An Investigative Report: What Makes Movie Theater Popcorn So Good?

published Jul 25, 2016
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(Image credit: Nestor Rizhniak)

Is there anything better than movies and popcorn? They go together like Beyoncé and Jay Z. When you think of one, the other automatically pops into your head. And movie theater popcorn, in particular, is a special breed. As soon as you walk into the theater, it hits you: the buttery, salty smell of popcorn.

It beats the microwaved version every time. When you make your own at home, or buy bags that claim they’re the “movie theater” version, they’re just never quite as good. Even when the stuff in the theaters isn’t perfect — too dry or too buttery — it just works.

So, why is movie theater popcorn so dang good? It may just be part of the movie magic; however old we get, there’s still something mystical about the movie theater. Almost everyone can remember seeing a movie they loved, and they probably had a bag of popcorn on their lap while they saw it.

But is there something more? Is the secret in the sauce? Is there a special popper? A flavored salt? We decided to investigate. Turns out, it’s a few things.

1. The theater of popcorn

The movie theater experience is definitely a factor. “Popcorn and the big screen experience go hand in hand,” explains Terri-Lynn Woodhouse, who has worked in movie theaters for 15 years. “A lot of it is nostalgic, remembering first dates and enjoying the taste and smells of the theatre as kids,” she says, but there’s something else, too. “The theater of popping the popcorn is a big draw. You can watch, hear, and smell it while in line.”

2. The not-butter butter

Of course, you can’t forget the butter — or rather, butter flavoring. More often than not, “butter” is really butter-flavored oil, which helps keep the popcorn from getting soggy. Kristi Weimerskirch, who worked at the Marcus Theater in Madison, Wisconsin, for two years in high school, says she and her coworkers were always told to refer to it as butter flavoring instead of butter.

But just because it’s not real, doesn’t mean it’s not delicious. “I still loved it,” Weimerskirch says. “But it was definitely not butter on there.”

3. The giant tub

How many foods do you get to eat out of a giant paper tub? These tubs are so wide, at least two people can get their hands in at the same time without bumping into each other, which means you can stuff your face, non-stop. Even if you get a more reserved small- or medium-sized popcorn, you still get to eat out of a paper bag. Tub or bag — both are way more fun than eating out of a bowl!

4. The reinvention of popcorn

These days, movie theaters are going beyond the butter (or butter flavoring). Woodhouse says her Toronto movie theater offers powdered seasonings like ketchup, white cheddar, sour cream & onion, and BBQ.

And then there are places like iPic Theaters in Westwood, CA, outside Los Angeles. Sherry Yard, the James Beard award-winning chef and senior vice president of Culinary Brand Development, rattles off flavors like pickled beet with rosemary and sea salt and buttermilk dill with smoked salt. And her preferred pairing isn’t a Big Gulp, but a glass of bubbly.

No matter what that X factor is, people can’t get enough of the stuff — employees included. “I couldn’t imagine watching a movie without it,” Woodhouse says. “And that says a lot considering all the theater cleaning and spilt popcorn I’ve dealt with over the years!”

Pop(corn) History: There’s a Reason Popcorn Is Our #1 Movie Snack

How do you take your movie theater popcorn? With butter or without?