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Americans spend over $1 billion annually on unpopped popcorn kernels. Is there a brand of microwave popcorn that can come close to homemade popcorn?
Freshly popped kernels with butter and salt
What You Need To Know
Americans spend over $1 billion annually on unpopped popcorn kernels. Corn producers large and small develop as many as 30,000 hybrids (which have varying flavor, textural, and volume characteristics) a year in search of better products.
To find out which supermarket microwave popcorn we liked best, we popped up seven national brands in their basic butter flavor and called our tasting panel to the table for a blind sampling. As a baseline, we also tasted plain popcorn kernels dressed with a modest amount of melted butter and salt.
The homemade popcorn won by a landslide. Out of the seven store-bought brands, only two received acceptable grades. The biggest problem with the prepackaged popcorns was “artificial tasting” flavors from the “natural and/or artificial butter flavor” and preservatives. It wasn’t surprising that popcorns with “artificial butter flavor” would taste artificial (this flavor is typically a blend of chemicals designed to mimic real butter, with one eye squarely on the bottom line).
We were, however, very surprised that brands with “natural butter flavor” weren’t better. Since butter is perishable, it needs heavy processing (butter’s flavor molecules are typically extracted by enzyme reaction, solvent extraction, or steam distillation) and/or added preservatives to be shelf-stabilized for these packages—and both of those roads lead to unnatural or weak butter flavor. Our overall rankings are a reflection of how closely each microwave popcorn came to replicating the clean, rich flavor of fresh butter: Obviously, none of them did a very good job. We recommend buying a microwave popper and kernels and adding the butter yourself.
Everything We Tested
Tasters sang the praises of this popcorn’s “clean butter flavor” and “pleasant balance of corn and butter.” It stood out for having “no artificial aftertaste.”
Recommended with reservations
Tasters viewed this popcorn’s “muted,” “neutral” flavor as a positive, as it had “only a touch of butter” and a “mellow corn aftertaste.” While this popcorn didn’t knock tasters’ socks off, it was our overall favorite.
“Oh my, a butter bomb!” said one happy taster. While many tasters commented on this popcorn’s “fake butter flavor” that a few compared to “butter buds,” others liked the “sweet aftertaste” and its resemblance to “movie theater popcorn.”
Tasters noted the “less overt fake (butter) flavor” and “natural tasting” flavor. A few dissenters likened this brand’s “squishy,” “soft” texture to “Styrofoam.”
“Buttery in that awesome artificial way,” said one taster. “Bland but okay” and “chewy” were common themes. Some tasters thought this popcorn was too salty.
This sample scored very high for its “natural, toasty” corn flavor, but its butter flavor was deemed “bland and boring” and “flat.”
One taster felt this brand resembled popcorn with “golden topping.” Tasters didn’t mince words, calling this sample “awful,” “gross,” and “truly inedible.”
This brand had the lowest sodium, fat, and scores of our lineup. A few tasters likened its “fishy,” “chemical” flavors to “buttered popcorn jelly beans.”
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The mission of America’s Test Kitchen Reviews is to find the best equipment and ingredients for the home cook through rigorous, hands-on testing.