Americans spend over $1 billion annually on unpopped popcorn kernels. Corn producers large and small develop as many as 30,000 hybrids (which have varying flavor, textural, and volume characteristics) a year in search of better products.
To find out which supermarket microwave popcorn we liked best, we popped up seven national brands in their basic butter flavor and called our tasting panel to the table for a blind sampling. As a baseline, we also tasted plain popcorn kernels dressed with a modest amount of melted butter and salt.
The homemade popcorn won by a landslide. Out of the seven store-bought brands, only two received acceptable grades. The biggest problem with the prepackaged popcorns was “artificial tasting” flavors from the “natural and/or artificial butter flavor” and preservatives. It wasn’t surprising that popcorns with “artificial butter flavor” would taste artificial (this flavor is typically a blend of chemicals designed to mimic real butter, with one eye squarely on the bottom line).
We were, however, very surprised that brands with “natural butter flavor” weren’t better. Since butter is perishable, it needs heavy processing (butter’s flavor molecules are typically extracted by enzyme reaction, solvent extraction, or steam distillation) and/or added preservatives to be shelf-stabilized for these packages—and both of those roads lead to unnatural or weak butter flavor. Our overall rankings are a reflection of how closely each microwave popcorn came to replicating the clean, rich flavor of fresh butter: Obviously, none of them did a very good job. We recommend buying a microwave popper and kernels and adding the butter yourself.
Our favorite premium extra-virgin olive oil from a previous tasting, Columela is composed of a blend of intense Picual, mild Hojiblanca, Ocal, and Arbequina olives. This oil took top honors for its fruity flavor and excellent balance. Tasters praised its “big olive aroma, big olive taste” with a “buttery” flavor that is “sweet” and “full,” with a “peppery finish.” One taster said: “It’s very green and fresh—like a squeezed olive.” Another simply wrote: “Fantastic.”
|Spain||$19 for 17 oz|
Tasters noted this oil’s flavor was “much deeper than the other samples,” describing it as “fruity, with a slight peppery finish,” “buttery undertones,” and a “clean, green taste” that was “aromatic, with a good balance.” “It has the flavor that some good EVOOs have,” said one admiring taster.
|Italy||$19.99 for 500 ml ($39.98 per liter)|
Virtually tied for second place, this oil was deemed “round and buttery,” with a “light body” and flavor that was “briny and fruity,” “very fine and smooth,” and “almost herbal,” with “great balance.” “Good olive flavor. I could smell it and taste it,” approved one taster. In a word, “pleasant.”
|Italy||$17.99 for 750 ml ($23.98 per liter)|
|Recommended with Reservations|
A clear step down from the top oils, tasters noted “overall mild” flavor and “very little aroma,” with only a “hint of green olive” and a “hint of spiciness at the end.” In pasta, it was initially “not complex,” but gradually “bloomed in your mouth.” Overall, it was “worthy of a second bite.”
|Italy, Greece, Spain, and Tunisia||$12.49 for 750 ml ($16.65 per liter)|
While some tasters found this oil “sweet” and “buttery” with “medium body” and “slight spice at the end,” others complained that it had “zero olive flavor” and was “so floral it’s almost like eating perfume”; still others noted a “bitter” aftertaste. In pasta, it was “extremely mild” to the point of being “boring.”
|Italy, Greece, Spain, and Tunisia||$10.99 for 750 ml ($14.65 per liter)|
Comments: The best comments tasters could muster were “mild” and “neutral.” Some liked it on pasta (though one called it “Snoozeville”), but complaints were myriad: “metallic,” “soapy,” “briny,” “hints of dirt.” Carped one taster, “I can’t imagine what is in here, but they have a nerve calling it EVOO.”
|Spain||$13.99 for 1 liter|
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