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Popcorn Challenge Pits Test Cooks Against One Another in Annual Cooking Clash

With bragging rights at stake, competition is stiff in this in-house battle.

By America's Test Kitchen | May 31, 2015

We recently finished filming season 17 of American's Test Kitchen TV, which will premiere across the country early next year. During filming, the crew took part in one of our favorite, long-held traditions: the annual Rice Krispies throwdown. In honor of that, we're recounting contests from years past, including this competition from 2015, when we decided to try out a new medium: popcorn. Despite the unfamiliar contest ingredient, the test cooks' competitive edge—and trash-talking—was as sharp as ever.  

You can also read about the 2016 competition—when we reintroduced Rice Krispies to the challenge—here.

To celebrate the completion of filming each new season of America’s Test Kitchen TV, we pit teams of test cooks against each other in a friendly in-house cooking competition. The prize? Bragging rights for a year. While the event has traditionally revolved around each team making their best version of a Rice Krispies treat (see video below), this year’s rendition involved popcorn instead.

The rules for the competition are as follows:

1. No pre-testing.

2. Each team gets access to the Test Kitchen’s pantry at 9 a.m. on the day of the competition to identify any ingredients they intend on using. Teams may only use ingredients they find in the pantry—no additional orders are to be placed.

3. Teams are provided two hours to make their treats. As space in the kitchen is limited, each team is required to designate one member of the team to do their cooking.

In all, eight teams participated. Here are images of each team’s respective treat. Which one would you vote for?

Team 1: Amanda Rumore, Nicole Konstantinakos, Katherine Perry, "Cream of Popped Corn"

Cream of Popped Corn consists of a kernel cracker, a Parmesan crisp, and basil-pepper relish.

Team 2: Lan Lam, Ashley Moore, Matthew Fairman, "It Takes Thai to Mango"

Team 2 concocted a mango-flavored, Thai-inspired popcorn treat.

Team 3: Chris O’Connor, Andrea Geary, Steph Pixley, "Spiced Brown Butter Caramel"

Spiced Brown Butter Caramel is a lightly spiced (paprika, cumin, coriander, cayenne, sumac) caramel corn made with brown butter. Team member Andrea Geary says, “It was served in an origami cone that was printed with subliminal messages.”

Team 4: Andrew Janjigian, Leah Collins, Denise Daniels, "Spicy Sichuan Peanut"

Spicy Sichuan Peanut is precisely what it claims to be: a spicy Sichuan-style popcorn adorned with peanuts.

Team 5: Erin McMurrer, Annie Wolf, Bryan Roof, "Hot Buttered Butt"

Team 5’s Hot Buttered Butt consists of a shooter of hot buttered rum with a skewer balanced on top. First, the popcorn was popped in rendered fat from a roasted pork butt. Then half of that popcorn was tossed in an aleppo and sea salt caramel coating, while the other half was coated with bittersweet chocolate and sea salt. They were skewered between squares of candied bacon.

Team 6: Morgan Bolling, Keith Dresser, Dan Souza, "Pudding This One to Bed"

Team 6’s Pudding This One to Bed features butterscotch pudding, a mound of toffee-peanut popcorn, and a single caramel-candied puffed kernel, all topped with a few grains of flaked sea salt.

Team 7: Alli Berkey, Steve Dunn, Nancy Johnsen, "Porky Pop"

Porky Pop is a caramel corn consisting of corn popped in a mix of duck and bacon fat, then finished with a sriracha caramel that’s studded with crisp bacon and peanuts. Finally, the popped corn was dusted with a spice blend that consisted of aleppo pepper, cayenne, salt, and sugar.

Team 8: Danielle DeSiato, Afton Cyrus, Katie Leaird, "Mocha Popcorn Chews"

Team 8’s Mocha Popcorn Chews consists of popcorn coated in gooey mocha creme with a rich mocha swirl and dark chocolate chunks, shaped into balls and rolled in mocha sugar. Team member Danielle DeSiato says, “They looked nowhere near as fancy as they sound.”

The Results

In the end, our unbiased panel of judges (Test Kitchen editorial staff, fittingly) thought Team 6’s “Pudding This One to Bed” tasted best. Team 5’s “Hot Buttered Butt” won the prize for best presentation.

Here’s what some members of Team 6 had to say about their victory:

“We as a team strongly believe that outside of butter and salt, popcorn’s best friends are toffee, caramel, and butterscotch. Based on our big win, we see that the best tasting panel in the country agrees.”

-Dan Souza

“Overall, we’re just excited people liked our treats. And it’s pretty nice to get bragging rights in the Test Kitchen for a year.”

-Morgan Bolling

Do you think our judges got it right? Let us know which popcorn treat you’d most like to eat in the comments.

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