What's the best popcorn popper?

How to be the best consumer you can be.
March 27 2008 7:49 AM

Pop Off

What's the best popcorn popper?

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.

Torie Bosch Torie Bosch

Torie Bosch is the editor of Future Tense, a project of Slate, the New America Foundation, and Arizona State that looks at the implications of new technologies. 

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Methodology

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

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.

Popability: 3 (out of 10)
Usability: 3 (out of 10)
Taste: 4 (out of 10)
Total: 10 (out of 30)

Progressive Microwave Popcorn Popper

Progressive Microwave Popcorn Popper, $12.99 This product promises to combine the ease of microwave popcorn with the healthiness of a hot-air popper. You place the kernels on the heating circle at the bottom of the popper using a built-in measuring cup and stick it in the microwave for a few minutes. When it's done, you've got a nice batch of popcorn in a built-in bowl—and at $12.99, it's the cheapest popper I could find. Ease, healthiness, and affordability—we should have a winner here.

Except it just doesn't pop the corn. The Progressive produced popcorn that was simultaneously burned and undercooked—about one-third of the kernels didn't pop. The kernels that did pop popped small and tasted almost stale. The Progressive is dishwasher-safe—but if you never use it, it will never need cleaning.

Popability: 1 (out of 10)
Usability: 6 (out of 10)
Taste: 5 (out of 10)
Total:12 (out of 30)

Toastess International Hot Air Popper

Toastess International Hot Air Popper, $24.99 This squat little hot-air popper is easy to store even in a cramped kitchen. Like the West Bend, it features a butter warmer, which doubles as a scoop for measuring out the corn. Setup was a cinch: Put the popcorn in the base, put the lid on, and you're ready to go. In just three minutes, I had a piping-hot bowl of popcorn. A little too fast, perhaps, because once again the popcorn was ready before the butter melted. The taste of the popcorn was just OK—it wasn't as fluffy and light as I would have liked, and I kept biting down on half-popped and unpopped kernels. The Toastess is not dishwasher-friendly and lacked an on/off switch, a feature I'd gladly pay a little extra for—my kindergarten teacher taught me never to turn off an appliance by yanking its electrical cord out of the wall.

Popability: 6 (out of 10)
Taste: 6 (out of 10)
Usability: 4 (out of 10)
Total: 16 (out of 30)

Cuisinart Popcorn Popper

Cuisinart Popcorn Popper, $59.95 This is one good-looking popcorn popper. The basic design is similar to the West Bend, but it's more 21st-century—it looks more like one of Cuisinart's food processors than a popcorn popper. Alas, despite its sleek design, this machine somehow manages to make popping corn complicated. It required too much assembly, particularly given its steep price—I didn't want to pay this much more for an on/off switch.

The popcorn was ready in about four minutes. Because this is an upside-down popper—the popcorn pops from the bottom up into an overturned bowl—it was hard to determine that the popping was complete. I probably left it on a little too long, as some of the kernels tasted a tad charred. The rest were a bit soggy from the oil, though I used the recommended amount. I think that if I got to know the Cuisinart, we could make some tasty popcorn together. But I'm not sure you should have to work at your relationship with your popcorn popper.

Popability: 7 (out of 10)
Usability: 6 (out of 10)
Taste: 6 (out of 10)
Total: 19 (out of 30)

Whirley-Pop Stovetop Popcorn Popper

Whirley-Pop Stovetop Popcorn Popper, $19.99 This old-timey popcorn popper, which uses oil, doesn't require an electrical outlet. You just put it on your stove (it's safe for both electric and gas) and crank the handle slowly while the kernels pop. I confess I thought it looked a little goofy at first—is this a popcorn popper or a hurdy-gurdy?—but this little popper surprised me. It took only three minutes to pop the corn and left just a half-dozen old maids, though there were a good many half-popped kernels. The popcorn was crunchy and tasty. The Whirley-Pop has its downsides, however. It's not dishwasher-friendly, and there was a little burn mark on the bottom of mine after just one use. It would be fun to use with little kids—this is how they made popcorn before there were microwaves!—but it also seems a little dangerous to have children so near a hot stove.

Popability: 9 (out of 10)
Usability: 5 (out of 10)
Taste: 9 (out of 10)
Total: 23 (out of 30)

Presto PopLite Hot Air Corn Popper

Presto PopLite Hot Air Corn Popper, $16.94 The Presto PopLite looks exactly like the hot-air popper I used as a kid—right down to the ugly yellow top. But it gets the job done, popping all of the popcorn in just about a minute and half and leaving just a few unpopped kernels. Like the Toastess, it came with a useless butter warmer—is melting butter really this hard?—and no on/off switch. But it's also cheap, costing little more than a few boxes of the microwave stuff. And the taste was great: The kernels were airy and crunchy and were perfectly complemented with just a touch of salt and butter. I think the Presto and I will be very happy together.

Popability: 9 (out of 10)
Usability: 6 (out of 10)
Taste: 9 (out of 10)
Total: 24 (out of 30)

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