It shouldn’t be hard to pop popcorn theater style at home. Pop some popcorn, mix it with melted butter, sprinkle 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 that wasn’t in my pantry, wasn’t in the grocery stores, and wasn’t even found anywhere. in the natural world.
Because, aside from recommendations for specific poppers and grains, what really makes popcorn taste (and, importantly, smell) like the movie popcorn by its own name is something called “flavacol.”
e Even when I tried to make the best batch of popcorn I could, it couldn’t compete with the flavacol-flavored version. (skip to my test read results or read on for all the details).
The brainchild of Gold Medal Products Co., flavacol, which you can buy online, is the self-proclaimed “secret ingredient” to selling more popcorn (or, to consumers rather than theatergoers, eating more popcorn).
and the online community seems to agree. a reddit thread of 386 comments, hidden under the “must know” subreddit, is titled “you can make movie theater popcorn at home, with this one ingredient.”
“Hearing the word makes me cringe,” writes user mayorbryjames.
I worked in a theater for years. flavavol would come in a 20 pound bag inside a cardboard [sic] box. for a batch of popcorn (a 20 fl oz cup of seeds) we would use a tablespoon of the stuff. is designed to smell like “movie popcorn” and draw people from the mall (or the street) inside. it’s mostly sodium, but it’s not technically salt. I used to have it under my nails. the smell of raw in concentrated amounts… oh god.
despite overwhelming evidence from food blogs (like this one and this one) and online consumer reviews (amazon and other online retailers) that the taste of movie theater popcorn is the taste of the flavacol, I was still wondering if I could make it at home.
flavacol is, after all, made up of only four ingredients: “salt, artificial butter flavor, #5 fd&c yellow lake (e102), and #6 yellow lake (e110)” ; the latter two “give popcorn an attractive, bright yellow color to maximize sales.”
With no interest in maximizing my sales, I ditched the yellow tints. that left me with “salt” and “artificial butter flavor” and “salt”.
Salt is the main ingredient in flavacol (one teaspoon contains 2,740 milligrams of sodium; for context, the 2010 USDA guidelines recommended reducing sodium to less than 2,300 milligrams per day), and the product’s unique flavor is attributed , at least in part, to how it is produced. The Alberger process, patented way back in 1915, produces fine flakes of multifaceted crystals, which have “exceptional stickiness, mixability, and solubility compared to cube-shaped granulated salt.” In other words, this salt adheres better to food and releases a delicious and addictive flavor in your mouth more quickly than standard table salt.
The second ingredient I had to address was “artificial butter flavor” (a.b.f. for short). but there’s almost no way to tell what’s in a.b.f., let alone recreate it at home. the company can include it on the package without disclosing its specific composition. As Peter Kim, the executive director of the Food and Drink Museum, explained, where the current exhibit is all about taste…
proprietary “recipes” [for flavourings] are quite valuable. That said, even if the flavoring were to be disclosed on an ingredient label, that 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 a “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 was a way to find out what’s in flavacol and somehow recreate it at home (rather than in a science lab), it could be even more off-putting.
In 2007, butter-flavored popcorn made national news when the New York Times reported a link between vapors of the pungent, yellowish flavor diacetyl (a naturally occurring organic compound added to some foods, such as margarine, to impart a buttery flavor) and a life-threatening lung condition in workers in flavoring factories. while the gold medal assured a concerned consumer that flavacol does not contain diacetyl, the composition of the “artificial butter flavor” remains a mystery to us consumers.*
since a.b.f. and alberger-processed salt were out of the question for typical home cooking, I explored alternative avenues to theater-style popcorn. I’ve learned that others have had success popping the kernels in coconut oil and using clarified butter (rather than standard melted butter) as a “topping”. and to recreate fine flake salt that would completely coat the kernels and dissolve quickly on the tongue, I used a tip from a 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 powdered salt, I set out to make popcorn as good as the theater.
I made two batches of popcorn, the only difference is that, to one pot, I added 1/4 teaspoon of neon orange flavacol along with the coconut oil. but that 1/4 teaspoon made a big difference.
about the flavacol flavored popcorn (which was also darker in appearance), my tasters (food52 staff) said:
- It’s “everything I want in a movie popcorn”.
- “I love it”.
- It has “a deeper, more complex flavor profile.”
On the all-natural, homemade alternative, they said:
- it would be like “a good basic popcorn”, but it needs more flavor.
- “it tastes more salty and oily, whereas the other popcorn [made with flavacol] tastes more like butter”.
- it’s “more salty”.
so both bowls of popcorn were made with the exact same amount of real clarified butter, but the popcorn made with the fake butter tasted more like butter. and although many of my testers said they’d gladly eat any of the bowls, several people asked me where they could buy flavacol (and someone, who will remain anonymous, called dibs on our office stash). I too was pleased, and amazed!, to have recreated such a historical flavor (the flavor of monsters inc. and boyhood and grizzly man and all my other favorite movies). it tasted very good. It tasted like a special presentation.
In the end, I had made a pretty good bowl of popcorn with the natural tricks, but the flavacol-flavored popcorn tasted just like the movies. and my homemade version, even though it was the best batch of popcorn I’d ever made, it didn’t.
I think I’ll save the movie theater popcorn for the movies. but I could save some flavacol, for when the craving strikes.
* Curious about the difference between “natural” and “artificial” flavors? While artificial and natural flavorings may be chemically identical, and both may very well be made 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,” while natural flavors are generally derived from botanical sources. “The key fact,” Kim said, “is that this has nothing to do with the actual chemical composition of the final product.”
To learn more about the difference between natural and artificial flavors, and why natural isn’t necessarily better, check out this scientific american article.
cinema popcorn: pure gold or pure disgusting? tell us in the comments below.