The Best Popcorn Makers for All Your Snacking Needs

The classic Whirley Pop Stovetop Popper is an old-school tool that deserves a place in your kitchen.

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Popcorn Maker
Photo: FOOD & WINE / KEVIN NORRIS

The appeal of a prepackaged bag of popcorn is perfectly understandable. Toss a folded paper package in the microwave, hit a button (imagine! a snack so popular that it merits its own button on an appliance panel), and three-ish minutes later, you have a bowl full of fluffy, crushable kernels. However, once you progress beyond the most occasional popping, you quickly realize that when you make it yourself, not only do you hold the keys to even more flavor options, but you're also spending pennies on the dollar and easing up on the disposable individual packaging.

There is a wide range of popcorn makers on the market, with varying functions, ease of use, and the quality of the popcorn they produce. Ultimately, we found no perfect combination of "ideal popcorn" and "unbelievably easy, perfect popcorn" is possible with just a little elbow grease. Because we're cooks first and foremost, our favorite is the Whirley Pop Stovetop Popcorn Maker, which consistently makes superb, endlessly customizable popcorn. Read on for all of our favorite options.

Our Top Picks

Best Overall: Whirley Pop Stovetop Popcorn Maker

Best Popcorn Makers
Courtesy of Amazon

Also available at Williams Sonoma and Home Depot.

Pros: Makes a large batch of fluffy popcorn with minimal cleanup in 3 minutes.

Cons: Requires consistent attention to prevent burning and keep kernels moving.

An initial eyebrow raise at the Whirley Pop is to be expected. At first glance, it seems like a tool designed to serve a minor problem: a pot that stirs itself. But once you've gone to the trouble to read up on the best way to make popcorn, you likely want just that: the best. The Whirley Pop also has some unique features that give it an edge above its competitors (including the classic stovetop method). First, its thin aluminum body is extremely conductive. That means it heats up fast, resulting in speedy popcorn. Aluminum isn't popular for everyday cooking because it is prone to hot spots and is reactive to acid, which can impart unpleasant metallic tastes. But because the Whirley Pop's spider legs spin around inside the pot, kernels don't linger on the hot spots long enough to burn, and unless you're dumping tomatoes or vinegar on your kernels (please don't), there's no risk of off-flavors developing. The speed has advantages beyond convenience: the faster all your popcorn pops, the less likely it is that the kernels that pop first will end up scorched as they wait around for the last kernels to pop, meaning you have evenly cooked fluffy kernels. Second, the vented lid lets steam out (no soggy kernels) while keeping kernels in, while the offset crank arm meals you're less likely to get splattered with any popping oil that might escape through the vents.

The superior popping comes at a slight cost: it's a bulky contraption, the largest on our list. It's also not a "set it and forget it" option. For best results, you must crank the gears constantly to avoid burning your popcorn.

  • Dimensions: 18 x 8 x 10 inches
  • Capacity: 24 cups
  • Heat Source: Stovetop
  • Popcorn Maker
    FOOD & WINE / KEVIN NORRIS

Best Value: Cuisinart Pop and Serve Popcorn Maker

Best Popcorn Makers
Courtesy of Target

Also available at Wayfair and Target.

Pros: The popcorn pops in its own serving bowl for minimal cleanup.

Cons: A microwave's continuous heat can make popcorn chewy and stale quickly.

Sometimes it's worth compromising a little quality for an efficient tool, especially when it's a version that's faster, easier, and a breeze to clean. If your aim is to strike a balance between the convenience of store-bought bags and the customization (or cost savings) of homemade, we recommend the Cuisinart Pop and Serve Popcorn Maker. It's easy to use, dishwasher-safe, and its collapsible design folds to less than two inches tall for storage. While most other methods either require some sort of fat to distribute heat (stovetop, electric) or require that you avoid them altogether (as in an air popper), microwaving popcorn can go either way.

What makes microwave popcorn "pretty good" rather than great? For the best texture, popcorn is quickly removed from heat after it pops. In other methods, this happens naturally when the kernels jump as they explode, and dense, unpopped kernels take their place at the bottom next to the heat source. But in a microwave, there's no escaping, so even after kernels pop, they are exposed to continuous heat. This can quickly make the popcorn chewier and even seem slightly stale. Still, millions of people who enjoy pre-packaged microwave popcorn don't seem to mind, and if the ease of use is a worthwhile tradeoff, this is a great option.

  • Dimensions: 8.75 x 9.5 x 2 inches
  • Capacity: 10 cups
  • Heat Source: Microwave
  • Popcorn Maker
    FOOD & WINE / KEVIN NORRIS

Best Miniature: W&P Microwave Silicone Personal Popcorn Popper Maker

Best Popcorn Makers
Courtesy of Amazon

Also available at W&P.

Pros: The personal-size popcorn popper is perfect for going from the microwave to your desk or the couch.

Cons: It's too small if you're making popcorn for more than one person.

Every day around 3:00 pm, I go poking around the kitchen for… something. It has more to do with a typical midafternoon slump than any real hunger, but the impulse is no less powerful. At less than half the size of Cuisinart Pop and Serve, the W&P Personal Popcorn Popper Maker is just the right size for a snack for one, whether you want buttery indulgence or a whole-grain snack. Just be sure not to "leave the popcorn alone in the microwave," says Ashton Epps Swank in her book, Party Popcorn. "Stand by while [it] is popping, and be sure to remove it when the popping has slowed to one pop every 3 seconds."

  • Dimensions: 7.8 x 6.38 x 1.93 inches
  • Capacity: 4 cups
  • Heat Source: Microwave

Best Air Popper: Presto Poplite Hot Air Popper

Best Popcorn Makers
Courtesy of Amazon

Also available at Walmart.

Pros: Because it shoots out popcorn as soon as it's popped, you never run the risk of burning.
Cons: It's only possible to make plain, oil-free popcorn with this tool.

Air poppers are great because there's zero possibility of getting distracted and setting off the smoke alarm. Just fill it with kernels, and the circulating hot air blasts the corn. As they pop, they are blown upward and out a chute into your bowl, away from the heat source. The Presto is also the fastest popcorn maker we reviewed, making up to 18 cups of popcorn in less than 2 1/2 minutes.

"This is my preferred popping method," says Epps Swank. "I love that air popping yields popcorn with no additional flavors. This allows you to have complete control over the taste." The neutral flavor is due to the absence of any oil, making air-popped popcorn among the healthier popcorn options. There is an embedded measuring cup on top that doubles as a butter-melter if you want to drizzle some after popping, which is a nice idea, but in practice, it's difficult to evenly add butter to already-popped corn such that you don't end up with a smattering of soggy, butter-drenched pieces mixed into otherwise dry popcorn.

  • Dimensions: 6.62 x 9.5 x 12.31 inches
  • Capacity: 18 cups
  • Heat Source: Hot Air
  • Popcorn Maker
    FOOD & WINE / KEVIN NORRIS

Best Electric: West Bend Stir Crazy Electric Hot Oil Popcorn Popper

Best Popcorn Makers
Courtesy of Amazon

Also available at Home Depot.

Pros: This tool gives superior texture and flavor with the ease of a motor-driven stirring arm.
Cons: The popcorn will burn if you leave it unattended for too long.

I once was a cook in a restaurant that made popcorn as a bar snack. We made a LOT of the stuff, experimenting with all kinds of flavor combinations, and did it all the old-fashioned way in a pot on the stove. But we were also busy, and when you're in the weeds on the line, it's easy to get distracted from babysitting a pot of popcorn to tend to something else. Which is to say, I have burned more batches of popcorn in my life than I care to admit. An electric popper like the West Bend Stir Crazy would've been a godsend. Instead of having to hover over the stove swirling the pot to keep the kernels moving, the machine does the work for you. Simply pour in kernels and oil, cover, turn it on, and the motorized stirring arm to keep kernels moving to ensure even popping. Large, light popped kernels float to the top while the smaller, denser unpopped kernels sink to the bottom towards the heating element, buying you more time before your popcorn veers off into scorched territory.

This model makes ten cups of popcorn in under six minutes, and the popping chamber can be turned upside down to double as a serving bowl. We also like that the non-stick bottom plate can be removed after use for easy cleaning. Cleanup is straightforward: wipe out the base of residual oil and crumbs, and the bowl is dishwasher safe. For storage, the machine base nests inside the bowl top.

  • Dimensions: 11.5 x 11.7 x 7.5 inches
  • Capacity: 24 cups
  • Heat Source: Electric Plate
Popcorn Maker
FOOD & WINE / KEVIN NORRIS

Our Favorite

Popcorn is a nearly perfect snack. For the best-textured popcorn, the Whirley Pop and West Bend Stir Crazy Popcorn Maker make reliably top-notch popcorn. Not interested in hovering over the stovetop? The Cuisinart Pop and Serve Popcorn Maker makes great popcorn in the microwave with a fraction of the effort.

Factors to Consider

Capacity:

Knowing how often and how much popcorn you'll be making will help determine what size popcorn maker to buy. Most popcorn makers make enough popcorn to serve at least two people watching a movie, but if you need more, the Cuisinart Pop and Serve and the Presto Poplite are the only two that can be immediately refilled without cleaning after a batch is done.

Ease of Use

While none of the popcorn makers we reviewed are difficult to use, most do require a bit of attention. Generally speaking, you simply add your measured kernels and a little bit of oil, and you're ready to go. With the exception of the Presto Poplite, you'll still need to hone your timing to know when to cut your losses in the pursuit of popping every kernel or risk scorching the entire batch. And while the Whirley Pop makes exceptional popcorn, you have to stand over the stove, turning the hand crank until it's done (about three minutes).

Cleaning

All of the popcorn makers we considered are simple to clean. The countertop electric popcorn makers like the Stir Crazy and the Presto Poplite are cleaned by removing any remaining kernels and wiping them down, and the Cuisinart Pop and Serve is dishwasher-safe. The most finicky is the Whirley Pop, which requires hand washing in hot, soapy water. Regardless of what model you choose, it's important to take a close look at your machines' cleaning instructions.

What Didn't Make The List

Dash Hot Air Popcorn Popper Maker

While we like the look of this air popper, it doesn't work well. The hot air that is generated to pop the kernels instead is likely to blow the kernels out of the machine, and when it does manage to pop them, the popcorn does not flow neatly out of the chute into the bowl but instead spews all over the counter.

Stainless Steel Whirley-Pop Popcorn Popper

The thin aluminum of the original Whirley Pop is an advantage due to its high conductivity and rapid heating. The stainless steel version is not only more expensive but also takes longer to heat. We recommend the original.

Pro Panel Q+A

What makes popcorn pop?

Popcorn begins its life as a regular ear of corn that is then slowly dried until it becomes the familiar golden kernels used for popping. Perfect popcorn happens at the sweet spot where each kernel of corn retains a tiny amount of its original moisture content so that when it's heated, it rapidly converts to steam and causes the kernel to explode. Once exposed to the cooler air, the steam dissipates, and the puffed starches set, forming a piece of popcorn.

The shape of the popcorn depends on the type of corn: from the familiar "butterfly" shape of standard yellow popcorn, the domed "mushroom" popcorn that you might associate with caramel corn, down to the tiny "ladyfinger" varieties sometimes found in specialty stores.

How do I make stovetop popcorn?

To make the best stovetop popcorn, start with the freshest popcorn you can find. (Over time, unpopped popcorn slowly dries out, resulting in smaller, denser popcorn pieces – or kernels that fail to pop altogether). Then "you'll need one tablespoon vegetable, canola, or coconut oil for ¾ cup kernels," says Epps Swank. "Place the oil and one 'test' kernel into a large, deep pot with a lid that fits comfortably on top. Heat the oil and the kernel over medium heat until the test kernel pops, three to four minutes. Once it has popped, add the remaining kernels to the pot and cover. Shake the pot back and forth over the burner continuously as the rest of the kernels pop (it may take a minute for the popping to start after you add the remaining kernels to the pot). Once the popping has stopped, remove the pot from the heat immediately, so the popcorn on the bottom doesn't burn."

Can you make popcorn in an air fryer?

You can, but you probably don't want to. Air poppers make popcorn by blasting the kernels with hot air until the internal moisture converts to steam and bursts open. An air fryer works the same way, circulating hot air around the food placed in an internal basket. If you have an air fryer, you can probably use it to accomplish the same result as an air popper. The catch is that you'll need to retrofit your air popper by lining the basket with foil to keep the kernels from falling through and that it'll likely take three to four times as long as other methods. Not only is that annoying, but it isn't great for the popcorn: the sustained heat will make the popcorn shrivel and get stale, resulting in chewier popcorn than that made by methods where the popcorn cycles away from the heat source.

Our Expertise

Ashton Epps Swank is a writer for Real Simple, recipe developer, and author of the book Party Popcorn. Liz Mundle is a writer, editor, and chef in New York City with over a decade of experience in kitchens and magazines. Her writing has appeared in Food & Wine, Saveur, and Domino, among others. She is opening Circus Provisions, a specialty grocery store in Brooklyn, later this year.

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