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Thursday
Nov032011

West Bend Stir Crazy Deluxe Popcorn Maker Review (How to Make Real Movie Theater Popcorn at Home)

If you think microwave popcorn tastes great or is "good enough," you can stop reading now. However, if you love the crisp deliciousness of real movie theater popcorn and feel microwave popcorn is a poor substitute, please read on.

The Five Secrets of Making Real Movie Theater Popcorn 

  1. Fresh Corn
  2. Coconut Oil
  3. Flavacol Seasoning
  4. Even Heating
  5. Moisture Control

The Corn: Popcorn kernels contain moisture. It's the expansion of the trapped moisture that causes the kernel to pop when heated. Unpopped kernels gradually lose moisture over time, resulting in poor popping performance. Fresh kernels are a must. (Never store popcorn kernels in the refrigerator or freezer, it actually dries them out more quickly.)

The Oil: Plain and simple, coconut oil is the best-tasting oil for popping corn. Movie theaters used coconut oil for years but many have switched to canola or sunflower oil due to health concerns over saturated and trans fats. Happily, you can have your coconut oil and still be health conscious. More on that below.

The Seasoning: Theaters use a butter-flavored salt called Flavacol. If you want your popcorn to look and taste like real movie theater popcorn you need to use Flavacol.

Even Heating: Uneven heating results in hard chewy bits of husk left clinging to the popped corn. While there will always be some amount of husk left clinging to the popcorn, even heating of the entire surface of the kernel facilitates a better shatter of the husk and reduces the hard chewy bits. The best way to heat all sides of the kernel evenly is to use an appliance with a stir rod (just like the big machines at the movie theater). That, and a popping appliance that gets hot enough to help reduce old maids (unpopped kernels).

Moisture Control: Remember that moisture inside each kernel? When a kernel pops the moisture has to go somewhere. The huge popcorn machines at the movie theater have a heating lamp, a heated deck, and a very large capacity to help disperse the moisture. The front door to the machine is usually left open, allowing the steam to escape. You want the steam to escape because trapped steam finds its way back into your popped corn, resulting in soggy, chewy popcorn. So, aside from buying a large popcorn machine, how can you control moisture at home?  Easy, you use your oven!

Sound complicated? It's not. In fact it's incredibly easy if you have the proper popping appliance, the proper popcorn pre-packs, and an oven!

West Bend Stir Crazy Deluxe

West Bend has been making the popular Stir Crazy popcorn maker for more than 20 years. It's a great product and I've worn out several of them. But, frankly, the original Stir Crazy was a pain in the butt to clean because you couldn't immerse the heating base in water. Thankfully, West Bend just solved the cleanup annoyance with the recent introduction of the new Stir Crazy Deluxe.

Stir Crazy Deluxe (click image to expand)Stir Crazy Deluxe - Cover Removed (click image to expand)Here's the beauty of the new Stir Crazy Deluxe:  The popping plate with stir rod is removable from the heating base!

Stir Crazy Deluxe - Popping Plate (click image to expand)

Stir Crazy Deluxe - Popping Plate Bottom Side (click image to expand)

At first, I was concerned that the separate popping plate might result in inefficient heating and poor popping performance. My concern was unjustified. West Bend has equipped the Stir Crazy Deluxe base with a 1,000-watt heating element and it gets the job done, fast! In fact, the element is an instant-on design. It starts throwing off heat before you can move your hand off of the power switch! (Operating the heating element without the popping plate in place is not recommended!)

Stir Crazy Deluxe - 1,000-watt Heating Element (click image to expand)

Compared to my 5-year-old original Stir Crazy, the new deluxe model's quality of construction appears to be an improvement. Of particular note is the non-stick coating on the popping plate which appears to be a more modern process and likely more durable than the non-stick surface on the older popper. Time will tell. The original model lacked a power switch so finally having a switch is a nice plus too.

So we have a proper popping appliance. What about the corn, coconut oil and Flavacol? I like to kill all three birds with one stone!

Great Northern Popcorn Company Portion Packs

I've tried dozens of different popcorn/oil/salt combinations over the years. I've mixed and matched my own, experimented with various brands and types of corn and oil, and tried popcorn portion packs from multiple companies. After all of my experimentation I was thrilled to finally discover Great Northern Popcorn Company Portion Packs.

Great Northern Popcorn Company Portion Pack

Great Northern claims the "Best Tasting Popcorn In The USA!" I'm inclined to agree! Each portion pack contains just the right amount of coconut oil, Flavacol seasoning, and gourmet popcorn, all sealed in separate compartments. Individual portion packs are not only convenient, the sealed compartment helps the unpopped kernels retain their moisture. From Great Northern's Portion Pack Guide:

How should I store my popcorn?

Without moisture your popcorn can't pop.  If left uncovered you can lose 1% moisture on a hot day. This doesn't sound like much but if you lose 3% your popcorn will be "unpoppable".  GNP has taken the guess work out of the popping and guarantees freshness.  Our exclusive "sealing system" vacuum seals every pack individually to provide a shelf life that cannot be beat.  Please note, we recommend you store your portion packs in a cool, dry place. 

I realize portion packs aren't as cost effective as purchasing corn, oil and Flavacol in bulk. But portion packs aren't exactly expensive either. Amazon's current price for 24 portion packs (4-ounce size) works out to less than one dollar per batch. When you consider that a 4-ounce portion pack makes more popcorn than a typical bag of microwave popcorn, you quickly realize the portion packs are less than half the cost of name-brand microwave popcorn. If you love popcorn, the savings will quickly help cover the cost of a Stir Crazy Deluxe!

By the way, the 4-ounce portion pack is the correct size for the Stir Crazy Deluxe.

Here's the nutrition label for the Great Northern product.

 Great Northern Popcorn Company Portion Pack Nutrition

No trans fat, low in saturated fat, and the sodium isn't all that terrible either. In fact, for such wonderfully tasty real theater-like popcorn, Great Northern's product is about as healthy as it gets. 

Let's Make Some Popcorn

If you love popcorn, you'll love the Stir Crazy Deluxe. Great Northern recommends pouring in all of the ingredients at once. I prefer to add the coconut oil first. 

Stir Crazy Deluxe - Add the Coconut Oil (click image to expand)Coconut oil is a semi-solid at room temperature. Once the oil has melted, I add the corn and Flavacol.

Stir Crazy Deluxe - Add the Corn and Flavocal (click image to expand)On goes the cover (with butter cap removed). Notice that steam starts condensing on the inside of the cover almost immediately.

Stir Crazy Deluxe - Cover in Place (click image to expand)Thanks to the 1,000-watt heating element, it takes less than a minute for the first kernels to start popping.

Stir Crazy Deluxe - First Kernels Popped (click image to expand)

If you like to add butter to your popcorn just put some in the little well on top of the cover and it will melt down as the popcorn pops. (I prefer my popcorn to be as crisp as possible so I don't add butter.)

In approximately two minutes virtually all of the kernels have popped! The new deluxe model pops up a batch of popcorn faster than the original model.

Stir Crazy Deluxe - Popping Complete (click image to expand)

Next, turn off the popper, snap the butter cap onto the top of the cover, grab the red handles on the sides and invert the cover and popping plate together.

Stir Crazy Deluxe - When the Popping Slows it's Done (click image to expand)Remove the popping plate and feast your eyes on a bowlful of delicious—yet slightly soggy—popcorn!

Stir Crazy Deluxe - Looks Just Like Movie Theater Popcorn (click image to expand)If you like, you can enjoy the popcorn immediately. It will be good but not great. Immediately out of the popper the popcorn is too soggy and slightly chewy for my taste! Much of the released moisture (steam) escaped through the holes in the top of the cover during popping. But if you look carefully at the photos above you can see that lots of moisture remained on the sides of the cover and much of that moisture found its way into the popped corn. Let's take the last step toward creating a crisp, delicious batch of real movie theater popcorn at home!

Moisture Control

This is the most important step for achieving the taste and texture of real movie theater popcorn in your home!

Set your oven to 200 degrees.

Bake Out the Moisture - Oven to 200 Degrees

You need a baking pan to hold the popped corn. Any pan that is large enough will do. I use full size deep steam table foil pans. They measure approximately 21" x 13" and about 3" deep. One pan will hold two batches of popped corn (there's a single batch in the pan in the photo below).

Now slide the pan full of popcorn onto the center rack of your oven. Close the door and leave the popcorn in there for at least 30 minutes. Multiple batches require more time. Give the oven plenty of time to dry the popcorn. Your patience will be rewarded. When we host a movie night at the Booth Bijou I prepare several pans of popcorn in advance. The oven not only dries the popcorn but also keeps it hot for our guests. They love it!

For Real Movie Theater Popcorn, Bake the Moisture Out! (click image to expand)

After the popcorn has had time to dry and crisp up it's time to fire up the home theater and reward yourself with real movie theater popcorn!

Delicious Real Movie Theater Popcorn at Home! (click image to expand)

If you're entertaining guests it's fun to serve the popcorn in plastic reusable movie-style popcorn boxes!

Cleanup is Easy

West Bend's new Stir Crazy Deluxe makes cleanup a breeze! The convenient removable popping plate can be immersed in water and it's dishwasher safe. Cleanup is even easier if you can talk your spouse into doing it! :)

Stir Crazy Deluxe - Cleanup is Easy! (click image to expand)

It's Worth the Trouble, Really!

If you've gotten this far it's likely you're not part of the "microwave popcorn tastes fine" crowd. Life is too short to settle for "good" popcorn when you can eat great popcorn! If I had a large dedicated home theater room I'd probably equip it with a full-size popcorn machine (such as the Paragon TP-6) just for the nostalgia factor. But it wouldn't make popcorn that is any better than the process I've detailed above. And, quite frankly, the new West Bend Stir Crazy Deluxe is even easier to clean. It's the kitchen/home theater gadget of the year as far as I'm concerned. It earns my highest recommendation!

 

 

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Reader Comments (19)

Thank you for the education Mark. I went ahead and bought some of the Great Northern Popcorn. I'll have to use the old pot aluminum stove-top popcorn maker I have. I'm not so sure I'll be able to actually pop a batch of popcorn and have it make it into the oven for 30 minutes though. I'd have to lock the boys in their bedrooms. ;-)

November 3, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLaRee

Thanks for posting! Very informative, I'll definitely give your recipe a try

November 5, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterTim

mark, love your blog. Been using old stir crazy for couple years now and find it to be best bang for the buck. Looking forward to upgrade to deluxe model.

btw, been buying coconut oil, popcorn and flavacol at Sams Club. I have a question for you, do you have a measurement for how much coconut oil and flavacol is in the Great Northern 4 oz. Packets.
thanks,
ray

December 2, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterray

Ray, Thanks! I haven't measured it but I suspect the Great Northern 4 oz. packs have 2-3 tablespoons of coconut oil.

Not sure which coconut oil you are buying at Sams but I had previously been using Coco Pop and that stuff is significantly higher in saturated fat than the coconut oil in the Great Northern packs. Plus, the Coco Pop has trans fat.

Lastly, I've tried multiple different brands of popping corn. I think Great Northern's corn tastes better.

December 2, 2011 | Registered CommenterMark

Thanks for the oven tip. However, when I tested tonight with a fresh batch of popcorn, I tried at 200 for 20 mins. The popcorn burnt. Do you turn the oven off once its heated?

December 23, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterR Edwards

R. Edwards, The thermostat on your oven must be broken. I've left popcorn in a 200 degree oven for 4-5 hours and none of it burned.

Are you putting it too close to the burner? I use the center two racks in my oven.

December 24, 2011 | Registered CommenterMark

Great directions! Now what about that movie theater butter :)

August 17, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterHopp

I'm not a fan of buttering my popcorn. But you can buy the buttery-like stuff that movie theaters use and put that on your popcorn if you like.

August 17, 2012 | Registered CommenterMark

The only question I have for you is about the use of the oven. Do you have an electric or gas oven? I wonder how well the "drying" would work in a gas oven because I think there is some amount of water vapor given off in gas ovens. That makes me think that maybe it wouldn't dry out as well in a gas oven.

September 25, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterelangomatt

We have an electric oven. But I know of people that have used their gas oven without any ill effects to the popcorn. Just be sure to keep the temperature low.

September 25, 2012 | Registered CommenterMark

I will share with you my additional popcorn knowledge.

1. You can use any coconut oil you want, you don't have to use the popcorn stuff. The only difference in the movie theater kind is that they put tons of yellow food coloring in it along with some butter flavor. Since you are already using flavacol you don't really need the flavor in the oil. As for the color, I think you could add a couple drops of yellow color yourself as long as it didn't burn, but I think not having red oil get all over everything is an advantage. I currently have two jars of organic coconut oil that I got from Marshall's for about a quarter of the cost of the popcorn oil on amazon.

2. If you want to do the melted liquid butter thing, you can get 90% of the way there by using warmed up plain old vegetable oil. Again, your popcorn should already be buttery from the flavacol, so you don't really need to add more flavor. The secret of the liquid butter is that it changes the mouthfeel of the popcorn. Just having the coating of the oil makes the already buttery popcorn taste even more so. Orville makes small bottles of buttery popcorn oil that is not really great for popping but ideal for topping if you don't mind the extra expense. It has to be healthier than those gallon jugs of whatever that the theaters use.

3. Butter works too if you really want to make this horrible for you, but you can't just melt butter and pour it over top. That makes the popcorn soggy as you have noted. The reason is that butter has a lot of water in it and popcorn does not like water one bit. If you clarify the butter you won't have this problem. Just melt your stick, skim the white froth off the top, and then pour off the top layer of clarified butter (the water sinks to the bottom). I think the ideal popcorn topping would be a combination of vegetable oil and melted clarified butter.

All those things considered I would not be inclined to use the premeasured packs. I like to tweak the amount of oil and flavacol I use. Sometimes I add other flavorings once it's popped so I don't want to load up the salt beforehand. I can see how it is really convenient to not measure anything though.

Now about this popper you've reviewed. I really don't understand the advantage over the stovetop crank-handle poppers that have been around for years. Those to me are perfect in every way because they work nearly identically to the popper the theater would have. I have never used an electric one but just after reading your article I would expect this to be true:

- The kettle would be faster. You say the Stir Crazy takes a couple of minutes, but my kettle can pop 1/2 cup of kernels in about 30 seconds.

- The kettle has no nonstick surfaces. Really I don't understand this ... when you pop popcorn, oil gets absolutely everywhere, you are not going to have anything stick anywhere! I don't like using nonstick cookware unless I absolutely have to because of the potential for fumes and nasty chemical leaching. A popcorn popper is the last place I would want a nonstick surface.

- Ease of pouring out the popcorn. The kettle has a handy flap for pouring, you just basically pour to one side and the popcorn is out. Getting the popcorn out of the electric one seems to be a pain in the neck.

- The biggest problem I see with your electric popper is the moisture issue. It is really a shame that it has to go in the oven after it's popped. I've never once had soggy popcorn from the kettle nor has there ever been steam that condenses inside of it. When I'm making just one batch of popcorn I can skip the whole oven step and just eat it right away.

Also there is the cost factor. I don't know how much an electric one is but you can get the kettles for less than 20 bucks. I think it's cool that you provided a good detailed review of the electric popper but I just wonder why someone as passionate about popcorn as you are has not converted to the kettle by now? Maybe if you absolutely must pop some popcorn in a location that does not have a stove available?

November 24, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterfastballweb

Enjoy your crank-handle kettle, particularly if you purchased it some years ago. The newer ones (last few years) are made of much thinner aluminum. I tried one and had terrible results. The popcorn didn't pop as completely (not plump) so there was too much hull left, making the popcorn chewy. Also, tiny bits of the aluminum kettle got transferred onto the glass surface of our electric stove. It was quite obvious and quite difficult to clean off. I returned the crank-handle kettle for a refund.

November 24, 2012 | Registered CommenterMark

I've been following this blog for several months. Also been waiting for the price of the popper you recommend to come down, but that hasn't happened! I'm wondering how your popper has held up to normal use? The reviews on Amazon for this year have been mostly bad about the quality of the popper (not the quality of the popped corn).

November 27, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterFuzzmanKs

My popper is still going strong. A fair bit of the non-stick coating has worn away but, other than that, no issues.

November 27, 2012 | Registered CommenterMark

Would the 6 ounce packet be way too much? Seems like there is a fair amount of room left in the popper to fill up. Have you found a better source than Amazon for the packets?

December 15, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterPJH

The 6-ounce packets are too large for the Stir Crazy. No, I haven't sourced the Great Northern packets from anywhere but Amazon because I used Amazon's subscription service, which reduces the price even more.

December 17, 2012 | Registered CommenterMark

I have used a stir crazy the last 17 years of my life. I'll stay out by saying this new deluxe model is the best they've ever made. We use ours almost religiously (2-3x per week). I never ever use the "butter tray" we use white popcorn and vegetable oil. I couldn't tell you how much we love our popper. This new deluxe model is a huge step above the old models. Great review Mark.

October 9, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterTom

Thanks, Tom!

October 9, 2013 | Registered CommenterMark

Why do you want to wait so long? 200 degrees isn't even boiling temp. It's fine if you want to just keep your popcorn warm for hours at a time. I put mine at 270 for 10-15 minutes on the highest rack that will fit(second one down). The guy's oven whose popcorn burnt must've been well over 300 degrees. Either that, or he used too thin of a container too close to the heating element.

April 28, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterVengeance

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