Wayne Schmidt's Popcorn Comparison Page Taste tests with photos of 19 gourmet popcorns.
I've never been a big popcorn fan, then one day I watched an Alton Brown Good Eats show about popcorn and began wonder what I'd been missing all these years. A few minute's research on the Internet turned up dozens of different gourmet popcorns so I order several, popped them up and taste tested them to see which were good, which were bad and which were ugly. This page chronicles which varieties I tested and how they rated.
The first question I had to answer was: What is the best way to pop popcorn? Although most experts prefer the hot-oil/stove-top method, I decided to test the big three (hot-air, bag-in-microwave, and stove top) to see for myself which is best.
Hot-air: Quick and clean, hot-air poppers have a lot going for them. The fact that they also make the corn pop 40-percent larger also makes them attractive. However, I found that the texture of the popcorn left a lot to be desired. It was very dry and quickly lost its crunchiness when chewed. After just a couple of bites it was reduced to little more than pulp. Also, the fact that it pops the kernels so much bigger means that in a handful of popcorn there is significantly less mass, which means there is significantly less flavor. Finally, the surface of the popcorn is so dry that it doen't hold salt or flavorings very well.
A secondary issue is that most hot air poppers are very noisy.
Paper Bag Popping: What could be easier than tossing some popcorn kernels in oil, dumping them into a paper bag and letting a microwave work its magic on them for three minutes to make popcorn? Not much, and the result has a much better texture than air-popping. But, the texture still breaks down too fast when it's eaten and popping this way isn't much fun.
Stove-Top: The traditional technique of popping popcorn in a little oil over the stove ended up producing the best tasting and best textured popcorn. It was moist, the most flavorful and maintained its crunchiness to the last chew. Additionally, the popcorn's surface has just enough moisture to grab onto and hold salt and flavorings.
It's also the most fun, even if it does take the longest. There's a indescribable pleasure in the sound of popcorn popping on a stove.
My Popping Technique: Having selected the stove top method as the best, I now had to determine which stove top method was the best.
I tried popping in wide flat pans (took too much oil to pop all the kernels,) and tall narrow-bottomed pans (the focused flames needed for these tended to cause burning,) and ended up using Alton Brown's recommended technique of using a stainless steel mixing bowl. Its shape concentrates the oil and kernels near the heat while holding the popped kernels up and away from the hottest area where burning occurs.
I experimented with covering the bowl with a screen or foil. The screen didn't block all the hot oil splatters and produced popcorn whose surface was a little too dry to properly hold salt and seasonings. The foil covering worked best. It trapped enough steam to keep the popcorn's surface moist enough to hold onto flavorings and completely blocked oil splatters. (Although the foil prevents me from watching the kernels pop, it compensates for this by creating a delightfully mellow "pop" when the kernel explode.)
My popping system. I form the aluminum foil over the bottom
of the bowl, then turn it over and use it as a cover, crimping it
around the bowl's lip to hold it in place. I don't bother poking
holes in it, the seal around the edge is loose enough to let
I found that one tablespoon of oil per 2-ounces (56-grams) of popcorn kernels was optimal. Any more didn't make the popcorn pop any better and only increased the calories per serving, any less and the last kernels to pop didn't have enough oil left to do so properly.
I use the smallest burner on the range to concentrate the heat as much as possible on the very bottom of the bowl. This keeps the sides cooler and less likely to burn popped kernels. Even with this, it's necessary to keep shaking the bowl so burning doesn't occur. Another good reason to shake is that it helps any unpopped kernels work their way to the bottom where they can get popped.
Once the corn finished popping, I quickly remove the aluminum cover and add any salt or seasonings while the surface of the popcorn still has enough moisture to hold them. While it's best to eat it right away, if I want to store for later I found that after cooling it keeps best if it's placed in a plastic bag. Left exposed to air, in a couple of hours it begins absorbing moisture and looses some of its crunch.
(One subtle difference between stove-top and other popping techniques is that when using the stove-top technique, you are popping the corn. In the other methods a machine is doing it for you. The personal touch of shaking the pan and feeling the kernels pop is very satisfying.)
I'd read that if popcorn doesn't pop the problem may be that the percent water inside the kernels is too low. The fix is to add 1 teaspoon of water to a pound of kernels and seal them in a jar for three days, shaking it several times a day. The idea is that the humidity in the jar will rehydrate the kernels enough so they'll pop.
This got me wondering if doing this to kernels that are already popping well would boost their pop size. I tried it and have to report total failure.
First I tried popping some of the kernels right out of the rehydrating jar. Very few popped and those that did were small and irregular. The problem was that the hulls had softened to the point where instead of holding the steam pressure in until it had built up the the appropriate level, they leaked or popped prematurely.
Next I let the kernels dry for 4 hours on a paper towel, thinking that this would allow the hulls to harden. This worked better, with over half of the kernels popping. But, that still isn't a very high rate and those that did pop were again, small and deformed.
From this experiment I conclude that trying to bolster popping vigor by rehydrating kernels is not as easy as it sounds and may not be worth the time and effort.
On To The Taste Tests!
For the following taste comparisons, I popped all the varieties in the same way using 56-grams of kernels. I didn't salt the popcorn because it's impossible to get exactly the same amount of salt on each batch. Also, I wanted to discover what the different types tasted without any interfering flavor.
Because taste is strongly dependent on aroma, immediately before tasting each variety, while it was fresh off the stove and still warm, I took several deep inhalations through my nose to make sure I was fully primed to taste the popcorn's flavor at the fullest.
I measured the volume each 56-gram portion of kernels popped using a plastic-fronted box with graduated lines drawn on the front. The following image shows how air popping (on the left) 56-grams of Orville Redenbacher's creates a 6-inch high pop whereas oil-popping (on the right) only pops 4-inches high:
The pop height is the number after the name in each of the following photos. In general, higher popping varieties have a light crunchiness and lower popping varieties a coarser, harder crunch. If your monitor is set to the standard default of 72-ppi these images will be full size.
First Up, The Domestics:
....Jollytime Yellow (4.5).........Alberton's White (5).......Stator Brothers Yellow (4)
..Orville Redenbacher's (4)
Contrary to his commercials, Mr. Redenbacher's popcorn did not pop higher than the much cheaper grocery store brands. It also didn't taste any different or have a noticeably different texture. The only difference I could tell was that it cost three times as much. On the other hand, it does come in a convenient jar instead of a plastic bag. Close examination of the kernals show that Orville Redenbacher's are slightly shorter and rounder than the others.
I was pleasantly surprised to discover that exotic gourmet popcorns don't cost an arm and a leg. They averaged $3.00 for 2-pounds. Unfortunately, the extra cost of shipping doubles this.
....Virtually Hull Free (4).............Mushroom (4)
Heartland's Virtually Hull Free variety left many hull caps after popping, many still attached to the popcorn. I found this an unattractive feature. The Mushroom brand was advertised as popping up into large, round shapes. I couldn't see any difference between it and other popcorns. It's texture was a little softer than most.
...Orange Blossom (4.75).........Sunset Fire (3.25)................Black Hills (3)
Orange Blossom gave off a very satisfying "pop" when it was popping and popped higher than most. Both Sunset Fire and Black Hills were very low poppers. The hull on Black Hills was so dark that it made many of the popcorn kernels look like they were burnt. It also had a very coarse and unpleasant crunch.
...Baby White Rice (3.25)..........Blue Heron (2.5).........Wisconsin White Birch (4.5)
Baby White Rice is a very small kerneled corn that produces a small popcorn. It's fun to pop because for the same weight of kernels you have a greater number of kernals so the popping gets very busy. Because of their small size, this popcorn has a more refined crunch than others. Blue Heron had the lowest pop height of any corn and also had a hard crunch. Wisconsin White Birch was one of the higher poppers.
...Autumn Blaze (3.5).......High Mountain Midnight (2.75).....Savanna Gold (5.5)
I don't know if Autumn Blaze (like Sunset Fire) naturally has different colored kernels in it or if it's a mixture of two types of popcorn. It has a medium-hard crunch and the hulls from the red kernels make some of the popcorn look burnt. Although High Mountain Midnight had a lower pop height, it's crunch was surprisingly delicate. Although it's difficult to tell from the photo, Savanna Gold had a unique light yellow color that makes it more attractive than all the other popcorns, yellow or white. It also had the highest pop height of any variety and a very energetic pop that was great to listen to. There were times when I half expected a kernel to burst right through the foil cover.
....Red River Valley (4.5)...........Baby Yellow (2.75).........Starshell Red (2.75)
Red River Valley had a very energetic pop but the dark hulls gave some of the kernels a burnt look. Baby Yellow produced a very small popcorn with a sharp, busy crunch. If you like lots of fine crunchiness this might be a good popcorn to try. Starshell Red's very dark hulls made many of the kernels look burnt and unattractive. It also didn't pop very high.
....Gourmet Purple (4.5).......Extra Large Yellow (3.75)
Gourmet Purple produced small popcorn kernels whereas Extra Large Yellow popped up very large. They were both tough and chewy. One interesting feature of Gourmet Purple is that although the kernels were all the same color, they produced a 50/50 mix of white and yellow popcorn. In the left-hand image above the white is on the left and the yellow is on the right of the frame. The color difference is more obvious in person.
I saved these most-important results to the end because many people may find them controversial. I tasted each variety while it was fresh and still warm and then again after it had cooled in side-by-side comparisons to all the other popcorns. The fact is that although I had hoped and expected to find definite taste differences between the different varieties, it saddens me to report that if given a blind taste test I couldn't tell one from the other.
While there were definite textural differences, no variety of popcorn struck me as tasting any different from the others. It didn't matter whether it was the cheapest grocery store brand or the most expensive and exotic gourmet brand. Considering the expense and effort invested in this project I found this very disappointing. This doesn't mean that I don't like popcorn. It's just that I've learned that spending top dollar for a gourmet variety isn't a guarantee that it's going to taste any different. I'm sure that there are popcorn experts who can taste obvious differences between the different types. I couldn't.
Although they all tasted the same I'm not going to go so far as recommend not getting any of them. Each of us have different tasting capabilities and some people may be able to detect difference that I can't. Also, even if high-end popcorns don't taste any different that doesn't mean they aren't more fun. The beautiful kernel colors alone give them valuable entertainment value. It's also more fun to pop up an exotic popcorn than something purchased at the corner store.
If I had to choose one popcorn over all the others it would be Savanna Gold by the Fireworks Popcorn Company. It pops the highest, has the best texture and is the most beautiful of all the popcorns I compared. It's also one of the most fun to pop because it's so energetic.
I hope you enjoyed this page as much as I enjoyed creating it, or at least found it interesting. I'm sorry I couldn't report that the varieties had significant flavor differences.
Thank you for visiting this page and if you want a taste-test page where there really are differences between the foods compared, try the CANDY BAR AUTOPSY PAGE to learn what the best-tasting candy bar in the world is and what it's made of.
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