, also known as “snowflake” kernels, produce the kind of popcorn you’re more likely to see in a theater, at a ball game, or even at a carnival. They are tender, fluffy, and irregular in shape — which means the theater can fill up your order with less popcorn.
Mushroom kernels have a rounder shape. When popped, the texture tends to be denser and chewier than the butterfly variety. If you’re interested in making confectionary popcorn of any kind, including kettle corn, caramel corn, or chocolate-covered corn, this is the type to get. Mushroom popcorn is more consistent in size and is often used for gourmet eating.
Collect unpopped kernels and heat them in the popcorn maker again. This will actually pop most of them. But keep an eye on the timer — unpopped kernels take lesser time as they have already been partially cooked the first time round.
If you are looking to replicate the taste of old-fashioned movie popcorn, you can use coconut or palm oil as a base for popping.
Keep in mind that many theaters eliminated those fats more than 50 years ago because of their high fat content — a whopping 80 grams for a large tub!
The safest choice is naturally low-fat canola oil, which has a reasonably high smoke point and is inexpensive. If you’re looking for more taste than bland canola oil, olive oil is your best bet. But be careful when using olive oil; it’s lower smoke point means you could wind up with more burnt kernels.
At the lowest price point, you have a large selection of silicone microwave poppers in a wide variety of colors. However, silicone poppers make the smallest amount of finished popcorn among all the units. As this option has become more popular, manufacturers are now making silicone models in a wider variety of form factors and sizes.
Air poppers, which come in a variety of sizes, start at around $15, with the sweet spot hovering around $25. The more expensive models generally carry a brand name — Salton, Hamilton Beach, Presto — and offer a larger capacity.
To separate unpopped kernels from ready popcorn, shake the bowl — almost all the heavier unpopped kernels will settle at the bottom. You can then scoop out the fluffy popcorn from the top.
Hand crank models start at around $20, with the sweet spot around $40. The differences here lie mainly in the sturdiness of the crank and the material of the pot. Cheaper ones are made of aluminum; those at the higher end are stainless steel.The crank portion of the pot includes a lid for the pot to contain the popped kernels.
In this price range, you also will find smaller showtime models. These tend to be of the tabletop variety and are often mini versions of commercial vendor units.
The popular electric stirrers (West Bend is the iconic brand in this category) begin around $35 for basic models. Those with a larger capacity can creep up past $60.
For $75 to $80, consumers can buy a commercial tabletop model that’s been tricked out with old-time signs and decorative trim.
Larger commercial models tend to fall in the $125 to $150 price range. These models are often made of stainless steel and come with warranties.
As popcorn machines grow larger and more expensive, some of them also appear more decorative and nostalgic. Purchases like these are more about fun and the enhancement of a room’s décor than the quality of the popcorn produced.
There are a number of DIY ways to make popcorn. These range from ridiculous efforts to use a curling iron to more clever attempts recommended by such notables as Alton Brown.
Q: What is the nutritional value of popcorn?
A: Air-popped popcorn has 30 calories per cup; oil adds another five calories. Add a bit of butter, and that number shoots up to about 80 calories.
Q: Who invented microwave popcorn?
A: Microwave popcorn was discovered by the defense contractor Raytheon Corporation, but it was patented by General Mills in 1981.
Q: Can any corn be used for popcorn?
A: Not every type of corn can be used for popcorn. Only the type of maize called Zea mays everta is suitable for popcorn.
Q: What is the ideal cooking temperature for popcorn?
A: The ideal temperature for popcorn is between 400 and 460°F. A kernel will generally pop when it reaches 347°F.