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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!