It might surprise you to learn that microwave popcorn hasn’t been around that long. The first bag was patented by General Mills in 1981, and brands have been furiously tinkering with their recipes ever since. Popping popcorn has always been pretty easy (oil, kernels, stir), but moving the process into the microwave added safety by keeping kids away from the stove and added convenience by eliminating cleanup. As long as microwaves remain in home (or office or dorm) kitchens, microwave popcorn will continue to be found in the adjacent pantries.
And at the dawn of the 2020s, when light, on-the-go snacks for busy, hungry people reign supreme, it’s time to determine which bag is best. May the victor populate your cabinets, purses, and office snack drawers for tasty recreational use.
All due credit goes to Aimee Levitt for rounding up the candidates at the grocery store and sharing her thoughts on the bounty. Our Onion Inc. colleagues, always game to join us in our snacking, weighed in as well. Here’s what we found.
(Note: At the grocery store, we selected each brand’s “butter” variety, in keeping with the classic microwave popcorn tradition.)
Skinnygirl Butter & Sea Salt Popcorn
This was definitely the most visually arresting bag, not only for Skinnygirl’s signature fire engine red color but also because it’s a mini microwave bag, a more “sensible” portion for one person. And that’s pretty much the flavor profile, too: sensible. It’s been stripped of the buttery sheen that makes popcorn fun, and what’s left is bleach-white and dry. It’s got the suggestion of butter flavor, but without the (unhealthy!) filmy butter barrier inside the microwave bag, it tasted a bit cardboardy, too.
Act II Butter Lovers Microwave Popcorn
“Butter lovers” could definitely describe the staff of The Takeout. What’s funny is how little Act II’s ingredients reflect the contents of their own bag. Ingredients: popping corn, palm oil, salt, less than 2% of: natural flavor, color added (annatto), TBHQ and citric acid (for freshness). Where is the butter in Butter Lovers? Of all the bags we tried, this one called to mind movie theater popcorn the most—but not necessarily for the right reasons. It was the yellowest, and in these high concentrations, the butter flavoring took on the flavor profile of French fry oil. An isolated fistful of Act II was definitely the most distinctive of all the popcorns sampled, though the jury is out on whether an entire bag would be a dehydrating mistake.
Jolly Time Simply Popped Butter
Seasoning isn’t the only thing that makes one popcorn brand distinct from another. Depending on the kernels used, you’ll get different textures of popcorn, some more fluffy, others more brittle. In the case of Jolly Time Simply Popped, all of our taste testers were surprised by how crisp and yielding this popcorn was, making it the most satisfying to bite into. There wasn’t a ton of flavor in the butter and salt department, but that just meant tasting more real corn flavor, and the detectable butter was the best kind of all: clarified butter. Jolly Time is definitely aiming for the “all natural” shoppers with this popcorn, and it’s working. “It tastes like it just came up out of the ground,” a colleague remarked, while a slightly more cynical coworker replied, “It tastes like this company held the most product development meetings.” Whatever it takes.
Signature Select Homestyle Microwave Popcorn
This is a perfectly fine, middle-of-the-road microwave popcorn product. It has just enough palm oil and “natural butter flavor” to convince you that it’s the good stuff, but not so much to convince anyone that it’s unjustifiable junk food. (It has the same calorie and fat count as Jolly Time, above.) Very average amounts of salt, butter, and chew mean that a bag of this stuff can be consumed mindlessly without becoming unpleasant, and sometimes, that’s all you need.
Angie’s Boomchickapop Real Butter Microwave Popcorn
Boomchickapop’s packaging is like no other. The bag has clear plastic sides that let you in on all the popping action as you’re standing in front of the microwave. It’s so fun! And eating this brand was fun, too. All elements are in harmony: airy texture, actual hints of real corn kernel flavor, and generous amounts of butter and salt that don’t taste oily, chemical, or cardboardy. Indeed, some respondents felt that there was too much salt, but these respondents do not come to popcorn for the same reasons I do. This is one bold, confident bag of corn, and it got everyone excited in a way that usually only the movie theater stuff can.
Orville Redenbacher’s Butter Popcorn
Like Swiss Miss, I had expected veteran brand Orville Redenbacher’s to generate a winning sense of nostalgia among our tasters. Instead, it was absolutely no one’s favorite. The problem wasn’t the toppings, but the corn: Each piece of Orville was smaller and more dense than the other brands, almost shriveled. Its distributions of butter and salt were fine, but each bite lacked heft. Nothing stood out here for the better.
Pop Secret Butter Microwave Popcorn
Pop Secret proved itself worthy of its household name status. Big salt and butter flavors were on display, and the physical pieces were bigger than Orville’s. This had the movie theater vibes that Act II Butter Lovers kicks into serious overdrive. Here, they were reined in a bit, and everything comes together to make this a solid movie theater popcorn rival.
O Organics Butter Flavored Organic Popcorn
This popcorn had the most unyielding bite, like nibbling into styrofoam. It’s bland, colorless, and puts up a fight—who wants to pay to have that kind of experience? Products like this give organics a bad name. On the plus side, bad popcorn inspired some of the best and most thoughtful feedback: the kernels were described as “burly,” and the overall flavor was deemed “not a show-stopper.”
Act II Butter Lovers: It was the most unique and the most polarizing of popcorns, but it had more than a couple diehard fans, and we have to give it that. This tasted the most like a junky indulgence, and there’s value in that too; it’ll pair the best with your pre-Oscars Netflix binge.
Jolly Time Simply Popped: If you come to popcorn primarily for the corn, this will offer you the world. It’s nice to be able to buy buttered popcorn rather than butter**-flavored**** popcorn and know that it’ll still taste great.
Angie’s Boomchickapop: Crowning a victor from the lineup was easier than we were expecting. It’s Boomchickapop. We could quote all the rave reviews from our colleagues (“Balanced + light!!!!” “No oil taste 10/10.” “Doesn’t seem chemically.” “BEST ONE!”), but suffice it to say that when I went back to the kitchen later to double-check the nutrition label, the bag—and the entire package of Boomchickapop bags—had disappeared.