all the different types of ways to pop popcorn; wok, microwave, instant pot, stovetop, whirly popper, air popper, shown next to each other
Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Styling: Jesse Szewczyk

We Tried 8 Methods for Popping Popcorn and the Winner Is a Delightful Throwback

updated Feb 25, 2021
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In my house, popcorn is the king of snacks. My kids love it, my husband craves it, and I can’t get enough of it. We even have four dedicated popcorn bowls — larger-than-reasonable ones — so we can each have our own and don’t have to share. I don’t mind this kind of large-volume snacking; I feel good about the fact that we’re all enjoying a whole-grain snack. 

Although I used to buy lots of flavored microwave popcorn, I’ve stopped in favor of popping my own. It’s cheaper and leaves me in control of the sodium, sugar, and flavor. Plus, my husband now likes to do the popping, so I can just sit back and wait to reap the delicious rewards. He has his go-to method of popping in a large pot, but there are so many other ways that people swear are the best. I put eight of those methods to the test to see what I could learn.

Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Styling: Jesse Szewczyk

A Few Notes About Methodology

Popcorn: I used two types of popcorn to test each method — a standard white corn variety (Orville Redenbacher’s) and an organic yellow corn variety (Arrowhead Mills) — to see if there were any notable differences in the way they performed. I found them to be consistently similar in performance, popping to nearly identical volumes with each test. Flavor-wise, the organic yellow corn popcorn had a slightly deeper corn flavor.

Tests: As noted above, I tested each method twice: once with each type of popcorn (one method got tested three times). I averaged the findings — cook time, popped volume, and amount of unpopped kernels. 

Time: I recorded only the cook time for each method and did not factor in the amount of time to measure the kernels, oil, or seasonings, or to set up any equipment.

Ratings: I rated each method on a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 representing perfection. My ratings are based on a multitude of factors, including the taste and texture of the popcorn, the amount of unpopped kernels, ease of the method, difficulty or ease of cleanup, and safety.

One method not tested: Before you ask, I did not test popping in an air fryer. I was concerned about the possibility of kernels popping up into and clogging the air vents. (The photo about two-thirds down this page scared me off.)

Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Styling: Jesse Szewczyk

Popcorn Method: Instant Pot Popcorn

  • Cook Time: 8 minutes
  • Rating: 3/10

About This Method: This user-generated recipe on the Instant Pot website instructs you to heat the pot by turning it to “sauté” and waiting until the display reads “hot” (for me, this took about 3 minutes). You then add 2 tablespoons oil, 1 tablespoon butter, and 1/2 cup popcorn kernels; stir them around for a minute; and top the pot with a glass lid. (The recipe gives a helpful tip that even if you don’t have the official Instant Pot glass lid, you can probably find a glass lid in your kitchen that will work.) You then wait for the popping to escalate and then slow down, uncover the pot, and season the popcorn.

Results: Both times, I ended up with a little over 6 cups of popped popcorn (from 1/2 cup kernels) and about 3 1/2 tablespoons of unpopped kernels — nearly half of them. The popcorn that did pop was crisp and tasty, but there just wasn’t enough of it. I wouldn’t use this method again; it just left too much of the popcorn unpopped. When I went back to read the recipe reviews, I saw that I wasn’t the only one with that problem.

Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Styling: Jesse Szewczyk

Popcorn Method: Microwave Popcorn (in a Brown Paper Bag)

  • Cook Time: about 2 1/2 minutes
  • Rating: 5/10

About This Method: This method from Serious Eats starts by tossing 1/2 cup popcorn kernels with 1/2 teaspoon oil and salt to taste in a bowl, then pouring that mixture into a paper lunch bag, sealing the ends and corners, and microwaving on high for about 2 minutes (the time will vary based on your microwave’s wattage). The writeup warns about the possibility of scorching the popcorn or almost catching the bag on fire (!), and suggests stopping the cooking shortly after the popping just starts to slow to reduce the risk of a snack disaster. 

Results: For my microwave, 2 minutes wasn’t long enough; the popcorn had barely started popping at that point. I ended up going for about 2 1/2 minutes and pulling the popcorn when there were about 4 seconds between pops. At that point, the half-cup of kernels had popped to a volume of about 11 cups (with 2 tablespoons unpopped kernels), and the popcorn was fluffy and crisp. It did, however, have the slightest burned flavor, despite no visible evidence of burning or scorching. My husband enjoyed the “smoky” flavor of the popcorn, but the kids and I were not fans. Because microwaves vary so much, it takes a good bit of trial and error to get this method right. Your popcorn can go from perfect to scorched in a matter of seconds. Luckily, there are easier, less stressful methods that produce more delicious results.

Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Styling: Jesse Szewczyk

Popcorn Method: Microwave Popcorn (in a Bowl)

  • Cook Time: 4 minutes
  • Rating: 7/10

About This Method: This Good Housekeeping recipe calls for mixing 1/4 cup popcorn kernels and 1/2 teaspoon oil in a medium microwave-safe glass bowl, covering the bowl with a plate, and microwaving on high for 3 to 4 minutes — until there are 3 seconds between pops. 

Results: My 1/4 cup of kernels popped to a volume of 6 cups with 1 tablespoon of unpopped kernels. It wasn’t the crispiest of the batches, but it was still pretty crisp, light, and fluffy. For me, this microwave method worked much better than the paper bag method. I liked that I could serve the popcorn straight from the bowl and that I didn’t have to anxiously monitor the microwave as the popcorn cooked; it was pretty much hands-free. 

Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Styling: Jesse Szewczyk

Popcorn Method: Microwave Popcorn (in a Silicone Bag) 

  • Cook Time: 2 1/2 to 3 minutes
  • Rating: 7.5/10

About This Method: Another writer for Kitchn had reviewed this method already, and now it was my turn to pit it against all these other techniques. I followed the instructions provided by Stasher, the maker of reusable silicone bags you can store and cook food in: Combine 1/2 cup popcorn kernels, 1 tablespoon olive oil, and some salt (I used 1/2 teaspoon) in the 56-ounce–capacity Stand-Up bag; leave the bag partially open to vent; microwave on High for 2 to 3 minutes or until popping slows.    

Results: For my initial two tests, I had to go the full three minutes in my 1100-watt microwave. The bag was completely full of popped corn that measured roughly 10 cups, with 2 tablespoons of unpopped kernels. I didn’t love having that many unpopped kernels, so I decided to see what would happen if I used a smaller amount of popcorn. So I started with 1/3 cup kernels, microwaved for 2 1/2 minutes, and got 8 1/2 cups of popcorn with only 1 tablespoon of unpopped kernels. I liked having fewer duds (less wasted food). Although the bag gets hot and you’re cautioned to use oven mitts when opening it, I found that the side seams stayed cool, so I was able to safely hold the bag there without mitts. 

My Takeaway: This is an easy method that’s neat and tidy, as you can just toss the Stasher bag right in the dishwasher after eating from it. So if you have one already, by all means put it to use for quick and easy snacks. If you don’t have a Stasher bag on hand, you most likely wouldn’t regret getting one — because it wouldn’t be a single-use item anyway (unlike some of the other equipment reviewed here). Expect to have a fair amount of unpopped kernels, but know that that’s the price of convenience.

Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Styling: Jesse Szewczyk

Popcorn Method: Stovetop Popcorn

  • Cook Time: 12 minutes
  • Rating: 8/10

About This Method: For this technique, Cook’s Illustrated tells you to heat 3 tablespoons oil and 3 popcorn kernels in a covered 4-quart pan over medium heat. When you hear a kernel pop, you then add 1/3 cup kernels, cover the pot, and wait 30 seconds before returning it to medium heat. When the popping starts, you shake the pan with the lid slightly ajar until the popping slows to 1 to 2 seconds between pops. The claim is that you’ll get fewer unpopped kernels and run a low risk of scorching because when the “test kernels” pop you know the oil is at the right temperature. And that 30-second break? It “allows all of the kernels to gradually heat to the same temperature — so they pop almost simultaneously.” 

Results: The 1/3 cup of kernels popped to about 8 1/2 cups of fluffy, mostly crisp popcorn with a tiny bit of chewiness in the bite. I ended up with 1 teaspoon of unpopped kernels.  While I didn’t quite experience that simultaneous popping that the method touts, I did love this method for the fluffy, crisp results it produced. The illustrations in the Cook’s Illustrated piece show a long-handled saucepan; since I don’t have a 4-quart saucepan, I used a stainless steel Dutch oven instead. The relatively light weight of the pan made shaking during popping easy, although shaking with the lid slightly ajar was a tad awkward. If you’ll be using a cast iron Dutch oven for this method, be prepared for a workout. 

Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Styling: Jesse Szewczyk

Popcorn Method: Air-Popped Popcorn

  • Cook Time: 3 minutes
  • Rating: 8/10

About This Method: I used the Presto PopLite popper and followed the instructions in their tutorial video: Pour 1/2 cup kernels into the popping chamber (using the unit’s measuring cup/cover), place the cover and measuring cup in place, arrange a large bowl under the chute to catch the popcorn, plug in the unit, then unplug it once the kernels are popped. 

Results: I ended up with a whopping 15 cups of popcorn from the 1/2 cup of kernels I started with, and only 1/4 teaspoon of unpopped kernels. The popcorn wasn’t quite as crisp, but it was fluffy and light. 

My Takeaway: This was the only method I tested that required no oil, so if you want lighter popcorn, this is a great method. (And if you don’t, you can always toss in some melted butter.) It felt like the safest method I tried (no risk of burning yourself), one that you could put kids in charge of — if you’re OK with them plugging in an appliance. Even if they don’t plug in the machine, they’ll no doubt enjoy watching the popcorn rise in volume and cascade out of the chute into the bowl. Other pros: The popper does all the work for you and there’s basically no cleanup. The only downside was the popcorn had a slight chewiness to it, but it was still really good.

Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Styling: Jesse Szewczyk

Popcorn Method: Wok-Popped Popcorn

  • Cook Time: 10 minutes
  • Rating: 9/10

About This Method: I followed the basic popping instructions in this New York Times recipe, without making the spice mix. The recipe has you place 2 tablespoons of oil and a few test kernels in a 14-inch wok, then cover the pan and heat over medium. As soon as you hear a kernel pop, you pour in 6 tablespoons of kernels, cover the pan, reduce the heat to medium-low, and cook — shaking the wok constantly — until the kernels stop popping. 

Results: From a starting point of 6 tablespoons of kernels, I ended up with 9 cups of popped corn that was fluffy and especially crunchy. For this method, I only had 1/2 teaspoon unpopped kernels.

My Takeaway: If you have a long-handled wok (preferably a lightweight carbon-steel model) with a lid, this is a fantastic method for you. For one, the handle makes shaking the pan very easy and natural, without taxing your arm the way that some other methods do. Second, cleanup is easy; just rinse and wipe. Third, the wok design seems particularly well-suited to this task: the wide funnel shape helps keep the kernels and oil in the hottest part of the pan. Finally, as the recipe points out, “making popcorn adds more patina to your wok,” helping to enhance its nonstick qualities.

Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Styling: Jesse Szewczyk

Popcorn Method: Whirley Pop Popcorn

  • Cook Time: 3 1/2 minutes
  • Rating: 9.5/10 (The only thing preventing a perfect rating is that the lid can be a little awkward to get off when hot.)

About This Method: First, if you’re unfamiliar with a Whirley Pop popcorn maker, it’s a pot with a crank handle and a hinged, vented lid. The crank controls an arm with two paddles that run parallel to the bottom of the pot and stir the popcorn. I used the instructions listed in the Whirley Pop Shop’s FAQ section: Add 1/2 cup popcorn kernels and 1 to 3 tablespoons oil (I used 2) to the pot. Arrange the lid on the pot, and heat over medium heat. Slowly turn the crank until the popcorn starts to pop and then slows, or until the crank becomes hard to turn.  

Results: Tied with the air popper, this method left me with the fewest unpopped kernels (only 4 or 5) and the highest volume of popcorn (15 cups from 1/2 cup kernels). The popping went incredibly fast, and you could really feel when it was time to stop cooking; the crank became discernibly harder to turn. The popcorn was the fluffiest and crunchiest of all the methods, with a rich, buttery flavor (without using any actual butter — just oil). This method was fantastic on all accounts: The popcorn was the most delicious, the method was ridiculously fast, the popper felt safe and easy to use, and, maybe best of all, the process was very, very fun. And you can make quite a show of pouring the popcorn out of the hinged lid. 

Final Thoughts

Most of these methods work just fine. Everyone will have a favorite, of course, based on what they grew up with or learned at a pivotal point in their cooking explorations. I was delighted to experience the joys of the Whirley Pop. Although I don’t have a ton of storage space in my kitchen, I am gladly clearing a spot for this piece of equipment. I can’t wait to use it again; it will make family movie night feel even more special. If you have young kids —and/or you prefer your popcorn cooked without oil — you would do well to make the small investment in an air popper, which will provide loads of healthy entertainment. Wok-owners, don’t sleep on wok-popped popcorn, with its added benefit of deepening that coveted patina. And, hey, if you have a pot or a glass bowl, you’re in good hands, too.

Credit: Kitchn