How we tested
Americans spend over $1 billion annually on unpopped popcorn kernels. Corn producers large and small develop as many as 30,000 hybrids (which have varying flavor, textural, and volume characteristics) a year in search of better products.
To find out which supermarket microwave popcorn we liked best, we popped up seven national brands in their basic butter flavor and called our tasting panel to the table for a blind sampling. As a baseline, we also tasted plain popcorn kernels dressed with a modest amount of melted butter and salt.
The homemade popcorn won by a landslide. Out of the seven store-bought brands, only two received acceptable grades. The biggest problem with the prepackaged popcorns was “artificial tasting” flavors from the “natural and/or artificial butter flavor” and preservatives. It wasn’t surprising that popcorns with “artificial butter flavor” would taste artificial (this flavor is typically a blend of chemicals designed to mimic real butter, with one eye squarely on the bottom line).
We were, however, very surprised that brands with “natural butter flavor” weren’t better. Since butter is perishable, it needs heavy processing (butter’s flavor molecules are typically extracted by enzyme reaction, solvent extraction, or steam distillation) and/or added preservatives to be shelf-stabilized for these packages—and both of those roads lead to unnatural or weak butter flavor. Our overall rankings are a reflection of how closely each microwave popcorn came to replicating the clean, rich flavor of fresh butter: Obviously, none of them did a very good job. We recommend buying a microwave popper and kernels and adding the butter yourself.