For a while, it looked like microwave popcorn might make popcorn poppers obsolete. However, while prepackaged convenience can be hard to beat, bags of microwave popcorn carry a heavier price tag -- and a payload of fat (usually in the form of vegetable oil), salt and artificial flavorings (see our companion report on microwave popcorn). Instead, the best popcorn poppers today can quickly turn kernels into a cheap, healthy snack for a crowd.
Popcorn kernels contain a tiny droplet of water, which, when heated, expands and causes kernels to pop, releasing their starchy interior from their outer shell. Among the types of popcorn poppers, hot air poppers are often touted as the healthiest option because these products don't require the use of oil -- a fact that some say leads to less flavor in addition to less fat. Another option, microwave popcorn poppers (which consist of a microwave-safe plastic bowl and lid) can be used with or without oil and are extremely easy to clean. However, a few owners say some models output plastic-tasting popcorn.
Some consumers prefer old-fashioned stovetop poppers, which work like a saucepan. They have a vented lid (allowing steam to escape for crispier popcorn) and a hand crank that operates a stirring mechanism to keep kernels moving across the bottom of the pan (to prevent scorching and distribute oil). Additionally, stovetop poppers can be used with any heat source, like a campfire or outdoor grill. However, these units can be difficult to operate and clean. Electric popcorn poppers are another alternative for those who don't want to turn the stove on for a quick snack. It's important to note that both electric and stovetop poppers use oil, so while the popcorn is more flavorful, it's also higher in calories and fat.
We found the best popcorn popper review at Slate.com, an online newsmagazine. Editors test three hot-air products and three poppers that use oil. Each popper earns a total of 10 possible points among three categories: popability (which includes speed and number of unpopped, half-popped or burnt kernels); usability, or how easy the popcorn popper is to set up and clean, as well as any added features; and taste, an analysis of both flavor and texture. What's more, Slate is also the only publication that includes a photo of each popper alongside its review.
The Wall Street Journal also offers two popcorn popper reviews. It first evaluates four popcorn poppers (two electric, one stovetop and one microwave), scrutinizing each on its ease of use and cleaning and how many kernels remain unpopped. A 2003 review also analyzes five popcorn poppers, and though the review is older, the models tested are still current. Additionally, Cook's Illustrated magazine reviews both stovetop and microwave popcorn poppers, but it doesn't offer cross-category comparison. Ultimately, reviewers don't agree on the best popcorn popper, so we turned to user reviews at Amazon.com, Cooking.com, Epinions.com and Viewpoints.com for more insightful owner feedback about everyday use.