Butter

Can You Really Make Movie Theater Popcorn at Home?

February 17, 2016

It shouldn’t be hard to make movie theater-style popcorn at home. Pop popcorn, mix it with melted butter, shower it with lots of salt, and there you have it: the perfect snack to eat while watching movies at home.

Not so fast: When I tried to recreate theater-style popcorn at home, I learned that I needed an ingredient not found in my pantry, not found in grocery stores, and not even found in the natural world.

Because—on top of recommendations for specific poppers and kernels—what really makes movie theater popcorn taste (and, very importantly, smell) like proper-noun Movie Theater Popcorn is something called "Flavacol."

And even when I tried to make the best batch of popcorn I could, it couldn't hold court with the Flavacol-flavored version. (Skip down to the read results of my test or read on for all the details.)

A creation of Gold Medal Products Co., Flavacol—which you can purchase on the internet—is the self-proclaimed “secret ingredient” to selling more popcorn (or, for consumers rather than theater attendants, to eating more popcorn).

Photo by Mark Weinberg

And the online community seems to agree. A 386-comment Reddit thread, tucked under the "You Should Know" Subreddit, is entitled "You can make movie theater popcorn at home, with this one ingredient.”

“Hearing the word makes me shudder,” writes user mayorbryjames.

I worked at a theatre for years. Flavavol would come in a 20lb bag inside a cardboard box [sic]. For a batch of popcorn (a 20fl oz cup of seeds) we would use a tablespoon of the stuff. It's designed to smell like "movie theatre popcorn" and draw people from the mall (or the street) inside. It's mostly sodium, but not technically salt. I used to get it under my fingernails. The smell of it raw in concentrated amounts...oh god.

Despite resounding evidence from food blogs (like this one and this one) and online consumer reviews (Amazon and other online retailers) that the flavor of movie theater popcorn is the flavor of Flavacol, I still wondered if I could make it at home.

Flavacol is composed, after all, of only four ingredients: “salt, artificial butter flavor, FD&C Yellow #5 Lake (E102) and Yellow #6 Lake (E110)”; the latter two “give popcorn a bright, appealing yellow color for maximum sales."

"Your sales will go up as much as 25%." Photo by Mark Weinberg

With no interest in maximizing my sales, I disregarded the yellow dyes. That left me with "salt" and “artificial butter flavor” and “salt.”

Salt is the primary ingredient in Flavacol (one teaspoon contains 2740 milligrams of sodium; for context, the 2010 USDA guidelines recommended reducing sodium to less than 2300 milligrams per day) and the product's unique flavor is attributed, at least in part, to how it's produced. The Alberger process, patented way back in 1915, yields fine flakes of multi-faceted crystals, which have "outstanding adherence, blendability and solubility compared to cube-shaped granulated salt." In other words, this salt sticks to the food better and releases a delicious, addictive flavor in your mouth more quickly than standard table salt.

"Cotton candy can make plenty of plus profits for you, too." Photo by Mark Weinberg

The second ingredient I had to tackle was the "artificial butter flavor" (A.B.F. for short). But there's almost no way to know what's in A.B.F., let alone recreate it at home. The company is permitted to list it on the packaging without disclosing its specific make-up. As Peter Kim, the Executive Director of the Museum of Food and Drink, where the current exhibit is all about flavor, explained...

Proprietary "recipes" [for flavorings] are quite valuable. That said, even if the flavoring were disclosed on an ingredient label, it would arguably be too much information for a consumer to digest. Dozens or even hundreds of chemicals can be used to create an "artificial flavor" or "natural flavor."

Basically, there's just no way to know what makes Flavacol taste good, said food scientist Harold McGee, without knowing exactly what's in it. And even if there were a way to figure out what is in Flavacol and somehow recreate it at home (rather than in a science lab), it might be even more off-putting.

Back in 2007, butter-flavored popcorn made the national news when the New York Times reported a relationship between vapors from the pungent yellow flavoring diacetyl (a naturally occurring organic compound that's added to some foods, like margarine, to impart a butter flavor) and a life-threatening lung condition in workers at flavoring factories. While Gold Medal assured a concerned consumer that Flavacol does not contain diacetyl, what "artificial butter flavor" is made up of remains a mystery to us consumers.*

Since A.B.F. and Alberger-processed salt were out of the question for a typical home kitchen, I explored alternative avenues to theater-style popcorn. I learned that others had success popping the kernels in coconut oil and using clarified butter (rather than standard melted butter) as the "dressing." And to recreate fine-flake salt that would thoroughly coat the kernels and dissolve quickly on the tongue, I used a tip from friend of Food52, Josh Dobson, and sprinkled my popcorn with salt that had been finely ground to a powder in a mortar and pestle.

And so, with these 3 tricks up my sleeve—coconut oil, clarified butter, and pulverized salt—I set out to make popcorn just as good as the theaters'.

The Test:

I made two batches of popcorn, the only difference being that, to one pot, I added 1/4 teaspoon of the neon orange Flavacol along with the coconut oil. But that 1/4 teaspoon made a marked difference.

Of the Flavacol-flavored popcorn (which was also darker in appearance), my tasters (the Food52 staff) said:

  • It's "everything I want in a movie theater popcorn."
  • "I love this."
  • It has "a deeper, more complex flavor profile."

Of the DIY, all-natural alternative, they said:

  • It would serve as "a good foundational popcorn," but needs more flavor.
  • "It tastes more salty and oily, whereas the other popcorn [the one made with Flavacol] tastes more like butter."
  • It's "saltier."

So both bowls of popcorn were made with the exact same amount of actual clarified butter, but the popcorn made with the fake butter tasted more buttery. And while many of my taste testers said they would gladly eat either bowl, multiple people asked me where they could purchase Flavacol (and someone, who will remain anonymous, called dibs on our office stash). I, too, was pleased—and amazed!—to have recreated such a landmark flavor (the taste of Monsters Inc. and Boyhood and Grizzly Man and all my other favorite movies). It tasted great. It tasted like a feature presentation.

Photo by Mark Weinberg

In the end, I had made a pretty good bowl of popcorn with the natural tricks, but the Flavacol-flavored popcorn tasted like the movies. And my DIY version—even though it was the best batch of popcorn I'd ever made—did not.

I think I'll save movie theater popcorn for the movies. But I might save myself a little bit of Flavacol, for when the craving hits.

* Curious about the difference between "natural" and "artificial" flavors? While artificial and natural flavorings may be chemically identical, and both may very well be manufactured in science labs, the difference is in the source of the chemical compounds. According to Peter Kim, artificial flavors "include chemicals that come from non-botanical sources," whereas natural flavors are generally derived from botanical sources. "The key fact," said Kim "is that this has no bearing on the actual chemical composition of the final product."

For more on the difference between natural and artificial flavors—and why natural is not necessarily better—check out this article from Scientific American.

Movie theater popcorn: Pure gold or purely gross? Tell us in the comments below.

148 Comments

ChelseaAyn Z. December 12, 2017
I think the important part of the process is to put the seasonings you want (salt or nooch or sugar) into the oil before you pop the corn. That's how we did it at the theater - you always put the seasoning in to the drum with the seeds so that when they pop they are coated in flavored oil. I think this is why it's so much better to pop with butter in your oil rather than drizzle it over afterward.
 
Andy C. June 24, 2017
whirly pop. 4oz kernels (1/2 cup) 2tblsp cocnut oil, 1 tblsp sunflower oil, and a bit rounded of a 1/2 teaspoon scoop of flavacol. works killer for us. we get jolly time kernels from costco. 12# of kernels (13$) cant even hope to survive 6 months in our house, we eat a ton of popcorn. happy popping!
 
Carmen D. February 21, 2017
I have a question for everyone here. Which brand of popcorn poppers (like the whirly pop)? I'm looking to buy one because you need one of those for the glazes that you can buy from the makers of Flavacol. I really don't want to spend the money and then find out I bought the worst one. So, any help you guys can give me would be deeply appreciated! :D
 
zoumonkie February 18, 2017
I have a Whirley, but a glass popper with a silicone lid for the microwave works best and is easiest. I think it came from Bed Bath and Beyond
 
Carmen D. February 11, 2017
OMG movie theater popcorn is pure GOLD! That's the one thing I HAVE to have when I go to the theater. It's just not the same without it. The "Riverview Theater" in Minneapolis is the last single-screen theater from my youth and they are the only place I will get butter added to my popcorn. They only use real butter and trust me, it is SOOOO much better than the fake crap the other theaters use. And BONUS! They only charge $4 for a large bucket (I usually get 2 buckets. One to eat there and one to bring home)! I just love that place! :D<br /><br />Almost forgot: There is a salt called "Popcorn Salt" and it's made by Mortons. You can buy it at the grocery store. It's super fine and I've been using it on everything at my house for years. It just makes everything taste better.
 
Jennifer R. October 21, 2016
I make popcorn frequently for my family and stick to my grandfathers method with one small change. I use xv olive oil to pop the corn, add melted butter, kosher salt and then bake it in the convection oven at 315 degrees for 10 to 15 minutes. It gets crispier and the milk solids brown in the oven. If you want to avoid artificial ingredients this method is awesome.
 
JustKatB October 25, 2016
How interesting - the popcorn doesn't get overdone? Would you say it's closer to the 10 or to the 15 minute mark? Also do you spread this on baking sheets in a single layer or is this done in a casserole dish?
 
SirWired November 1, 2016
Use "nut salt" instead of kosher salt; it's a fine-grained salt that will stick way better.
 
Jennifer R. November 1, 2016
Closer to 10 minutes. I use my giant roasting pan because we always make lots. Good luck!<br /><br /><br />
 
Patty P. October 21, 2016
The volunteer fire department my husband belonged to also used this for the BINGO popcorn.. and a liquid "butter" named KOLA Gold. A restaurant I worked at also used the same products. Locally here near Syracuse, NY I have found BOTH products at our local MAINE'S store. They carry lots of stuff that is used in restaurants but open to us plain folks.. Make your popcorn and shake on your Flavacol with a regular salt shaker and "toss" well..ENJOY!!!
 
Carole H. July 18, 2016
When I Made popcorn to my kids I use hot air popcorn popper to make healthy popcorn like this man reviewed here http://www.popcornpopperpros.com
 
Jessica R. June 25, 2016
im confused, there are people saying they hate the way movie theater popcorn tastes, people saying they wont eat anything thats not natural... what are they doing here??? why google "how to make movie theater popcorn" if they know its not healthy?
 
joseph June 3, 2016
When I need a snack that is not calorie heavy, I pop my store bought popcorn in a microwave popper that uses no oil (That I bought at Aldi's for $5) and when popping is complete, I sprinkle Old Bay Seasoning on it. That is my version of a little bit of heaven.
 
BJ W. April 13, 2016
LOL so much snobbery in here! Last time I thought about it, I never really associated Serious Eats with strictly "real food" and "serious cooking," but I always thought of it as a sort of site where food science and curiosity were also explored. Please have a seat and relax.
 
Stacie B. March 9, 2016
Oh! And popcorn hack- add salt and a bit of sugar in the pan before it pops and you get a pretty good kettle corn substitute!
 
Stacie B. March 9, 2016
Love Movie Popcorn and Concession Stand Popcorn. What can I say? But I make a mean stove top home popcorn that's our go-to late night snack!
 
Joan March 9, 2016
I must say that I do not like Movie Popcorn. I always feel cheated that the aroma does not match the taste. I love to make popcorn at home with a locally grown"gourmet" popcorn and Smude's sunflower oil. No butter, no salt. It is wonderful! I know you may be thinking "weird" but the complexity of flavor is outstanding and satisfying!
 
JustKatB March 9, 2016
I totally agree with you on the movie theater popcorn. It smells wonderful but is always too salty and seems stale or something? I don't think they're making it the same way they used to?
 
Marion G. February 23, 2016
How sad to find this low a level of cookery on a food page! I actually hate to go to the movies now because the popcorn that smells so great tastes abysmal. And why pour butter onto popped corn? Soggy and gross. Simply place a high quality butter (European - Chimay is great), plus light olive oil and a bit of coconut oil if you like in a pot til melted over med/med low, and add your popcorn kernels in a close single layer across the bottom (the fat should just cover the kernels). When they start to pop, cover with a lid, keep th pan moving, and when there is enough popped to keep the corn from flying out when it pops, remove the lid to let the steam out. When the popping slows to singles dump into a bowl and toss with the finer pickling salt (Morton's green box) immediately, et viola! After a few times, you'll have it down to a science and your personal preferences for ratios. Sometimes I'll even toss in a few tbsp of sugar once the popping starts for some amazing kettle corn! It coat the corn with flavor without ever being soggy. Ridiculously easy.
 
Steven February 23, 2016
"Flavavol would come in a 20lb bag inside a cardboard box [sic]." <br />Why did you add [sic] to this? Looks straightforward to me.<br />
 
Jess T. March 9, 2016
In the quotes Flavacol was misspelt as Flavavol.
 
Author Comment
Sarah J. March 9, 2016
Yes, that's the reason.
 
Michele O. February 23, 2016
We bought some locally grown popcorn at an independent butchers; it was pricier, but the taste made up for it. As for butter, I prefer using European butter for my popcorn, rather than the more watery American. And I never melt it in the microwave; it just seems to get soggier. Of course, it may never taste like movie popcorn, but I console myself with knowing that sleep-deprived teenagers didn't handle it.
 
Michelle February 23, 2016
I found myself grinning while reading this. The popcorn you get from places like move theaters, amusement parks, Target, etc. is a deliciously guilty pleasure of mine when I'm craving a salty snack. I am absolutely buying Flavacol, guilt free!
 
Mindy S. February 20, 2016
I'm a popcorn junkie. I normally pop my mix of white/yellow and red kernels in either coconut oil or organic sunflower oil. I melt butter. I love using "Simply Organic" dry ranch salad dressing- do not buy the ranch dip it is too flavor intense (I only sprinkle a few tablespoons at most all over the popped corn) and then I drizzle butter on top. YUUUUUUUUUM.
 
sabina February 19, 2016
Good thing I've always found movie theater popcorn to be off-putting. I love ghee or coconut oil or a combo, and finished with nutritional yeast and smoked paprika and salt, totally addictive.