For many of us, it's almost impossible to watch anything on television without a bowl of popcorn in our hands: Each year, Americans consume more than 52 quarts of popped popcorn per capita, a figure that has tripled in the last three decades, according to the nonprofit Popcorn Board, an industry-funded group.
While some of that is eaten in the movie theater, the majority is devoured at home, and usually that means microwave popcorn.
There are almost as many brands of microwave popcorn as there are movie channels, so we set out to learn which makes the crunchiest, most evenly salted, most buttery-tasting kernels of all. Unfortunately, quite a few samples suffered from greasiness or an artificial butter flavor, so our task was harder than anticipated. Read on to find out which type tasted best to our judges. And once you know which brand to buy, take a look at ways to enhance the flavor even more, with our 14 delicious popcorn recipes.
Best Microwave Popcorn Overall
Orville Redenbacher's Light Butter
($3.29 per box of three 3.3-ounce bags )
Pros: Despite the fact that this variety is lower in fat than the standard buttered popcorns we tested, judges liked this best because it didn't sport the artificial taxicab yellow of many; nor did it taste like fake butter. "I like its particularly airy and crunchy quality," said one taster. The balance of butter and salt was especially toothsome.
Cons: A few would have liked it even saltier.
(See also: Best and worst bbq sauces)
First Runner-Up, Standard Butter
Orville Redenbacher's Butter
($3.49 per box of three 3.3-ounce bags)
Pros: "I am a fan of the very large and wide kernels," commented one judge. All editors commented on this variety's ideal ratio of butter and salt. One participant likened the taste to the popcorn sold at theaters: "This one reminds me of what you get at the movies, but it is so much better! It's crunchy and not neon yellow."
Cons: Quite a few testers found this type a bit too greasy.
First Runner-Up, Light Butter
Jolly Time Healthy Pop Butter 94% Fat-Free
($2.99 per box of four 1.2-ounce mini bags)
Pros: Several editors enjoyed this variety's sweet and salty flavor. They also were fond of its caramel-like color and the size of the kernels.
Cons: This one needed more salt, some said.
Additional Taste Test Details
The Other Contenders: The Bottom Three
Pop Secret's Butter kernels were described as slimy, cheesy, and a strange yellow. Some tasters were turned off by Black Jewell's Butter popcorn because it looked slightly blue and a bit burnt. Pop Secret Light Butter was the least favorite, because of its inconsistent flavor. Many editors were convinced that this variety was not actually "light" because it was strikingly salty and soggy. One judge added, "This tastes like it's been sitting in my cupboard for a year."
All 11 varieties we evaluated are available nationwide in supermarkets or online. Listed from highest to lowest score achieved, they are: Orville Redenbacher's Light Butter, Orville Redenbacher's Butter, Jolly Time Healthy Pop Butter 94% Fat-Free, Act II Butter, Newman's Own Light Butter, Newman's Own Butter, Smart Balance Light Butter, Act II 94% Fat-Free Butter, Pop Secret Butter, Black Jewell Butter, Pop Secret Light Butter.
Methodology: In a blind taste test, judges compared the flavor, consistency, and appearance of 11 types of microwave popcorn (6 were light butter; 5, standard butter). We followed each variety's instructions and estimated microwaving time. In most cases, the bags took longer to pop than indicated. We ranked the popcorn according to the Epicurious four-fork rating system (four being best).
Prices and availability subject to change.
More from Epicurious:
Easy Family Dinners