The quest to make theater popcorn at home

16 Jul


The West Bend theater-style popcorn popper is a sweet-looking appliance. (Geoff Meeker photo)

July 16, 2012

This week, a clever new device that harkens back to a simpler time. It’s the West Bend  Stir Crazy Theater Popper (82512), available for $120 at Future Shop.

But this is no ordinary popcorn maker. It’s a colourful, fairly accurate reproduction of the glass-walled popper you see at the movie theater, except this is a small, countertop device.

I received a sample unit for review two weeks ago, courtesy of West Bend, and my family has been using it pretty much daily. In fact, this review evolved into a quest to replicate the taste of movie theatre popcorn.

First, the device itself. It has three clear plastic sidewalls and a door, with a bright red top and bottom and the word ‘POPCORN’ embossed across the front in carnival lettering. It looks like a child’s pretend toy, but make no mistake: this is a real appliance. There’s a small kettle suspended inside, into which you place popcorn and oil. You plug it in, switch it on and a little arm stirs the popcorn kernels until they explode in a frenzy, spilling out of the kettle into the tray below. Add a dash of salt and presto, you’ve got some pretty tasty popcorn.

The West Bend really does work, though it has a couple of issues.

For one, the appliance is big, measuring 17” high, 11.5” wide and 10” deep. It’s too large to leave on the counter, or to fit into the cupboard – so what do you do with it? It’s best suited to a massive kitchen with a lot of countertop real estate.

Second, the batches are too small. It makes just six cups at a time, which is really just one adult-sized serving. Essentially, you need to make one batch per person, which can get cumbersome with a TV room full of people. There is a larger model (82514, for $150) that is just 3.5” higher but with almost double the yield, so I recommend that one if you really like this machine.

It’s a sweet-looking device that would be a major hit at a children’s party, but remember: the kettle can inflict a serious burn so supervision is essential.

The key advantage of the West Bend is the health benefit. Popcorn is a whole grain, cooked with oil and salt, so you know exactly what you’re getting. Microwave popcorn, on the other hand, has more chemical ingredients and many varieties contain hydrogenated oil – one of the worst things you can eat. If you microwave a lot of popcorn, you need to consider this.

The West Bend popcorn is tasty, if bland, when using the basic recipe – nothing like the theater kind, or even the bagged stuff you get at the video store. So I set out to unlock the mystery of making theater popcorn at home.

Internet research pointed toward two key ingredients: coconut oil and seasoned salt.

There are, it should be noted, two kinds of coconut oil: virgin, which is apparently very good for you, despite being high in saturated fat, and hydrogenated, which is very bad. (Much could be written about this, so I suggest some online research of your own.) I found virgin coconut oil at the Food for Thought Store on Duckworth Street. It’s expensive, at $22 for 860 ml, but hey, this was important research.

The coconut oil did taste different – sweeter, with a mild coconut flavour – but it’s not critical. Canola or vegetable oil would work just as well.

Then, I popped by a video store to inquire about their store-made popcorn. The helpful counter clerk said they have two ingredients – canola oil and seasoned salt – and kindly gave me a small sample of the latter.

The seasoned salt really does make a difference. You place it in the kettle before cooking, so it’s suffused throughout the oil and then, into the kernels as they pop. You don’t use much – just 1/8 of a tsp for a small batch – so it goes a long way. And it’s delicious. There are two brands available online – Savorol and Flavacol – but expect to pay at least $30 with shipping included. Bulk Barn sells “butter salt” for cheap, but I haven’t tried it. On the downside, these salts have a yellow colour so you’re back to that issue of unknown chemical ingredients.

When buying popcorn, avoid the fancy brand names, which can cost $5 for an 850 gram jar. The generics are just as tasty, at $2.50 for a 1 kg bag.

As nice as the West Bend looks, it’s not essential for homemade popcorn. There is also the stovetop method, which I have been perfecting since childhood. Just place a couple of tbsp of oil in a pot, pour in popcorn a single layer deep, cook on medium-high heat until corn starts to pop, then cover and shake pot back and forth until popping stops. Dump into bowl and add salt to taste (or add seasoning salt to oil prior to popping). It makes a much bigger batch and the pot is easier to clean than the West Bend.

Bottom line: whether you use the West Bend or stovetop method, homemade popcorn is probably the tastiest, healthiest and cheapest snack out there.

Geoff Meeker is a communications consultant with a soft spot for technology. He also writes a blog about the local media scene, which is hosted at



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