What is the Secret Ingredient in Movie Theater Popcorn?

The Kernel

Munching on popcorn while watching the latest box office hit has become so ubiquitous that the two have become almost inseparable. After they tear my ticket, I walk (zombie-like) towards the intoxicating smell of freshly popped, buttery and warm popcorn behind the concession stand. But what makes their popcorn so irresistibly addictive?

Well, you’ll be sorry to hear that it’s not the high-quality butter they use, it’s a secret ingredient and bunch of artificial flavorings that imitate the taste, color, and smell of butter. So, keep reading if you want to learn more about this ‘secret’ ingredient, and its controversial effects on our health.

The Coveted Secret Flavor of Movie Theater Popcorn

Gather around everyone, the secret is out! If you’re here to find out about what makes the movie theater popcorn taste like ‘movie theater popcorn’, the magic word you’re looking for is Flavacol! You might be asking yourself, “Flavacol? Is that even an ingredient?”. Well, yes and no, it’s somewhat controversial.

What is Flavacol?

It was invented around 2011, and it instantly took the popcorn industry by storm! Since then, most movie theaters have been using it to make their irresistibly delicious popcorn that we all love to munch on.

It’s technically a butter-flavored fine salt, which is why it’s usually called popcorn salt, and it’s the main ingredient that makes movie theater popcorn taste like ‘movie theater popcorn’. Flavacol consists of just 4 ingredients: salt, artificial butter flavoring, and Yellow #5 and Yellow #6, (the food colorings that give the movie theater popcorn its inviting, buttery yellow tint) Flavacol’s extra fine, powdery form makes it easier for the flavor to stick to popcorn compared with crystal or coarse salt.

Controversial Effects of Flavocol

A chemical liquid called diacetyl was used in artificial butter flavorings in the beginning of 2000s because of its bright yellow color and very powerful buttery flavor, but it was discovered that it causes an obstructive and fatal lung disease called bronchiolitis obliterans, also grimly known as ‘popcorn lung’, among plant workers and consumers. Thankfully, its usage in the popcorn industry has started to be regulated by NIOSH to prevent any more incidents, and flavacol is free of diacetyl due to their efforts. However, since movie theaters aren’t obligated to provide nutrition labels on their products, it’s not really possible to know whether or not they use other flavorings that contain diacetyl. By the way, not-so-fun fact, most of the microwave popcorn brands use diacetyl to flavor their popcorn as well.

Coconut Oil

Coconut oil is also a major player in the flavor of movie theater popcorn, and it’s kind of a secret because it’s not usually associated with popping popcorn. But, it’s totally a game changer! It’s so good with popcorn that it’s even sometimes called popcorn oil. If you’re thinking that it’ll give popcorn a coconut flavor, don’t worry, it won’t. Especially if you use unrefined coconut oil. 

If you have all the ingredients, but don’t know how to use them to make your popcorn as delicious as your local cinema, read on!

We’ve listed all the information and ingredient ratios down below, so just keep reading and your family or friends will be pleasantly surprised when they try your newly improved popcorn.

How to Make Movie Theater Popcorn at Home?

Now that the secret is out, you can enjoy ‘movie theater popcorn’ while binging Netflix in the comfort of your own home. It’s not that difficult to make, either. So, next time you’re having friends over or having a movie night with your family, give this recipe a go and you’ll see the happiness in their faces!

Movie Theater Popcorn Recipe

This recipe will yield 2 – 4 serving sizes, you can adjust the ratios if you have more guests.

Ingredients

  • ½ unpopped corn kernels
  • ½ unsalted butter
  • 2 tbsp unrefined coconut oil – feel free to be generous
  • ½ tsp Flavacol – you can use salt to taste if you’re hesitant about using Flavacol, but the flavor might not match movie theater popcorn that way

Popcorn Machine Method

  • Melt the butter in a pot or microwave, scoop out the foam at the top, and put it aside
  • Add the unrefined coconut oil to the kettle
  • Let it heat up for a few minutes – check the instructions of your popcorn machine for the exact time
  • Toss a couple of kernels into the kettle and wait for them to pop – this means the oil is hot enough
  • Add the kernels to the measuring cup and add Flavacol – or don’t add anything if you’re using salt
  • Once the kernels in the kettle start popping, add the remaining kernels and wait for them to pop
  • When the popping sound die down, dump the kettle
  • Slowly drizzle the melted butter over the popcorn – but make sure the milk solids at the bottom stays in the pot
  • If you’re not using Flavacol, sprinkle with salt to taste while still hot  – the finer the salt is the better it’ll stick to the popcorn
  • Enjoy!

Stovetop Method

  • Melt the butter in a pot or microwave, scoop out the foam at the top, and put it aside
  • Add the coconut oil to a large pot with a fitting lid and put it on medium heat
  • When all of the solids in the coconut oil melted, toss in a few kernels
  • Once the kernels start popping, this means the oil is hot enough
  • Add the remaining kernels to a measuring cup and sprinkle them with Flavacol – or don’t add anything if you’re using salt
  • Toss the remaining kernels into the pot, stir or shake, and cover the lid – but leave it a little ajar so that the steam can escape
  • When the popping sound die down, turn the heat off, and transfer the popcorn into a large bowl
  • Drizzle the melted butter over the popcorn – but leave the milk solids at the bottom of the pot
  • If you’re not using Flavacol, this is the point where you want to add salt – the finer the salt is the better it’ll stick to the popcorn

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