2015 was simultaneously the year in which I consumed the most popcorn of my life and the year in which I received the most praise from my dentist. I blame this all on my wife Adri for running her first half marathon. The pups and I had come along to offer moral support at the starting line and the finish line,* which left us with a good chunk of time to kill in the middle. We decided to check out the yard sale a few blocks away. Nestled among scratched Farberware and the busted Speak & Spell, I saw my purchase: A well-used Whirley Pop popcorn popper with a $5 price sticker on it.
*We only managed to accomplish half of this goal, but that's another story for another time.
My love of buttered popcorn has never been a secret. It runs deeper than a bottomless jumbo tub, free refills and all. It's my favorite food. I've tested every imaginable brand of popcorn and popcorn-popping product I could get my hands on. The Whirley Pop is positively magical.
It doesn't look like much. It's a thin aluminum pot with a six-quart capacity and a snap-on lid with spider leg-like extensions that stick out into the pan beneath it. In the wooden handle is a little crank. As you turn the crank, the spider legs spin around inside the pot, agitating kernels of popcorn as they heat. So what does it do that shaking a pot on the stovetop can't accomplish? Oh boy. So, so much.
For starters, the pan is thin. This is important. Aluminum is a great conductor of heat, which means that the energy coming from your burner is being very efficiently transferred into the kernels of popcorn. Typically, the thinner the gauge of a pan, the more intense the hot and cool spots that form on its interior, which can lead to uneven cooking. But with its rotating stirring arms, you don't need to worry about hot and cool spots. The corn kernels don't stay still long enough to feel their effect.
"I cannot stress this enough: you do not want this version."
Whirley Pop offers a higher-end version with a stainless steel disk on the bottom. I cannot stress this enough: you do not want this version. Get the cheap all-aluminum version. What is a positive boon in most cooking situations is a handicap when it comes to popcorn. With a thicker pan, you spend a good deal of time heating up the metal before your popcorn starts cooking in earnest. I cooked 1 ounce of popcorn in three different vessels: a stainless steel disk-bottomed Whirley Pop, an all-aluminum Whirley Pop, and a standard tri-ply steel and aluminum saucepan. Both the disk-bottomed Whirley Pop and the saucepan took about one minute 45 seconds before the first kernel popped. The aluminum Whirley Pop took 43 seconds; that's less than half the time.
More importantly, after the first kernel popped, it took nearly a full minute in the saucepan before the last kernel popped and an extra 36 seconds in the stainless steel Whirley Pop. In the aluminum Whirley Pop? Just 9 seconds longer. That's right. All of the kernels popped within 9 seconds of each other, and all of them popped in under a minute.
Okay, so my snack takes an extra minute or two to prepare. What's the big deal? you may ask. Good question. The less time it takes from the first kernel popping to the last, the less chance you have of overcooking or accidentally burning the early poppers, and the more consistent your popcorn will be. The thin aluminum also helps in this regard. With a thick pot, even after you pull the pan from heat, the metal hangs on to enough energy to continue cooking and scorching the popcorn. You have to dump it into a bowl ASAP. With thin aluminum, that energy dissipates rapidly, with very little carryover cooking.
Speaking of dissipating, let's address the steam issue. Popcorn pops due to the expansion of water vapor inside individual kernels, but once popped, water vapor becomes an enemy, turning crisp kernels soft and stale-tasting. In a saucepan with a lid, there's nowhere for that vapor to escape. But the Whirley Pop has a few vents strategically placed to help that steam escape. The resulting popcorn is noticeably crisper once-cooled.
As far as yield goes, the Whirley Pop also comes out on top. I cooked a half-dozen one-ounce batches of dried popcorn in a Whirley Pop and in a saucepan. Once popped, I sorted through each batch, setting aside any kernels that were unpopped or half-popped. On average, the Whirley Pop ended up with a half kernel per batch unpopped while the saucepan left four and a half kernels unpopped.
Seasoning your popcorn—whether it's with simple salt and melted butter (I strongly suggest clarifying your butter if you don't like soggy popcorn!), movie theater-style with coconut oil and Flavacol , or with some more creative flavors variations—is way better in a Whirley Pop, too. Just add the ingredients through the hinged lid and give the crank a few vigorous turns to evenly mix the contents of the whole pot.
The dental praise? That all came from the second product I ordered as a results of the bits of popcorn I was continuously finding in my teeth. I love my Waterpik Complete Care Water Flosser and Sonic Toothbrush almost as much as I love popcorn. It's like the Barkeeper's Friend of the dental hygiene world (and if you are unfamiliar with Barkeeper's Friend, get yourself a can or two stat. Your pans will never be shinier). You will marvel at the incredible ease at which those plasticky bits of popcorn hulls are sloughed away from 'twixt the cusps of your bicuspids.