Spice- and candy-coated popcorn mixes to get your munch on at the Oscars this year. From left to right, Curry Corn, The Barbie and The Poppenheimer. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Popcorn is the undisputed champ of spectator snacks. We munch it with gusto at sporting events, at home in front of the tube, and, of course, at the cinema. We have memes and emojis symbolizing our desire to hunker down with a tub of hot, crunchy popcorn and watch some kind of spectacle play out: celebrity spats, political feuds, courtroom drama.

By volume, popcorn is our country’s top-selling snack food. Americans devour about 43 quarts of it per person each year, the highest consumption rate in the world, according to the Chicago-based Popcorn Board.

Our passion for popcorn is understandable: It’s a fundamental foodstuff with near-universal appeal.

“Popcorn is such a fun treat for every age range, from 3 to 103. It’s a great whole-grain snack, and you can flavor it any way you like, and make it as healthy as you want or as unhealthy as you want. There’s so much variety to it is what we love about it,” said Julie Roberts, co-owner of Coastal Maine Popcorn Co. in Boothbay Harbor, where the creative flavorings include Maine Maple Sugar, Buffalo Wing, Loaded Baked Potato, Chocolate Bacon and Maine Blueberry Pancake.

Yet as much as we love it, there’s plenty about popcorn most consumers don’t know. Like the difference between white and yellow kernels, or between “mushroom” and “butterfly” or “snowflake” popcorn shapes.

Or the fact that non-GMO labeling on bags of popcorn or popping kernels is as empty and superfluous as labels on bags of plain potato chips touting that they’re gluten-free (potatoes, cooking oil and salt are naturally gluten-free).


“It’s a marketing strategy,” said Al Bottone, co-owner of Happy Valley Popcorn Company in Bridgton. “There is no genetically modified popcorn in the world. It doesn’t exist.”

The Popcorn Board agrees.

“There has never been, nor is there currently, any Genetically Modified Organism (GMO) popcorn or popcorn seed for sale in the U.S.,” the board’s website states unequivocally, while further noting they are unaware of any GMO popcorn in international markets either.

Below we offer some popcorn intel to help you get to know this classic snack a little better, along with plenty of recipe ideas to keep your kernel crush from growing stale. For Oscars night, we recommend a bowl of sweet, hot pink Barbie popcorn, while the Poppenheimer popcorn with bold New Mexico chile flavor is – forgive us – the bomb.

White popcorn kernels on the left and yellow kernels on the right. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Yellow vs. White

Popcorn comes in two main types of kernels, yellow and white, and containers of popping kernels on store shelves are usually marked as such. In general, white kernels pop up smaller, and the bright white popped kernels have a more tender, delicate consistency.


Popped yellow kernels are larger than white, and fluffier and more durable, too. They also tend to have a yellowish tint, which makes them appear naturally buttered. Yellow kernels are often used in movie theaters because they can better withstand the toppings and won’t crumble as easily as white kernels. Some experts say yellow popcorn has slightly stronger corn flavor.

Butterfly/Snowflake vs. Mushroom

Popcorn also comes in two main shapes, both produced by either white or yellow kernels. Nearly all of the commercially available popping corn – and movie theater popcorn as well – pops into a what is known as a butterfly (sometimes called snowflake) shape. Popped butterfly kernels sport the iconic popcorn look: large, fluffy and irregularly shaped.

Popped mushroom popcorn has smaller, spherical kernels with bumps on the exterior. It’s sturdier than butterfly popcorn, making it better for wet-topping applications like caramel corn or our Barbie popcorn recipe. You won’t find mushroom popping corn in most supermarkets, but it’s easy enough to order online.

Stovetop Popping Pointers

• Use a heavy-bottom pot that can distribute the heat evenly so the kernels on the bottom are less likely to scorch.


• Set the burner no higher than medium-high heat. This will keep the popcorn from burning or taking on off flavors from smoking oil. Medium heat is even better: Though it takes a little longer, it ensures most of the kernels will pop and cook evenly.

• Neutral-flavor oils with higher smoke points are best, like canola, safflower and grapeseed oil. Still, olive oil can work, particularly if you keep the temperature moderate. Happy Valley Popcorn Company in Bridgton uses butter-infused olive oil to cook their European-glazed-style popcorns.

• Add a kernel to the oil as it heats in the pot. If it sizzles, the oil is hot enough to add the rest of your kernels.

• Shake it while you make it. Agitate the kernels by shaking the covered pot (being sure to keep the lid tightly closed) occasionally, especially as the pace of popping picks up. This helps all the kernels pop and also keeps them from scorching on the bottom.

• When the popping slows back down (a few seconds between pops), pull the pot from the heat. Open the lid carefully to release steam so your popcorn doesn’t get soggy, pour the popcorn in a bowl or on a sheet pan and season or coat as desired.

• When to salt is a controversial topic. The Popcorn Board and some other experts say that adding salt to kernels in the pot will yield tough popcorn. Others, like television food science guru Alton Brown, and like Al Bottone, co-owner of Happy Valley Popcorn Company, say poppycock. Proponents believe adding salt to the pot is the best way to get your popcorn fully and uniformly seasoned. For what it’s worth, microwave popcorn is cooked with salt in the bag, and nobody complains about the toughness there.


Oscar Night Barbie can’t get enough sweet pink popcorn. Photo illustration by Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer


The hot pink coating of melted sugar and butter is lightly flavored with vanilla. It hardens and crisps as the popcorn cools. If you have mushroom popping corn, use it here and you’ll have less kernel breakage when you stir in the coating.

Yield: 6 cups popcorn

1 cup granulated sugar

3 tablespoons butter

2 tablespoons water


1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract (depending on taste)

Neon pink food coloring (such as Betty Crocker brand)

6 cups prepared, salted popcorn

Preheat the oven to 300 degrees.

Combine the sugar, butter, water and vanilla in a small saucepan over low heat. Cook, stirring occasionally, for about 12 minutes or until the sugar is melted. Stir in the food coloring, a few drops at a time, until you reach desired shade of pink.

Spread the popcorn on a large baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Pour the sugar mixture over the popcorn; stir well to coat evenly.


Place the popcorn in the preheated oven for 10 minutes. Remove from the oven and stir the popcorn. Return the popcorn to oven for an additional 10 minutes.

Remove from oven. Let cool before serving; the candy coating will harden as popcorn cools.


This topping delivers explosive Alamogordo-style flavor with a spice blend featuring New Mexico chile powder.

Yield: 6 cups popcorn

1 tablespoon chili powder


2 teaspoons New Mexico chile powder

1 ½ teaspoons garlic powder

1 ½ teaspoons ground cumin

6 cups prepared, salted popcorn

Butter-flavored cooking spray

Combine the spices in a small bowl; stir until well-blended.


Spread the popcorn on a baking sheet to facilitate even coating; lightly coat popcorn with cooking spray.

Sprinkle the spice blend evenly over the popcorn, stirring and tossing to coat. Start slowly and taste as you go; you may not need to use all of the spice blend.


Yield: 6 cups popcorn

2 tablespoons curry powder

2 teaspoons turmeric


6 cups prepared, salted popcorn

Butter-flavored cooking spray

Combine the curry powder and turmeric in a small bowl; stir until well blended.

Spread the popcorn on a baking sheet. Lightly coat the popcorn with cooking spray.

Evenly sprinkle the spice blend over the popcorn, stirring and tossing to coat. Start slowly and taste as you go; you may not need to use all of the spice blend.



These spice blends and flavor-packed condiments can liven up a batch of plain popcorn all by themselves. Keep in mind that some contain salt, so you may want to undersalt your popcorn before coating, or use less seasoning if you’re working with pre-salted microwave popcorn.

Cajun spice: Usually a blend of paprika, garlic and onion powder, and black and white pepper. Cayenne gives Cajun spice mixes their distinctive heat.

Everything bagel seasoning: Trendy chefs and home cooks have been sprinkling this go-to blend on everything from soups to roasted salmon to burger buns in recent years, and it’s a natural match for popcorn.

Tajín: A Mexican spice blend of chile peppers, dehydrated lime and sea salt, Tajin is gaining steam in the culinary world as the new “it” condiment.

Chili crisp: This crazy-popular condiment originated in China in the late ’90s and has built a global cult following in recent years. It’s basically oil infused with spicy chile peppers, packed with crispy, crunchy items like nuts and fried alliums, and powered by a turbo-boost of umami from MSG.

Old Bay seasoning: A classic mid-Atlantic spice blend that’s good for more than just crab boils. The mix of paprika, black and red peppers, salt and mustard gets its signature flavor from celery seed.


Cinnamon sugar: For fans of sweet popcorn, it doesn’t get more homey and simple than dusting your kernels with warm, fragrant, sweetened cinnamon.


White miso powder + kelp

Garam masala + toasted sesame seeds

Grated Parmesan cheese + dried rosemary + garlic powder + truffle oil

Maple sugar + crumbled bacon

Buffalo seasoning + ranch seasoning/blue cheese powder

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