Best in the bag: America’s Test Kitchen reviews bagged popcorns

America’s favorite snack food – popcorn – has found a new favorite package. While sales of microwaveable and kernel popcorn have been steadily dropping for years, the options of pre-popped and bagged popcorn available at the supermarket are nearly overwhelming. Our friends at America’s Test Kitchen conducted a surprisingly technical taste test of bagged popcorns. Managing producer Sally Swift talked with Jack Bishop from America’s Test Kitchen about the results.

Jack Bishop
(Photo: America’s Test Kitchen)

Sally Swift: Is it my imagination, or is microwave popcorn going to be a thing of the past, taken over by those giant bags of popcorn that are in the chip aisles?

Jack Bishop: The trend is moving towards already-popped bags of popcorn. Sales are up 60 percent since 2012 while sales of kernels that you pop at home and microwave popcorn are flat. People love the convenience of the already-bagged popcorn. It’s also healthier. It’s just popcorn, oil, and salt.

SS: I wouldn’t have thought that. Let’s start from the beginning. How does popcorn actually pop?

JB: There’s water inside those little kernels. When you heat up the kernels, the water turns to steam. That does two things. It starts to gelatinize the starches. It’s the same process that happens when you cook rice. Eventually, that creates enough pressure that the starch bursts through the tough outer coating of the kernel and immediately solidifies on contact with the air. That’s the puffy white part of any popcorn kernel that’s been popped.

Associate editor Lauren Savoie measures the water displacement of a sealed bag of popcorn in order to calculate the bag’s air-to-popcorn ratio while testing several brands of this pre-packaged snack food. (Photo: Kevin White)

SS: You did a tasting of bagged popcorn. I was surprised – when I read the piece that you wrote – that popcorn kernels all pop differently, in different shapes. And that changes the way they taste. Can you talk me through…

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