The Comfort Food Diaries: Movie Theater Popcorn, A New Hope

Zac Overman

Welcome to The Comfort Food Diaries, a month-long series that will run each weekday throughout the month of January. Here, the Serious Eats staff, along with some of our favorite writers from the food world, will reflect on the dishes, delicacies, and, yes, guilty pleasures that have sustained us through good times and bad.

Some people seem to have a second stomach dedicated to dessert. I have a second stomach for popcorn. It's something that developed a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away—namely, a Morningside Heights apartment in the early 1980s.

It was then that one of my earliest childhood memories was formed: watching the world television premiere of Star Wars: A New Hope with my dad in our shag-carpeted living room. I specifically remember picking through a big red melamine bowl of buttered popcorn and getting up during one of the commercial breaks to pour some more dry kernels into our old air popper. As the machine, with its 1970s brown, orange, and tan color scheme, whirred and heated, Fred (as we called my dad, because, well, his name was Fred) microwaved a half stick of butter in a cup until just melted and tossed the bowl of popcorn while I drizzled on the butter, intentionally pouring it just a little too fast to increase my odds of finding one of the coveted extra-buttery kernels later on.

A couple of years later, when microwave popcorn became all the rage, our air popper was retired, though my love of overly buttered popcorn continued unabated. My sisters and I would scrap over who got to keep the empty bag after we microwaved our Movie Theater Style Butter Flavored popcorn, because we all loved to dig our fingers into the salty orange grease that was left on the interior, using the last few kernels to scrape it up like chips and dip. (We were still watching that same premiere of Star Wars, the VHS tape distorted and buzzy from too many viewings.)

I think of those days every time I visit my local movie theater and breathe in the buttery aroma of concession stand popcorn. Over time, I've come to realize that the real (pop) secret about movie theater popcorn is this: While it might look like real buttered popcorn (bright yellow coloring aside), it's something else entirely. The popcorn at your theater is merely a vehicle to deliver salt, coconut oil, and diacetyl and acetoin—the two chemicals that give the "buttery topping" its distinct butter-but-not-really-butter flavor. It's a flavor I've grown to love, perhaps even more than real butter.

Occasionally, I love it to a fault, like that time my uncle took me to see Robocop 2. Already feeling rebellious for convincing him to take me to an R-rated movie against my mother's explicit directives, I tried to see how far I could push it by asking him to order an extra-large bucket of popcorn all for me—and a large Coke to wash it all down. He acquiesced without batting an eye (as uncles tend to do), and I spent the next two hours in a frenzy of robotic violence and saturated fat, only to get home and suffer the unfortunate experience of having all that popcorn leave my body through the same doorway by which it entered.

You'd think that would have taught me a lesson, but you'd be wrong. I still can't resist the urge to order popcorn at the theater, and it doesn't matter if I'm completely full when I get there, either. Even if I stuff myself to the point of feeling sick at dinner before hitting the movies afterward, you can bet I'll be in line at the concession stand.

But over the years, I've learned a thing or two about what makes some movie theater popcorn better than others. First of all, there's the issue of the top-loaded bag: popcorn that's oversaturated with butter at the top and completely dry after the first two inches. It's a problem that isn't really resolved by the new top-it-yourself trend I've been noticing at some theaters, wherein the bag of popcorn is served dry, allowing you to pump your desired amount of topping at a condiment station next to the concession stand. My first instinct was to ask for an extra water cup and fill it with a few tablespoons of golden topping to reapply to my popcorn halfway through the bag. It's effective but, to be quite honest, kind of gross. (I even experimented with dipping the popcorn, one kernel at a time, into a cup of butter. Not advisable.) These days, if I enter a top-it-yourself theater, the first thing I do is file a complaint with the management. After that, I'll order my popcorn one size larger than I actually need, tipping out a couple of cups of kernels in order to make room to toss the popcorn after adding butter.

I've also tried convincing concession stand workers to sell me a medium-sized popcorn in a large bag, or for them to give me two bags, that I might pour the popcorn back and forth after buttering it. As I've been told by several employees, most theaters refuse to do this, as they keep inventory of sales based on the number of bags used. An employee who gives me a large bag and rings it up as a medium will raise a red flag with the management. For the same reason, most theaters won't give you regular soda cups to use at the water fountain.

Since moving to Northern California from New York recently, I've made an amazing discovery. At most movie theaters here, one need not even request that the concession attendant pump on the butter-flavored topping in two distinct layers in the bag. It's simply done by default. This discovery, along with the ease of driving to the theater instead of enduring the inherent headaches and delays of the NYC subway system, has increased my annual movie-going experiences twelvefold (yes, I keep track).

The next goal in my never-ending quest for better, even more comforting popcorn is to determine the ultimate home preparation method. I've already talked with several experts (including a popcorn geneticist who sent me four hybrid varieties to try, in both snowflake and mushroom shapes) about sourcing the ideal kernels. Now it's time to explore how to pop them. Should that old air popper of mine return from retirement? Is the brown-paper-bag-in-the-microwave method superior, or just a neat party trick? Is the Whirly Pop that I found at a garage sale truly the epitome of popcorn-popping technology, as promised? Someday I hope to tackle the butter issues, too. What's the best protocol to produce maximum flavor and minimal soggage? (I have a feeling that clarifying the butter will be a key step.) And where in the world can I get my hands on some pure, movie theater–grade diacetyl and acetoin?

I'll be reporting back, so stay tuned.