Bagged popcorn is selling like crazy these days; does it deserve the hype?
Published Aug. 1, 2016. Appears in Cook's Country TV Season 10: BBQ Thighs and Fried Peach Pies
Americans have been crazy about popcorn since the Great Depression, when it became popular as a cheap, filling, and nutritious snack. These days, popcorn comes in all shapes, sizes, and flavors—from kernels you pop on the stovetop to buttery microwavable products and even mail-order heirloom varieties. But we’ve had our eye on a different category that’s exploded over the past few years: bagged popcorn.
While sales of microwave and kernel popcorn have slowly declined, bagged popcorn sales have increased 60 percent since 2012. We rounded up seven top-selling, nationally available varieties of bagged popcorn to see if we could find a favorite. Though most brands offer multiple flavors, we stuck with basic salt-and-oil varieties. Twenty-one America’s Test Kitchen staffers sampled the popcorns side by side in a blind, randomized tasting.
Though all the products consisted of just oil, salt, and popcorn kernels, tasters noted clear differences between samples: Some were toasty, nutty, and slightly sweet, while others tasted bland, flat, or even a bit burnt. Examining ingredient labels, we saw no trend in type or amount of oil or type of popcorn (all labels just listed “popcorn”).
But the salt was another story. The top products contained a moderate amount of sodium—about 110 milligrams per 1-ounce serving—compared to the 220 milligrams in middle-of-the-pack popcorns and as little as 75 milligrams in the lowest-ranked samples. Products with too little salt were deemed “muted,” while those with too much lacked nuanced toasted-corn flavor. We preferred those with moderate levels of sodium, which allowed the subtleties of the popcorn to shine.
Tasters cared about texture and showed a clear preference for certain samples, so we went in search of answers. All popcorn pops the same way. As the kernels are heated, water inside them begins to steam, building up pressure and causing starch in the kernels to gelatinize. Once enough pressure builds up, the foamy starch bursts through the tough outer layer of the kernels and solidifies as it hits the air—that’s the whitish, billowy part of popped kernels.
To learn more about the factors that affect how popcorn pops, we reached out to food scientists at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln (UNL). They told us that a number of factors could impact pop: a kernel’s size, moisture content, or breed; how the kernels are stored; and how they’re heated. Unfortunately, manufacturers weren’t willing to disclose specifics about their processes or kernels.
Looking for more clues, we scrutinized the popcorn pieces. Tasters preferred round, hearty pieces. UNL scientists told us that the popcorn industry categor...
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