Popcorn is the snack to beat all snacks. It's tasty, high in fiber, and you can season it with everything from butter and salt to wasabi. (There's even Simon and Garfunkel popcorn—made, of course, with parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme.) The advent of the microwave meant more for popcorn than perhaps any other food, and these days most of us satisfy our popcorn cravings by just nuking a bag of Pop Secret. But microwave popcorn has its downsides: It's high in calories and relatively pricey. Plus, until recently, microwave popcorn was manufactured with a chemical called diacetyl, which caused some popcorn-factory workers—and even one consumer —to develop a serious disease called popcorn lung.
Admittedly, that guy ate two bags of microwave popcorn a day, and after his story came to light, late last year, manufacturers removed diacetyl from their recipes. Still, the popcorn lung reports got me thinking about a return to homemade popcorn. I decided to test out popcorn poppers to find the best way to satisfy my snacking urges without adding cost, calories, or chemicals to what should be a nice, natural food.
I tested six popcorn poppers, three that used hot air and three that cooked the popcorn in oil. For each, I used plain-old store-brand popcorn kernels. I used corn oil for the poppers that required oil, because it's a relatively healthy fat and because it seemed appropriate. I evaluated the poppers using three criteria:
Popability (10 possible points)
Does the popper produce fluffy popcorn, or does it tend to burn it? Do all of the kernels pop, or does the popper leave behind old maids and half-popped kernels to wreak havoc on your teeth? Is the popcorn ready quickly? Ideally, a popper shouldn't take any longer than a microwave.
Usability (10 possible points)
Is the popper easy to set up, both the first time and on subsequent uses? Does it come with any extra features, like a butter melter, a scoop to measure out the popcorn, or a built-in bowl to eat out of? Is it easy to clean? I also factored into this category the price of the popper.
Taste (10 possible points)
Is the popcorn light and crunchy or heavy and chewy? It should be noted that among popcorn aficionados, there is a sharp divide over hot air vs. oil. Hot-air-popped corn is healthier, but because it's drier, it's tempting to pour a lot of butter on it. Popping in oil gives the corn a little taste and cuts down on the dryness but can leave the popcorn soggy. I brought to my testing four years of popcorn-popping experience from my high-school job at a movie theater concession stand, but I didn't have a preference for one method or the other.
Here are the results, listed from "stick with the microwave" to "pop on!"
West Bend Stir Crazy Popcorn Popper, $40.99 My first thought on seeing this popcorn popper was that it looked as if it belonged on the set of The Brady Bunch. There's something very '70s about its awkward plastic dome and cumbersome shape. The popcorn and oil go in the curved base of the popper, where a metal arm stirs the kernels to keep them from burning. Once it's done popping, you flip the entire thing over, leaving the popcorn in the plastic dome, which doubles as a bowl. The West Bend also features a butter melter that, in theory, coats the popcorn in butter as it pops. The plastic dome has vents in the top that are supposed to let hot air escape and melt the butter onto corn.
Sounds great, right? Only, it didn't work. The stirring arm kept getting caught on the kernels, so the heat wasn't evenly distributed. It took about five and a half minutes to pop all the corn, longer than I'd like to wait. And even though it took a while to get the kernels popping, the butter wasn't melted by the time it was done. Instead, half-melted globs of butter sat atop the bowl, which I had to clean up before I could flip the popper and begin eating. It was messy and inconvenient. As for the popcorn: It was chewy. And there were lots of unpopped kernels.