Finding the best popcorn poppers
The typical American consumes about 68 quarts – or 272 cups – of popcorn each year. This buttery, salty treat has long been a movie theater and sports stadium favorite, but you don't have to leave the comforts of your home to enjoy freshly popped corn. In fact, some people prefer to pop their own corn, as it's easier to control the amount of butter, salt, and oil used in preparation, all of which impacts the fat and other nutrition content.
There are many ways to pop your own corn at home. For $20 to $30, you can use a stand-alone, electric popcorn popper that makes popcorn by using either hot air or oil. If you don't have the room to store a stand-alone appliance just for making popcorn, you might consider a microwave popcorn popper. Costing $10 to $20, these are generally specially designed bowls that can also be used for other purposes. Lastly, you can take the traditional route and buy a stovetop popcorn popper for about $20.
The best popcorn poppers are easy to use and include clear instructions. They are designed with vents to allow steam from the popping corn to escape to prevent the finished result from becoming mushy. The best poppers are also efficient: They should pop every kernel, without scorching, during a commercial break. In addition, popcorn poppers shouldn't require much assembly and must be easy to clean.
To identify the best popcorn poppers, we consulted hands-on tests conducted by editors at YourBestDigs.com, Cook's Illustrated magazine, and Heavy.com, as well as older but still-relevant reviews from Slate.com and EveryDay with Rachel Ray magazine. We also evaluated individual owner-written reviews on sites like Amazon.com, Walmart.com, and Target.com.
The Presto PopLite Hot Air Corn Popper remains a user favorite
While many people frown at getting an appliance that has just one purpose, many owners of stand-alone poppers are self-described popcorn fanatics who get plenty of use out of their units. Two options among stand-alone units rise to the top in reviews: the Presto PopLite Hot Air Corn Popper 04820 (Est. $25) -- also available as the Orville Redenbacher's Hot Air Popper 04821 (Est. $25) -- and the West Bend 82306 6 Qt. Stir Crazy Corn Popper (Est. $35).
The Presto PopLite receives thousands of reviews at Amazon.com, earning high scores from most owners. Capable of making up to 18 cups of popcorn in about two and a half minutes, the Presto PopLite uses hot air – rather than oil – for a healthier snack. Popcorn lovers aren't limited to dry popcorn, though; a measuring cup built into the popper top will melt butter using the heat created during the popping process, so butter, oil, and other flavorings can be added as desired. That said, it's best to start with soft, room-temperature butter, because this popcorn popper works so quickly that cold butter often doesn't have enough time to melt.
Many owners contributing reviews of the Presto PopLite on Amazon.com offer helpful tips for getting different results based on your personal taste and preferences. For instance, some owners suggest using particular brands of kernels or spraying olive oil or butter on the kernels with an olive oil sprayer for added flavor. However, some users say you need to work a little harder to evenly distribute seasonings since they cannot be added until the PopLite finishes popping. A few owners offer suggestions for overcoming this challenge, such as putting the finished popcorn in a bag with seasonings and shaking it up.
The Presto PopLite is as durable as it is versatile, owners say. Many owners say they've owned this popcorn popper for years and it's held up with relatively consistent use – some for 10 years or more. While the machine pops nearly all kernels and never burns them, some piping hot ones often fly out in unsuspecting directions at start-up and at the end of the popping cycle, so you'll need a large bowl to capture all of the popcorn. Be forewarned: Half-popped kernels in the popping chamber will be very hot, so don't reach in after them.
Cleanup is simple; both the base and the plastic top can be wiped clean after use, and the plastic cover can also be removed and washed with soap and water. Editors at YourBestDigs.com do point out, however, that the Presto PopLite comes with a California Proposition 65 warning, as the plastic cover contains BPA. Both the Presto PopLite and its Orville Redenbacher-branded counterpart are backed by a one-year limited warranty.
The West Bend Stir Crazy 6-Quart Electric Popcorn Popper also draws lots of consideration. Editors at YourBestDigs.com name it as their "most fun" pick in a roundup of five popcorn poppers, noting that it's also easy to use, made from quality materials, and lightweight at just four pounds. The West Bend Stir Crazy popper receives positive reviews from owners posting feedback to Amazon.com, earning a 4-star rating in nearly 2,500 reviews. Users say this popcorn popper, which makes about six quarts of popcorn in about five minutes, makes great-tasting popcorn no matter what brand of popcorn kernels is used.
Unlike the PopLite, which uses forced air, the West Bend Stir Crazy popper requires a little oil and has a rotating arm that turns slowly keeping the kernels moving to prevent them from sticking and burning. Users say the popcorn needs to be monitored, which is easy to do since the popper has a transparent lid. The lid contains an indented section with small holes that can be used to distribute melted butter onto the popcorn, and the lid doubles as a large popcorn bowl – but only when used with the cap to prevent any flavorings from leaking out of the holes. As soon as all of the kernels have popped, the unit needs to be unplugged so that it doesn't scorch your snack.
Both the Presto PopLite and the West Bend Stir Crazy have some design issues. Some Presto PopLite owners say that the cover warps over time. The cover is made of a special material designed to absorb heat without melting. But, temperature does have an impact, so to retain the lid's shape, it needs to cool off on top of the base. Meanwhile, West Bend Stir Crazy users complain that their popper's rotating arm scrapes its nonstick base, but some owners suggest that loosening the central bolt a bit and bending the arms slightly should easily solve the problem. Neither popper has an on/off button -- a minor inconvenience for most.
The best stovetop popcorn popper
With its hand crank that continually stirs the popcorn, the Wabash Valley Farms Whirley-Pop Stovetop Popcorn Popper 25008 (Est. $20) is a stovetop popcorn maker that's reminiscent of the old days. But nostalgia isn't the only reason that owners flock to this popper. The Whirley Pop earns a rating of 4.4 stars out of 5 in more than 3,700 owner-written reviews on Amazon.com, with most reviewers saying that it's fun to use, easy to clean, durable and works on any type of stovetop. The old-fashioned hand crank is patented and actually serves a purpose: keeping the kernels from sticking and burning for perfectly cooked popcorn.
Owners also say that the popper is handy for large families with children who can't wait to dive into a big tub of popcorn. It makes about 24 cups in less than three minutes -- quicker than the West Bend Stir Crazy, which takes about five minutes to make the same amount. The popper also makes it easy to try recipes beyond the traditional movie-style popcorn, such as white chocolate almond popcorn. In an older review at Slate.com, the Whirley Pop earns a score of 23 out of a possible 30, receiving a 9 out of 10 for popability (meaning it leaves few kernels unpopped) and taste.
For usability, though, Slate.com editors award the Whirley Pop a score of 5 out of 10. Some reviewers at Amazon.com and other consumer review sites do criticize the Whirley Pop's manual operation, pointing out that manually turning the handle loses its novelty after a few uses. However, if you are looking to cut down on fats and don't like the taste of air-popped popcorn, the Whirley Pop is a good choice. Owners say it can make flavorful popcorn with as little as a teaspoon of oil.
The Whirley Pop must be seasoned but doesn't require washing if you are using only oil; simply wiping it off with a paper towel or cloth will do the trick. But before you begin experimenting with gourmet popcorn recipes, keep in mind that a gooey recipe will require a more thorough hand-washing after the fact. It's not dishwasher-safe, and some owners say cleaning out the parts of the lid can be difficult.
The Whirley Pop has a few other downsides. It's made of aluminum, disappointing users who have health concerns about cooking with this metal. The lightweight design is also prone to denting. In addition, it has plastic gears, which perturbs users when the pieces pop off. (The manufacturer, Wabash Valley Farms, has also released a stainless-steel version, the Whirley Pop 24003-AMZ (Est. $50) with all metal gears. Still, its fans say that if handled with care, the original popper will last you years. If not, dig out its 25-year warranty.
Elsewhere in this report:
Best microwave popcorn popper | Buying guide | Our sources