Movie Theater Popcorn Secrets
Like sheep we line up at the movie theater concession stand to get our delicious popcorn for the reasonable price of $78.13, for a small bag. It's worth mortgaging our home because the flavor and the texture are so delicious, if not addicting. We dutifully buy popcorn in the theater because the popcorn propaganda is irresistible and because the movie theater man is watching. Don't even try to smuggle your own popcorn into the theater or else you might face the extreme shame that is...well, I'm not sure what happens because I've never been...uh, I mean I've never seen anyone get caught.
But don't forget the guilt, the extreme guilt that accompanies the eeevil act of smuggling in one's own refreshments. No amount of cost savings is worth that kind of guilt, or is it? Smuggling regular microwave popcorn, for example, would not be worth the guilt. Sure you'll save money, but the flavor will not match the movie theater smell thus causing your brain to implode.
But what if you were smuggling the same stuff that's in the the theater? Now you can. The secret recipe once known only to theater managers and their minions now belongs to the common man (and woman). Popcorn lovers unite! Popcorn power to the people! We will no longer yield to oppressive theater governments (unless caught)! Join the popcorn revolution, and learn how to make your very own delicious movie theater popcorn. Follow the directions below, and read on to become a popcorn expert. It's easy. It's economical. It's a blast!
Quickstart: Ingredients to Buy
These are the two critical secret ingredients:
1. Coconut Oil with beta carotene (critical ingredient)
2. Flavacol (critical ingredient)
3. Popcorn (The kind of popcorn is not critical)
The coconut oil sizes are bulk (1 gallon), so do not be scared of the price. A 1 gallon bottle will last for many, many batches and is by far the most economical. Sometimes the coconut oil availability and pricing fluctuates on Amazon. It is important to check eBay for cheaper pricing just in case. Snappy is as good as Paragon. I put the links below so that you can always come back to this page and find coconut oil.
On quick note about the popcorn. I buy it locally for as cheap as I can find it. If it is more convenient for you to buy popcorn on Amazon, I recommend the bulk popcorn sold by Paragon (which I've tried and is great) or Great Northern. B are oth highly rated.
Table of Contents
- Quickstart: Ingredients to Buy
- Quickstart: Buy the Best Popcorn Poppers
- Quickstart: How to Pop With Nordic Ware Microwave Popper
- Quickstart: How to Pop With Whirley-Pop
- Secret: No Movie Theater Kettle Needed
- Myth: Real Butter Makes Popcorn Taste Like It Does At The Movie Theater
- Secret: The Magical Ingredients
- Secret: Popcorn Kernel Brand Does Not Matter
- Secret: Coconut Oil WITH Beta Carotene Is THE Oil For How to Make Your Popcorn Look Buttery
- Secret: Flavacol, THE Movie-Theater Popcorn Flavoring
- Secret: Odell's Super-Kist - Would you like "extra butter" with that?
- Secret: 3 Words - Temperature, Temperature, Temperature
- Myth: Chewy Popcorn Comes From Steam In Unvented Poppers
- Secret: There Are 2 Methods For Controlling Temperature
- Myth: Any Popper That Plugs In Will Limit Temperature To The Correct Popping Temperature Range
- Myth: Throwing In A Few Test Kernels Tells You When Your Pre-heated Popper Is Ready
- Tip: Infrared Thermometer - Know your pan temperature
- Tip: How To Use The Pre-Heat Method With Whirley-Pop - By First Finding The Correct Stove Knob Setti
- Tip: How To Use The Cold Start Method With Your Whiley-Pop
- Myth: Microwave Popcorn Is Cheaper Than Movie-theater Popcorn
- Myth: Microwave Popcorn Tastes As Good Or Better Than Anything Out There
Quickstart: Buy the Best Popcorn Poppers
...then you need to make an important decision: Which popper do you want? If you want brain-dead simplicity, yet amazing results, get the Nordic Ware microwave popper. If you want total control, larger capacity, the option to make kettle corn (yes, yes, yes!), and an immersive popcorn experience, go for the Whirley-pop. Or, if you need it all, like me, do both!
With all my heart, I want to impress upon the whole world that these are the only 2 kind of poppers you will ever need. You may feel tempted to buy other types of poppers (air poppers or theater style popcorn machines), but trust my experience when I say that you only need Whirley-Pop and Nordic Ware poppers.
Quickstart: How to Pop With Nordic Ware Microwave Popper
1. Add the following to the Nordic Ware bowl
- 1 to 1.5 tablespoons of coconut oil
- 1/2 teaspoon of Flavacol
- 1/4 to 1/3 cup of popcorn
2. Microwave on high until popping slows (same as microwavable bags of popcorn), about 2-3 minutes.
Seriously, you're done and it's that easy! If you just want amazing movie theater popcorn quick and easy, you are done. But, if you want to learn techniques for the Whirley-pop and popcorn popping in general, read on!
Movie Theater Popcorn In Your Microwave
Quickstart: How to Pop With Whirley-Pop
1. Add the following to a cold Whirley-Pop:
- 2 to 3 tablespoons of coconut oil
- 1 teaspoon of Flavacol
- 1/2 cup of popcorn
2. Turn on stove burner to medium heat
3. Spin the Whirley-Pop crank once per second
4. Keep spinning until popping slows to one per second.
5. Remove the Whirley-Pop from stove burner, pour into bowl, and be amazed that you are eating real movie-theater popcorn.
Step 2 is critical. You may be tempted to preheat your kettle or to use a higher burner setting. This may be detrimental to your popcorn, and much of this page is dedicated to explaining why.
Secret: No Movie Theater Kettle Needed
Perhaps this is the most money saving secret. When I started my popcorn journey, I thought that all I needed to do to make movie-theater-popcorn was to buy a movie-theater kettle popcorn machine. As I researched about popcorn machines, I quickly learned that by themselves they did not magically create movie-theater popcorn, and that many people were relying on kits or packets with all the ingredients mixed together to get the taste they wanted. When I learned that the ingredients were the important part, popcorn machines started to look much too expensive for my current needs. I was on the verge of buying a popcorn machine until suddenly I discovered the Whirley-Pop and realized that it offered the ability to control temperature (with some careful considerations) and a stirring mechanism similar to popcorn machines.
While there are several other stove-top stirring-mechanism kettles out there, I highly recommend the Whirley-Pop for a few reasons:
- It is highly rated on Amazon by hundreds of customers.
- Whirley-Pop has perfected the plastic gear system for the stirring mechanism. Don't be too concerned about the folks that say plastic gears are cheap and break too soon. I have read reviews on other stove top kettles with metal gears and there are as many complaints about the metal gears binding and breaking. I think that the plastic gears are so very smooth to operate.
- The Whirley-Pop is a thin metal kettle. While some think this is bad and cheap, I love it because it means that the kettle heats up fast and cools down fast which is very convenient.
- I have perfected my popping technique with Whirley-Pop, and if you buy one, you'll have this page as your guide.
Myth: Real Butter Makes Popcorn Taste Like It Does At The Movie Theater
Many of us have been made to to think that somehow real butter has anything to do with movie-theater popcorn. Perhaps it is because when you get popcorn at the theater, they ask you if you would like "extra butter," as if there is already butter on the popcorn and they are simply going to add some more. Brainwashed by the movie-theater man, we will melt butter and pour it all over our popcorn, and love it, and that is perfectly fine because it really does taste great. However, real melted butter has nothing to do with the movie theater taste, except for the the word "butter". Another ding against butter is that it will make your popcorn soggy due to it's water content (butter contains about 15% water). Do you mean to say that oil does not make popcorn soggy? That is correct.
WARNING: Never pop your popcorn in real-butter. The temperature at which butter burns (i.e. its smoke point of 250-300Â° F) is low enough that it will burn IF you are popping your popcorn at the correct temperature (460-480Â° F). The result can be terrible look, taste and smell. One interesting experiment that I would like to try is to pop popcorn in clarified butter (water and dairy stuff removed). This would work without burning because it has a smoke point of 485Â° F, but I don't know what the flavor would be like.
Revision: It is possible to use real butter in your Whirley-pop, and have it taste good. I have a friend that did it and it shocked me. The color of the popcorn was brown, so it didn't look like butter, but it worked out. However, it still wasn't movie theater popcorn. I don't recommend it because butter is easy to burn.
Secret: The Magical Ingredients
The first time I tasted my own popcorn made with the correct movie-theater popcorn ingredients, the clouds parted, a beam of light shone directly on me, and angels sang in perfect chorus. After that heavenly experience, paranoia set in. I knew that if I ever shared the secret, I would be a marked man. All movie theaters would black-list me and I wouldn't be surprised if this webpage mysteriously disappeared at anytime. But, I work for the people and together we can rise above the oppression of the movie theater man.
Once again, here is the ingredient list, with one additional (and optional) ingredient:
1. Popcorn Kernels (stay with me)
2. Coconut Oil WITH beta carotene
3. Flavacol (Flava-WHAT?)
..and optional for those who love the "extra butter" at the theater:
4. Odell's Super-Kist
...oh, and love.
...and that's it! It's so simple that there must be some conspiracy to keep this a secret. Now for a a breakdown of each ingredient:
Secret: Popcorn Kernel Brand Does Not Matter
While some may claim that "gourmet" popcorn is superior to regular popcorn, those who can make movie-theater popcorn just don't care. Just buy the cheap regular popcorn. I guarantee you that your local movie theater isn't thinking, "You know, since we charge $157.25 for a small bag, let's give our customers the best. Let's go gourmet."
I suggest that while you are in your experimental stage, you buy the smallest bag of popcorn available to you. Later on, when you feel comfortable making a larger yet economical investment in popcorn, buy a 50lb bag of popcorn kernels at Sam's Club or Costco for about $25. A 50lb bag holds 200 1/2 cup batches (Whirley-Pop batches are 1/2 cups big) and I believe it will last you about 12-18 months. Fortunately popcorn will keep up to a year or more if stored in airtight containers.
However, if you prefer to buy popcorn online you might try those listed below. I've tried the popcorn from Paragon, and it is great!
Secret: Coconut Oil WITH Beta Carotene Is THE Oil For How to Make Your Popcorn Look Buttery
Pop-Quiz: What color is butter flavored popcorn? If you have ever wondered why carrots are orange and what makes movie-theater popcorn yellow, now you know the answer: Beta Carotene. Perhaps there is one thing more important than how the popcorn smells, which is how it looks. Your popcorn can smell amazing, but if it doesn't look buttery, the illusion will fail.
But why coconut oil? Half of what makes movie-theater popcorn taste like it does is because it is cooked in coconut oil. Some might disagree with this, but that is because they haven't done a side-by-side taste test with popcorn popped in vegetable, corn, or canola oil. You can pretend like your popcorn is great-tasting by cooking it in a "healthy" oil and doctoring it up with a fancy seasoning, but, coconut oil will haunt you in your dreams.
A gallon of coconut oil will cost about $25, contains 96 Whirley-Pop batches, and will last you about 6 - 12 months. It is the most expensive ingredient, but it is so worth it. Don't worry if your coconut oil has solidified. It's supposed to do that when it is at or below 76° F.
If you have questions about coconut oil, Wikipedia will answer them:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coconut_oil
Also, don't worry about the difference between Paragon and Snappy brands. The only difference is the price, and sometimes Paragon's jumps up too high! So don't forget to compare them and get promote competition. Don't worry about the poor reviews that say the oil has gone bad. Some folks don't understand how coconut oil behaves when cool vs hot.
Amazon is a great place to find cheap coconut oil with beta carotene.
Secret: Flavacol, THE Movie-Theater Popcorn Flavoring
When I first heard of Flavacol, I thought it was typo. Why would you name anything edible "something-COL?" The correct name would have been, "Magical Buttery Granules of Joy." Do not be fooled by any other butter-flavored powdered ingredient. If you need movie-theater taste, Flavacol is THE secret. In fact, I've recently noticed some movie theaters straying from the formula, resulting in bland popcorn. The reason for blandness is that they are NOT using FLAVACOL.
Flavacol has the consistency of a very fine salt. It's fineness is what allows it to stick to the popcorn kernel wherever there is coconut oil. I known of one person that loves it so much, they will eat it plain! It is very potent, so be careful not to use to much.
One carton of Flavacol is 2lbs, 3oz, contains 210 Whirley-Pop batches worth, and will last you about 12-18 months. It should be about $10-$12 on Amazon. Be careful not to buy the case of Flavacol unless you really want 12 cartons. One time I couldn't find just one carton for sale on Amazon, but Ebay had it.
Secret: Odell's Super-Kist - Would you like "extra butter" with that?
Every once in a while, it is required that you take something that is already so amazingly delicious, and make it even more delicious. While I personally don't add the extra "butter," it is important to me to know that I have the option.
Please remember: Super-Kist is the icing on the cake. If you don't use coconut oil and Flavacol to pop your popcorn, you don't have the cake. So If you are an icing kind of person, put this in a kitchen spray bottle, and spray it onto your already perfect popcorn. I believe that a gallon will last between almost forever and forever, depending on how much you like to spray on your popcorn.
Why Super-Kist instead of real butter? Many others have mentioned that they simply melt butter and drizzle it on top. The danger of using real butter is soggy popcorn due to butter's 15% water content, and that is why movie theater's don't use real butter. So if you you want what the movie theater uses, you now know what to do.
Secret: 3 Words - Temperature, Temperature, Temperature
Before you decide on and purchase your corn popping device, it is extremely important that you understand the role of temperature. Below the are reasons why I think popping temperature is so important:
- A temperature that is too high will result in a kernel that deceptively starts out fluffy and big on the outside, but as you bite all the way down, it turns into a ball-of-toughness that is impossible to chew and will not disintegrate.
- A temperature that is too high will result in funny tasting/smelling popcorn as the coconut oil begins to burn (aka exceeding it's smoke point).
- A temperature that is too low will result in an overly dried-out, too hard and crunchy result.
- A temperature that is too low will decrease the amount of expansion of each popped kernel.
- A temperature that is too low will increase the number unpopped kernels.
Thanks to Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Popcorn), we can learn that popcorn pops when the temperature inside the kernel reaches about 450° F. However, the correct temperature for your popcorn kettle will likely be higher than this. In a video made to market Whirley-Pop kettles, it is suggested that the kettle needs to be 465°. Alternatively, the picture of the Paragon Coconut Oil bottle above suggests that the proper temperature is 475°. I'm always experimenting with what is the best temperature, and I think it is slightly a moving target depending on the batch and age and water content of the kernels. It is my current belief that any temperature between 450° F and 475° F will work. I use texture to determine how to change my popping temperature. Your best temperature will be the one that gives you the texture you like best.
I believe correct popping temperature is the most information on this page: If at some point you get a batch of popcorn that has any of the characteristics described above, do NOT wonder if it is the "quality" of your popcorn kernels, and, do NOT wonder if there is too much steam/water vapor in your kettle. FIRST wonder whether you are popping precisely within the 450° and 475° range. If you are absolutely sure that you are popping at the correct temperature, then perhaps it is possible that other factors such as kernel quality and water are affecting the result.
Myth: Chewy Popcorn Comes From Steam In Unvented Poppers
In my learning/experimental months, I kept generating batch after batch of chewy popcorn because I didn't yet know how to correctly control my Whirley-Pop temperature, I searched the internet in vain for a long time to find out what caused chewy popcorn. First, let me define what "chewy" means to me since it can mean so many things to different people. When I say "chewy" I mean the following:
- Seemingly perfect, dry, popcorn, outside and in.
- Wonderfully expanded, looks absolutely perfect!
- Very light and fluffy and crispy on the outside.
- When one begins to bite down, it starts off so good, so crispy, so flavorful, BUT after biting down all the way, for some reason not yet understood by me, the popcorn turns into an indestructible ball of toughness that WILL NOT EVER disintegrate in you mouth. ...and you think it is just one popcorn kernel, so you pop another few in you mouth and guess what? More indestructible balls of toughness. They are so dense that I am certain that they last double the 7 years it takes chewing gum to pass through your stomach.
(BTW, my current theory is that due to some science or chemical reaction that I don't understand, a too-high high popping temperature causes the steam inside the kernel to become super-heated, and that super hot steam super-bakes the starch in the inner part of the popcorn kernel as it pops. At such a high temperature, I believe it changes the characteristics of the starch in such a way as to make it so that it will not disintegrate, but allow itself to be re-compacted into a super-dense ball.)
During this life trial, I Googled "chewy popcorn" and found that the prevailing thoughts on causes of chewy popcorn were (in no particular order):
1. Poor quality popcorn, or not "Gourmet" popcorn
2. Old/stale popcorn
3. Too much steam
I could easily test 1 and 2 by using other kinds of popcorn. I bought 5 different kinds of fresh kernels: Great Value (Walmart Brand), Paragon, Jolly Time, Act II, and Orville Redenbacher's Original Gourmet. Each type of popcorn came out chewy. I could not believe it. I realized at that point that either all of these were bad quality or stale, or, there was some other problem.
With causes 1 and 2 debunked, I focused on the possibility that I simply had too much steam in my Whirley-Pop. For a while I thought that this absolutely had to be my problem because there were no other causes that I could find on the internet. There were a few ideas that I read regarding how to make sure that your popcorn is not exposed to too much steam:
1. Do not let your popcorn sit too long in the popper after it has popped.
2. Make sure that the steam is allowed to escape from your popper during the popping process.
3. Make sure that your popper is preheated all the way by popping test kernels first.
4. Make the popping time as short as possible.
5. Make sure your popping temperature is not too low.
I tested all of these tips. I made sure that as soon as the popping slowed even a little, that I poured the popcorn into a serving bowl. Didn't work. Even though the Whirley-Pop has vents for the steam, I tried opening the kettle lid once there was enough popcorn popped to block the popping seeds at the bottom. Didn't work. I tried the test kernel method to make sure that my kettle was hot enough before adding the rest of the kernels. Didn't work. I tried increasing the temperature to make the popping time as short as possible. Any guesses? Didn't work.
After experimenting for several weeks, I almost gave up. I started thinking about buying a popcorn machine again. This got me thinking about how popcorn machines must have something that my Whirley-Pop doesn't. They both have kettles, stirring mechanisms and a way for the steam to escape. But what the Whirley-Pop doesn't have is a temperature control system.
At the time I was thinking about this, I had also been using a popcorn machine at work that perfectly popped any brand/aged kernel I threw at it, including the same kernels I tested at home. The instructions for the popcorn machine at work said to warm up the kettle first, but I knew that I HAD warmed up my Whirley-Pop kettle first before adding popcorn and I still got chewy popcorn. I slowly concluded that I didn't know exactly how fast/slow and hot the popcorn machine kettle warmed up, nor how my stove burner warmed up, and that the difference between the two might reveal my problem.
This was the beginning of popcorn enlightenment. Once I learned how critical it was to pop at the correct temperature, it was obvious that I was consistently popping at too-high temperatures. Let me repeat:
Chewy popcorn is caused by popping at high temperatures
What temperature is too high? I'm not entirely sure what is too high, but I do know that a good range to stick to is 450° F to 475° F. To be specific, this would be the temperature taken at the the cooking surface that the kernel touches.
Secret: There Are 2 Methods For Controlling Temperature
There are so many different poppers out there that it might be surprising to learn that there are only 2 ways that poppers control temperature:
1. Cold-Start Method
This method has you put all of the ingredients into a cold popper BEFORE turning on the power/heat. Then after turning on the power/heat and waiting some time the temperature will eventually pass through the correct popping temperature range. The temperature does not stop rising, however, and it will continue to rise until it reaches some too-high limit built into the popper. The key and hope to this method is that the temperature rises slowly enough through the correct popping temperature range such that all of the popcorn will have popped before the temperature gets too hot.
Which poppers usually use this method?
- Microwaveable bagged popcorn
- Microwaveable bowl poppers
- Air poppers
- Flip-over plug-in oil poppers (where the lid becomes the bowl, think 70's!)
- Smaller economy consumer movie-theater kettle popcorn machines
How do you know for sure if the popper in question uses this method?
You know it when the instructions tell you put all of the ingredients into a COLD popper, and then turn on the power/heat.
Does this method work?
I believe that most of the time this does work, BUT, it depends on each and every individual popping device. For example, what if the specific popper that you have limits the temperature to about 600° or above? I was shocked to learn that I had a popper that does this (a flip-over plug-in made by a well known brand). What I believe happens with this popper is that the temperature rises too quickly to 465°, which is great for speed, but then continues to rise quickly up to 600° and above. This means that most of the popcorn pops at a temperature that is too high. The result I got with this popper was beautifully expanded popcorn with zero unpopped kernels. However, the popped kernels were not edible because they turned into un-chewable death nuggets when biting down on them. Perhaps it is possible that only this particular unit had this flaw, and that every other unit made by this brand correctly limits the temperature to be much lower such that the temperature rises more slowly and the popcorn pops at the correct temperature.
Verdict: The cold-start method in and of itself is not a bad way to pop popcorn. Millions have enjoyed popcorn using cold-start method/poppers. If you get a good popper that increases the temperature at a slow enough rate and limits the temperature so that it does not get too high too fast, then you will be very happy. Based on my poor experience with my local store bought flip-over popper, I have learned that when I buy any of these poppers, I have no control over the temperature. That means that I must put all of my trust into an economy popper to limit the temperature correctly. Furthermore, because the cold-start method relies on the temperature rising through a small temperature window, it seems like there is little room for error that might be caused by minor manufacturing variances. In other words, it's easy for the manufacturing quality to mess up the cold-start method. As a result, I'm hesitant to buy more poppers that use this method.
2. Pre-Heat Method
This method has you first warm up the kettle for a few minutes (usually 3-5 minutes), and then AFTER the kettle is warmed-up to the correct temperature, add the ingredients. After the kettle warms up, the kettle temperature is controlled to hover around a correct popping temperature range. The beautiful thing about this method and the poppers that us it is that as long as the popcorn machine doesn't have any defects, it guards against popping at temperatures that are too high or too low, and can make your popping experience worry free.
Which poppers usually use this method?
- Commercial movie-theater kettle popcorn machines
- Larger-sized consumer movie-theater kettle popcorn machines
How do you know for sure if the popcorn machine in question uses this method?
You know it when the instructions tell you to warm up the kettle for a few minutes before putting in all of the ingredients into a HOT kettle.
Does this method work?
Yes. The only time this method may not work is if the specific popcorn machine has a defect in the temperature control system. Barring defective popcorn machine kettles, I believe this method is the most reliable way to pop light and crispy popcorn every time. However, there is a price to be paid. You aren't just paying for the cool theater-looking popcorn machine and the ability to pop anywhere in your house. You are also paying for reliable temperature control.
Verdict: I believe the pre-heat method gives the most consistent results. Interestingly enough, popcorn machines suffer from the same problem as the cold-start poppers above: You cannot control the temperature yourself. Millions upon millions of people have enjoyed popcorn from kettle popcorn machines, but if you happen to get the one out of a hundred poppers that has the temperature control set to hover below 450 F° degrees or above 480 F°, you will be very unhappy because you spent a lot of money. Despite this small risk, I personally would not let this stop me from purchasing a kettle popcorn machine (I'm still considering one as I write this). My belief, in this case, is that paying more money means that there is more quality control and that there is a good chance you will be very happy with your movie-theater kettle popcorn machine.
3. No temperature control
I know I said that there are 2 methods, and that is true, but it is important to add this 3rd category. You may have noticed that the popper that I am most promoting on this page is missing from the 1st two categories: The stove top stirring popper. This popper is unique because by itself it does not have any temperature limit or control. It might be obvious, but I'll say it anyway: With a stove top popper, you have complete control over the temperature.
That means that you can choose either of the methods above for popping. If you prefer the ease and speed of the cold-start method, put all of your ingredients into your Whirley-Pop first, and then turn your stove on to medium heat. This is how Whirley-pop instructions say to do it. However, if you are a control freak like me and prefer knowing that you are popping at exactly the best temperature, use the pre-heat method. To use the pre-heat method you must discover how far to turn your stove knob to get 460°-480° F and then let your Whirley-Pop warm up. Once it is warmed up, add the ingredients. I have more detailed instructions on how to do this further down this page.
Do both of these methods work on the Whirley--Pop?
Yes and yes. However, to be totally up-front, both methods can be error prone. Without a plugged-in popper to do any temperature control for us, we are our own worst enemy. As a result, patience may be needed to perfect your temperature control technique. The very good news is that with total control over temperature, and with enough patience, it is guaranteed that at some point you will be able to pop your popcorn at the temperature that give you the popcorn texture you want. Other popping devices do not offer this flexibility, and that is what makes the Whirley-Pop such an attractive option.
Verdict: I would definitely buy the Whirley-Pop. Because it is one of the cheapest options, you have little to lose except perhaps the time that you are having fun experimenting with different popping methods. Because it offers complete control over temperature, you will ultimately get great results, and most folks get them immediately by simply following Whirley-Pop's cold-start instructions (one only needs look at the Whirley-Pop reviews on Amazon to see how many are happy with the results). However, if you are not interested in popcorn experimentation, or amazingly delicious popcorn, I recommend you stick with microwavable bagged popcorn.
Myth: Any Popper That Plugs In Will Limit Temperature To The Correct Popping Temperature Range
After I had been struggling to control the temperature of my Whirley-Pop on my stove for many weeks, I happened across a flip-over oil popper that also had an automatic stirring mechanism, made by a well known brand.
I was so excited thinking that it would do all of the work of controlling a nice constant temperature around 460-480°. I followed the instructions by loading all the ingredients, plugging it in, and waiting for the popping to finish. But guess what? CHEWY popcorn. I could not believe it. I could not find any escape out of my chewy popcorn purgatory.
By this time, I had purchased an infrared thermometer (love it!) and I was ready to measure the temperature of the black heated base after the popcorn was done. At the point in time that all the popcorn finished popping, the temperature of the base was OVER 600° F. I could not believe it. I thought about returning the popper, but then thought how insane I would appear to the store clerk if I were to I say, "Did you know this popper's temperature is too high! Over 600°!
I realize that the problem could have been only with my popper. Perhaps the rest of the poppers of this model stop at a more reasonable max temperature. The maker of the unit might say that the problem was that I didn't have good enough popcorn that would pop at a low enough temperature (aka gourmet) and so it took longer (i.e. higher temperature) for my popcorn to pop than it should. There might be some truth to this, but, I don't care because I pop the same popcorn perfectly in my Whirley-Pop now.
Myth: Throwing In A Few Test Kernels Tells You When Your Pre-heated Popper Is Ready
With the number of times I have seen this advice written on the internet, I would think that this is absolute fact. On the surface it makes a lot of sense. I don't want to put all of my popcorn in the popper until it is hot enough (for whatever reason), so throw in the oil and a few test kernels and when they pop I'm good to go and put in all the rest. MAYBE!
The test kernel method should only be used when your popper/kettle uses the Pre-heat method. The Pre-heat method constantly controls the temperature to stay at the correct popping temperature. When you throw in a test kernel in a Pre-heat method popper, the kernel will pop when the temperature has reached the correct temperature. From then on the temperature STAYS at the correct temperature and you really are good to go. This feature is what makes more expensive popcorn machines so appealing to me because there is no worrying if the temperature is correct.
Unfortunately, the kernel test method does NOT work for poppers that use the Cold-start method. The Cold-start method increases the temperature past the correct popping temperature range until some higher temperature limit is reached. Remember that most stand-alone poppers use the Cold-start method. In fact, the instructions for many of these these poppers explicitly state to not preheat the popper before adding the kernels. The reason the kernel test method does not work for these poppers is because after the test kernel pops, the temperature of the popper still continues to rise to some higher temperature that is too hot, resulting in tough-to-chew popcorn.
BUT, you may ask, what about stove top poppers that do not control the temperature by themselves? Very, very good question. It depends. If you follow the Whirley-Pop instructions and simply set the the burner knob to medium (to medium-high) heat, do NOT use the kernel test method. The reason is because Whirley-Pop is instructing you to use the Cold-start method. You (and Whirley-Pop for that matter) do not have a clue what temperature your burner will ultimately reach at medium to medium-high heat. They are counting on the fact that if you have put all of your kernels in your kettle before turning on the burner, the popcorn will heat up and pop once the kettle reaches just above 450° F and be mostly popped before the burner and kettle reach who knows what temperature. If you were to set your burner to any significant setting, throw in a test kernel and wait for it to pop, by the time you put in the rest of your kernels, the kettle temperature will have increased far past the correct temperature for popping corn, and you will likely get tough-to-chew popcorn.
Now, just because Whirley-Pop instructs you to set your burner to medium/medium high heat (aka shooting from the hip), it doesn't mean you have to. If you know the exact setting on your burner knob that gives you 460-480°, then you can use the kernel test method with confidence knowing that your kettle temperature will not go up after your test kernel pops.
If you have read this far (congratulations, you are as mental as I am), you might be asking, how the heck do I find out exactly where to turn my stove knob to get a burner temperature around 470° F? Keep on reading.
Tip: Infrared Thermometer - Know your pan temperature
When I finally came to the conclusion that popping at a correct temperature is critical, I started to get serious. I wanted to know with absolute certainty how hot my stove burner was, so that I could dial in the exact setting on my knob to give me 460-480°.
I didn't even know that infrared thermometers existed, but a google search for measuring pan temperature took care of that. See below for a link to the thermometer that I bought on Amazon.
After my infrared thermometer arrived, I excitedly started experimenting and pointing it inside my Whirley-Pop as my stove burner heated up. I'm a little dense sometimes and even though I read the warning in the thermometer instructions, it took me a couple of days to figure out that the thermometer does NOT work when you point it at a shiny reflective surface. That meant that I could not point it at my Whirley-Pop because it's made out of shiny metal.
But I got smart. I pulled out one of my Teflon coated skillets and measured it while my stove burner heated up. I was able to find the "exact" knob setting that corresponded to a steady state range of temperatures between 460-480°. True, the skillet has different heat dissipation characteristics than the Whirley-Pop, but it got me close enough. See the steps to do this in the next section for how I did this.
If like me you are interested in knowing what temperature your Whirley-Pop is, you must buy an infrared thermometer. The one I bought is listed below and although some of the stickers are falling off, it works great. It has a laser pointer to show you where you are measuring, comes with a battery, and displays in Fahrenheit and Celsius. It is a requirement if you like to cook and want to be able to preheat pans to precise temperatures. It also comes in handy if you need to measure temperatures of your house wall several feet away. ...And it's cheap (around $20) compared to all the rest (I know, I'm a sell out). But, it is also very highly rated!
Please remember that an infrared thermometer can't read the temperature of a highly reflective surface (such as the Whirley-Pop). That is why I use a Teflon coated skillet to make all of my measurement, and this seems to work well.
Tip: How To Use The Pre-Heat Method With Whirley-Pop - By First Finding The Correct Stove Knob Setting/Temperature
I prefer the pre-heat method and have done the work to be able to use this method on my stove with my Whirley-Pop. Finding the perfect knob setting for the perfect temperature is not easy (but worth it!), and here are the reasons why:
1. When I turn on my burner to any setting, it takes a very long time (around 7-10 minutes on my stove, for the temperature of the pan to level off. In other words, the pan doesn't reach it's final temperature quickly, and much patience is needed to determine which knob setting corresponds to which pan temperature. The long heat-up time is likely due to my stove being a flat-top stove. My guess is that a normal electric stove with the usual exposed heating element will heat the pan up a little faster. Also a gas stove should heat a pan up much faster.
2. My stove intermittently turns the burner on and off (as a protective measure) which makes the heating of the pan that much slower. I think most newer stoves do this, and while I like the added safety, it takes much longer for pans to reach their final temperature. Gas stoves are great because they have quicker heating time and a constantly applied heat. If you have a gas stove, I'm jealous. Unfortunately, Whirley-Pops are not made of magnetic (ferrous) metal, so inductive stoves are out of the question. (One note on inductive stoves: There are other stove top popcorn poppers out there that are made of steel, or, that have a steel base. These will work with inductive burners, but I have never had a chance to try this.)
3. Very small movements in your stove's burner control knob can translate to large differences in the final leveled-off burner temperature. For example, when I learned to wait long enough for the pan temperature to level off after choosing a knob setting, I was shocked to learn that a knob setting of just over 3 (my knob has numbers from 0 to 9) resulted in a final temperature of 460-480°! But I believe we have all experienced this while frying several eggs or pancakes one at a time for several minutes. We want to cook right away so we wait a minute (not nearly long enough) for the pan to heat up at medium heat. Then after the 1st or 2nd batch (3-5 more minutes), we notice that the temperature is way too hot and our eggs and pancakes overcook, and we have to adjust the knob to a lower setting.
4. The burner is not the same temperature at all places on the element, and thus the bottom of the pan does not heat up evenly. For example, when I reach my preferred temperature, 12 o'clock on the pan is about 480°, 3 and 9 o'clock are at 470°, 6 o'clock is at 460°, and the center of the pan is often around 500°. (Note that although 500° is getting too hot, the kernels in the Whirley-Pop are mostly only touching the outside parts of the pan bottom due to the effects of the stirring mechanism and the shape of the popper base. That is why it is OK for the center of the pan base to be hotter than the outside area.
For those who have the time and interest in figuring out which knob setting is correct for them, here is the process that I went through:
Note: When measuring the temperature, always choose 4 spots on the outside parts of the bottom of the pan to measure. I suggest measuring the 12, 3, 6, and 9 o'clock positions. Be precise about where you measure each time so that you can tell for sure if the temperature is rising or not.
1. Buy an infrared thermometer.
2. Find a skillet that has the same radius as the Whirley-Pop and that has a dark non-reflective coating like Teflon.
3. Place the skillet on the burner and turn your stove knob to 2, and wait until the temperature does not rise any more
("wait" always means wait 7-10 minutes or until you know for sure that the temperature is no long rising)
4. If the temperature is too low, dial the knob to the next full number up, and wait.
5. If the temperature is too high, dial the knob to the next full number down, and wait.
Repeat 4 or 5 until you have skipped over the temperature you want. (I suggest shooting for 470°)
Now it's time to fine tune to the precise desired temperature:
6. If the temperature is too high, dial in the next half number down (i.e. go to 3.5 if your were at 4) and wait.
7. If the temperature is too low, dial in the next half number up (i.e. go to 1.5 if your were at 1) and wait.
Repeat 6 or 7 until you have skipped over the temperature you want.
Next is to find find the closest 1/4 number turn of the knob:
8. If the temperature is too low, dial in the next 1/4 number up (i.e. 1.75 if your were at 1.5) and wait.
9. If the temperature is too high, dial in the next 1/4 number down (i.e. 3.25 if your were at 3.5) and wait.
By this time you are getting very close, but perfection is important. Use the same adjust and wait method to and turn the knob up or down in 1/8 increments, or even smaller increments until you get the temperature you want. It may sound silly to turn the knob from 3 and 1/16 to 3 and 2/16 (see the picture above), but that is what took me from about 455° to about 470°.
When you finally dial in the correct temperature, find a way to mark it! I suggest using transparent tape as I did in the picture above (look closely, it is a little fuzzy). I placed the tape such that one of the corners points to the exact place I need to turn the knob.
We're close now, but not done yet because now we need to check our work. Turn off your stove and let it cool down. Leaving your dark surfaced skillet on, Turn the stove to exactly where you placed your marker, and wait 7-10 minutes. See if the temperature is the same as what you expected. Be patient. If you discover that the temperature is not quite what you wanted then try to get to your perfect temperature with very small adjustments to the knob setting.
After you have found the correct knob setting for sure you never have to go through this process again. You simply turn your knob to your tape corner, wait 7-10 minutes and add your ingredients. Please keep in mind that 7-10 minutes pre-heat time is specific to my stove. If you have a gas stove, I expect your preheat time to be much shorter. Also, your electric stove may be much faster than mine.
As you may have gathered, this can be a lengthy and tedious process, but for me it was worth it just knowing that I will always have the perfect popping temperature every time.
Tip: How To Use The Cold Start Method With Your Whiley-Pop
After you've read all of the stuff above, you might think that the Pre-heat method is overkill for getting the perfect popcorn...and you are probably right. The reason you are probably right is because thousands, if not millions of people just follow the simple instructions provided by Whirley-Pop, and are happy with the results (as can be seen by reading Amazon reviews).
Whirley-Pop instructions use the Cold-start method. They instruct to NOT turn on the stove, then add the ingredients, then turn on the stove to medium to medium-high heat. If this approach works for you and you feel confident that you are getting perfect results every time, then I'm jealous and wish I had your karma. I started off using the Cold-start method, and had a tough time figuring out why I got tough-to-chew popcorn.
That said, after I went through all of my tough-to-chew popcorn life trials, what I ultimately learned with my infrared thermometer was that I was turning my burner knob setting much too high, even though I set it to what Whirley-Pop recommended, which was medium heat. Allow me re-iterate: above medium heat is too high on my stove when using the cold-start method. When I finally trusted that just below medium heat was not too low a setting for popping popcorn, I tried the Cold-start method using or just below it medium heat, and the results were fine. I hope you can benefit from my experience, and perhaps avoid having to invest money and time into an infrared thermometer if the Pre-heat method is not for you.
I believe these tips will help even the most confident stove top popper who uses the Cold-start method:
1. For your very first pops with the Whirley-Pop, do not set your burner knob to anything above exact medium heat. Especially do not go up to "medium-high" as Whirley-Pop sort of suggests. If your knob has numbers from 1 to 10, start on 5. Do not try higher settings unless you know for sure that medium heat on your stove is too low.
2 Always make note of the temperature to which you set your burner knob. When you decide you've found the setting that results in perfect popcorn texture, you'll want to always set your burner knob to this EXACT setting. EXACTNESS is important to get consistent results. I suggest using the corner of clear adhesive tape to mark the perfect spot for you once you have found it.
Finding your perfect cold-start knob setting is a repetitive process. Repeat steps 3 and 4 until you've found the perfect result:
3. If your popcorn comes out very expanded, with all kernels popped, but, tough to chew, then your knob setting was too high. Next time you pop, adjust your knob setting down by a half number setting. For example, go to 4.5 if you were at 5.
4. If your popcorn doesn't really pop up like you know it should, and you have too many unpopped kernels, then your knob setting was too low. Next time you pop, adjust your knob setting up by a half number setting. For example, go to 5.5 if you were at 5.
(Note: The perfect temperature will likely leave several kernel unpopped. Folks that enjoy perfect texture popcorn do not worry much about unpopped kernels.)
5. When using the Cold-start method, do not "pre-heat" the kettle and do not try to use the kernel test method to find out when your kettle is hot enough to pop. The temperature on your burner is ever rising when using the Cold-start method, so using the kernel test method will pop your popcorn at too-high temperatures, and the result will be tough to chew.
Again, sometimes there is no silver-bullet to getting your temperature right the first time, so be patient. Don't be afraid to do steps 3 and 4 in 1/4 number increments instead of 1/2 number increments. You will find the best setting with time.
Myth: Microwave Popcorn Is Cheaper Than Movie-theater Popcorn
If you really love microwave popcorn and how amazingly easy it is to make it, you will not care that I can make movie-theater popcorn for about the same cost or cheaper than microwave popcorn. However, if you love the taste of movie-theater popcorn, and you are on the fence about buying the ingredients due to the bulk cost, this ought to give you the reason to do it. Here's what I calculated as of Nov. 2011 (since then some prices have changed):
1/2 cup used per batch in a Whirley-Pop
1/2 cup = 4 oz
50 lb bag at Sam's Club costs about $18.00
50 lbs = 800 oz
800 oz / 4 oz = 200 batches
$18.00 / 200 batches = 9¢ per batch
2 2/3 tablespoons used per batch in a Whirley-Pop
2 2/3 tablespoons = 1.33 oz
1 gallon costs $21.00 on Amazon with free shipping
1 gallon = 128 oz
128 oz / 1.33 oz = 96 batches
$21.00 / 96 batches = 22¢ per batch
1 teaspoon used per batch in a Whirley-Pop
1 teaspoon = 1/6 oz
1 carton costs about $10 on amazon with free shipping
1 carton = 35 oz
35 oz / 1/6 oz = 210 batches
$10.00 / 210 batches = 5¢ per batch
Add them up: 9¢ + 22¢ + 5¢ = 36¢ per batch of popcorn made in the Whirley-Pop.
Hopefully you're already thinking that that's a good cost, but, just in case, here's the breakdown for microwave popcorn. You might be thinking, "yeah, but I bet he'll choose some gourmet brand of microwave popcorn to be able to beat the cost." Not so. I chose the Pop Weaver 24 pack at Walmart (you can google it) and it costs $5.00:
$5.00 / 24 = 20.8¢ (I round up to 21¢ per bag).
Hmm, that's pretty cheap...but wait. There is only 1/4 cup of popcorn in a microwave bag (you can check it on Pop Weaver's website where it shows the nutritional info).
I make twice as much in the Whirley Pop (1/2 cup), so divide my cost by two:
36¢ / 2 = 18¢
I beat the cheapest microwave popcorn known to man by almost THREE cents, and I would pay many times the cost for the perfect movie-theater popcorn taste that I get every pop!
December 2011 Update: As things go, prices changed in the last month. In this case the coconut oil went up. So if I factor in a $4 increase in a gallon of coconut oil (was $21, is now $25) I get a total cost of 20¢ compared to 21¢ for microwave popcorn. I'm still cheaper. But I expect that as time goes on, prices will change again and I may not be able to make it cheaper than the cheapest microwave popcorn, but it should be comparable, and it will always be worth it!
One more disclaimer. I always choose coconut oil and Flavacol that has free shipping on Amazon. That also helps keep the price low.
Myth: Microwave Popcorn Tastes As Good Or Better Than Anything Out There
Not so long ago, I used to believe this, and here's why I think I thought this: It all started back in the dark ages when, before microwaves and microwave popcorn, we all had oil poppers (Remember the black base that you plug in and the amber top/bowl?). If you were the average person, you would make popcorn in one of these with whatever oil you had in the kitchen and then add melted butter and salt. This was the best because it was all we knew how to buy, and it really did taste great.
Then came the microwave and microwave popcorn. When we first tasted it, it was terrible. It didn't taste anything like the popcorn we knew how to make, and, it was expensive. So we stuck with our oil poppers. But somehow over time, the microwave popcorn scientists figured out that taste did matter, and they figured out a way to make the taste as good as or maybe even better than popcorn popped in vegetable or corn oil. The scientists also learned how to make the popcorn look yellow to simulate the butter look. With pretty good taste, good look, and great smell (well, it's really hard to make popcorn smell bad unless you burn it), the easiest popping method by far, and a very reasonable price, they succeeded in defining how most of us think popcorn should taste.
But, is it the best? Of course this is a matter of opinion, but ask anyone who has ventured on their own to find their favorite popping oils and seasoning, and it is almost guaranteed that they will tell you that microwave popcorn is terrible when compared with conventional methods. One might be led to think that anyone defending the extra time and money spent to popcorn in a special way could cause somebody to attack microwave popcorn. This may be true, but, I can tell you from first hand experience that after I made this movie-theater popcorn and tasted it, I tasted the microwave popcorn that I had been eating for years and I could barely eat a couple of kernels of the cheap stuff before I couldn't stand it.
There is no doubt in my mind that my movie-theater-popcorn is superior to any other "butter" flavored microwave popcorn, and, until thousands of movie theaters start microwaving their popcorn, you can rest assured that I am right.
(Ok, I might be exaggerating a bit here. In fact, I tasted some of Orville's Movie Theater flavored microwave popcorn, and it tasted like they've been reading this page for tips on how to make the taste amazing. Good on you Orville. However, I still love my Whirley-Pop and the experience of making popcorn and making the taste and texture exactly how I want it.)