Graphic: Karl Gustafson
Burning QuestionsBurning Questions is The Takeout's Q&A feature that satiates your food and drink curiosities  

When you enter any movie theater worth its salt (sorry), there are a few things you expect. A comfortable, appropriately high-backed chair, mounted at a slight incline for viewing ease. Posters lining the walls, heralding features yet to come. Perhaps most of all, you expect to be greeted by the divine aromas of butter, salt, and the popcorn they both serve to enhance.

However, upon purchase, you now face an impossible choice: How to butter the popcorn in a way that best preserves its integrity. Do you request that the bag or bucket have a layer of butter halfway through and then again at the top? Do you go one-and-done with a generous upper layer? Do you surrender to the hedonistic delights of what Stephen King and many others affectionately refer to as the “heavy bag”?

Such heady questions call for informed answers, and in that spirit, The Takeout consulted with the experts on what works best. While several different butter dispenser distributors did not return our calls, The Takeout was able to chat with two independent theater managers about this crucial question.

Kyle Cubr, the operations manager at Chicago’s famed Music Box Theatre, weighed in on the value of even butter dispersal: “I’ve always been a fan of scooping half of it into a bag. Then you run butter over it, and you shake it up a bit so that it helps disperse it amongst the popcorn,” he suggested. “Then hit it with a layer of butter on top, and do your best to shake it again, [though] there’s a certain limitation before it’ll spill out.”

Then again, Cubr also acknowledged there’s a method for all tastes: “There is a woman that comes here frequently and she asks for it in seven layers. So we have to take what I stated earlier, but break it down like it’s taco dip. And so we fill up a seventh of the bag, butter it, add more, add more, add more. She loves it. Certain people ask for extra butter, heavy butter, there are people that enjoy it that way.”

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Much of the deliberation usually comes down to what one prioritizes in their popcorn. It could be the crunchy, kernel-flake snap of a low-fuss bag, or the mushy mess of saturation, or an attempt to marry the two. There are even those who like to make a big bag of all their snacks at one time, and add their candy to the mix. (In the purview of this writer, those individuals are also mad, but once again, a matter of priorities.)

Photo: Scott Olson (Getty Images)

However, the industry opinion would seem to be that the more layers you can have added for you upfront, the better. Jake Weisman, assistant general manager of The New 400, one of Chicago’s stalwart neighborhood theaters, also concurs here. (Given that the 400 has been around since 1912, they’d know a thing or two.) There’s still such a thing as overdoing it: “I had someone who used to work here who lovingly buttered every single kernel. I had to be like ‘you’ve got to stop. I love you. But you need to stop.’ But definitely, if it’s a medium, you have to layer it. If it’s a large, you have to layer it. Like you need to layer it. Otherwise it’s just a mess.”

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Weisman also suggests that the vast majority of moviegoers (roughly 90%, by his estimation) prefer layers over a top-level drizzling: “This is my advice for anyone who works in a movie theater and slings popcorn. If it’s a medium or larger, just do yourself a favor and half it, just layer it. Do yourself a favor. Don’t wait for someone to ask for it. It’s silly, but that’s right, because if you go to an AMC, you get a large popcorn, it’s already full. People want to get it in there. They don’t just want the top surface.”

When pressed about self-administered butter (the customer DIY dispensers), both simply state that it’s far more trouble than it’s worth, a reality to which any regular patron of a major chain multiplex can attest. The workarounds dreamt up by The Takeout are no more efficient in their own way, whether it’s “the straw trick” (in which you fit the nozzle of a self-service butter pump into a straw and layer the butter internally), or asking for a spare water cup in order to carry one’s own butter for distribution throughout the movie. An especially enterprising theatergoer could even request an extra bag for purposes of redistribution, but whether they’d be indulged would very likely go on a case-by-case basis at best.

In short, layer your popcorn. The majority of your local theaters are more than happy to do it for you, in whatever weird ways you want (as long as the line permits). It’s the most efficient method, unless as Cubr suggested, “I guess ideally if you had the apparati, like a mixing bowl, and tossed it like a salad, I guess that might be the ultimate way to do it? But that’s not exactly feasible.”

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Do you have a special movie popcorn buttering technique? Please share in the comments below.