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EW's microwave popcorn taste test -- We asked Cheryl James from Salt-N-Pepa, Pierre Franey, and Mary Thomas-Compton to rate the movie treat

It's the food of the film age — those light, puffy kernels heavy with melted butter, redolent of more innocent times predating cholesterol consciousness. Popcorn and the movies have been together since the '30s, and years of conditioning have assured that one whiff is enough to cue us for a cinematic experience.

Far and away the number-one snack in movie houses, popcorn is more popular than ever now that we're watching movies on video in our houses. The microwave and the VCR are doing what the Jiffy Pop pan and the air popper could never quite achieve: Some 70 percent of the 15 billion quarts consumed in the U.S. each year is popped at home, and microwave popcorn is currently marketed in more than seven varieties under a dozen different brand names.

For the critic inside every movie fan, the big question is: Which of all those different kinds of popcorn is the best of all? To find the answer, we conducted the Great Entertainment Weekly Microwave Popcorn Taste Test, evaluating 12 of the most popular natural and buttered microwave varieties, plus one ''pure'' type sold with the kernels still on the cob.

We focused on the time-tested qualities that have brought popcorn to the pinnacle of popular taste. Above all, popcorn should be fluffy. It should be crunchy, not soggy. And if some falls to your lap, it should not leave a residue reminiscent of the Exxon Valdez.

To make these assessments, we assembled a panel of four experts: Mary Thomas-Compton, a University of Nebraska maize agronomist (popcorn breeder to us), whose discriminating taste buds can detect the flavor of corn amid the butter and salt; Pierre Franey, The New York Times' ''60-Minute Gourmet'' columnist, who had never tasted the stuff before; Cheryl James, the Salt half of the rap group Salt-N-Pepa (what's popcorn without salt?); and, because so many of us have our first physical contact with the opposite sex while grabbing for the same handful of popcorn in a shared bucket at the movies, we invited Carol Lott, the life-styles editor at Seventeen magazine.

The panelists rated 13 varieties of microwave popcorn on a scale of 0 to 10 according to two positive criteria: Just-Shucked Freshness and As Good as at the Movies. Points were deducted for two characteristics that can mar the popcorn experience: Greasy Kid Stuff and Sticks in My Teeth.

Personal preferences certainly came into play. ''I like it best when it's light and natural tasting,'' said Lott. ''When there's lots of grease and chemicals, it's really gross.''

Thomas-Compton informed us that ''unlike many other foods, popcorn improves with size. The bigger the kernel of popped corn, the more tender.''

''I think the yellow looks much more appealing than the white,'' Pierre Franey said, ''but I don't know what makes it this color.'' Neither did we, but Thomas-Compton said natural coloring may have been added.

Our overall winner, the popcorn that scored the highest in fresh corn flavor and was comparable with the best at the movies, was Newman's Own All Natural flavor, making the blue-eyed heartthrob a contender for a night of double drooling — you can simultaneously feast your eyes on The Color of Money and your taste buds on his corn. TV Time Butter flavored ranked second, and Country Grown Pop-Lite, Pop-a-Cob, and Pop-Secret Natural tied for third. Weight Watchers came in last.

Orville Redenbacher's Butter flavored was least likely to get stuck in your teeth, while popcorns with nothing on them tended to taste the most like Styrofoam. ''When you add salt,'' Lott said of Country Grown popcorn, a fat- and salt-free variety available from mail-order catalogs, ''it's better, and if you added real butter, it would be great.'' Flavor-wise, that is, not health-wise.

The greasiest contenders left oleaginous stains on the heavy paper boxes that we used to keep the brand names hidden from our panelists. TV Time Butter flavored, our second-place winner overall, was one of the greasiest, while Pop-Secret Light (second-to-last place) was one of the least greasy.

After tasting popcorn for the first time, French-born Pierre Franey said, ''It's not bad.'' By the time he'd finished a dozen kinds, he thought popcorn was ''pretty good.'' ''Could you use it to make a corn fritter?'' he wondered, studying this new food more intently than we had ever seen anybody look at what he was about to ingest.

Of course, popcorn is seldom subjected to such close scrutiny, and as in this test, it's often eaten blind — the movie you're watching, among other things, vies for your attention, and the popcorn goes down without much thought. But movie houses and video stores have taken stock of their customers' popcorn habits. According to the food's second-most-famous merchant, Orville Redenbacher, comedies rank first in popcorn consumption, followed by action flicks and dramas. Romances lag last: too many crumbs and all those bits of hull to get stuck in your teeth and spoil the mood. But this information comes from a man who, he confesses, likes sugar on his popcorn when he watches the news and chili powder on it for sports. You might want to take it with a grain of salt.



The Top of the Tops

Country Grown Pop-Lite

Price $2.95
Just-shucked freshness 28
As good as at the movies 18
Greasy kid stuff -5
Sticks in my teeth -13
Overall 28

Jiffy Pop Butter

Price $1.89
Just-shucked freshness 16
As good as at the movies 18
Greasy kid stuff -5
Sticks in my teeth -13
Overall 18

Jolly Time Light Butter

Price $1.89
Just-shucked freshness 14
As good as at the movies 14
Greasy kid stuff -6
Sticks in my teeth -10
Overall 12

Newman's Own Butter

Price $1.89-$2.19
Just-shucked freshness 20
As good as at the movies 18
Greasy kid stuff -9
Sticks in my teeth -10
Overall 19

Newman's Own All Natural

Price $1.89-$2.19
Just-shucked freshness 32
As good as at the movies 26
Greasy kid stuff -8
Sticks in my teeth -9
Overall 41

Orville's Redenbacher's Butter

Price $2.40
Just-shucked freshness 20
As good as at the movies 18
Greasy kid stuff -8
Sticks in my teeth -7
Overall 23

Orville's Redenbacher's Natural

Price $2.40
Just-shucked freshness 26
As good as at the movies 22
Greasy kid stuff -14
Sticks in my teeth -9
Overall 25

Pop-A-Cob

Price NA
Just-shucked freshness 26
As good as at the movies 18
Greasy kid stuff -2
Sticks in my teeth -14
Overall 28

Pop-Secret Light Natural

Price $2.09
Just-shucked freshness 12
As good as at the movies 10
Greasy kid stuff -4
Sticks in my teeth -8
Overall 10

Pop-Secret Natural

Price $2.09
Just-shucked freshness 24
As good as at the movies 18
Greasy kid stuff -6
Sticks in my teeth -8
Overall 28

TV Time Butter

Price $1.55
Just-shucked freshness 28
As good as at the movies 28
Greasy kid stuff -13
Sticks in my teeth -10
Overall 33

TV Time Natural

Price $1.55
Just-shucked freshness 22
As good as at the movies 20
Greasy kid stuff -13
Sticks in my teeth -8
Overall 21

Weight Watchers

Price $1.85
Just-shucked freshness 12
As good as at the movies 6
Greasy kid stuff -3
Sticks in my teeth -9
Overall 6

Panelists rated each type of popcorn on a scale of 0 to 10 for Just-Shucked Freshness and As Good as at the Movies; points were deducted for distinction in the Greasy Kid Stuff in My Teeth categories. Eash score shown represents the sum of the four judges' ratings.

Originally posted Aug 02, 1991 Published in issue #77 Aug 02, 1991 Order article reprints
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