Here's Why You Shouldn't Use Your Microwave's Popcorn Button

Want to know how to make better popcorn? Listen.

Sheltering in place forced many of us to replace outings to the movie theater with evenings on the couch, so there's a good chance that you've made a whole lot of popcorn at home. Unless you prefer the classic stovetop method or you've got an electric popcorn maker, you most likely throw a bag in the microwave, slam the door shut, hit that "popcorn" button, and wait for the beep.

It's a reasonable assumption that pressing a microwave's "popcorn" button is how you'd want to make popcorn, right? After all, why else is it there? Have our microwaves been lying to us this whole time? I hope you're sitting down, because it turns out that blind faith in the popcorn button might be holding you back from greatness.

So how does that "popcorn" setting work?

According to General Electric, the popcorn setting "provides a one-touch method of cooking your favorite microwave popcorn without having to guess the correct time needed." While every microwave is different, the overall purpose is to pop your corn kernels without requiring much brain power.

Generally speaking, your microwave deploys one of two different methods once you press that popcorn button. In less sophisticated models, the microwave essentially makes its best guess as to how long it'll take to pop a bag of popcorn. In some cases, you can make adjustments based on the weight of the bag in order to help it hone in on the "right" popping time.

Fancier microwaves, however, may deploy a "humidity sensor" or a "steam sensor" to gauge the popcorn's popping progress. As more steam gets released, the microwave assesses that the bag is almost done, and starts a countdown to shutdown.

Why doesn't the "popcorn" setting do its job?

While using a steam sensor certainly sounds like a high-tech way to pop a perfect bag, the problem is that no two microwaves or bags of popcorn are truly created equal. In general, it also seems that these settings err on the side of guaranteeing that your popcorn is popped. That's a great idea in the abstract, but the problem is that it can often result in burnt popcorn — which in many ways is worse than no popcorn at all.

For that reason, it's hard to trust the popcorn setting. In fact, the fine print on certain brands of microwave popcorn now explicitly advises against using it if you want to enjoy the freshest, most-popped corn possible. If the people who make popcorn know better than to trust the button, you probably shouldn't either.

How should I make popcorn instead?

In some cases, there's an obvious answer: Read the bag. Though it's impossible to miss the big print letting us know which side should face up, some popcorn brands put more detailed instructions on microwave best practices in fine print. Scanning the bag to see if they offer advice on specific popping times or other microwave settings adjustments would be a good place to start. Of course, keep in mind that their recommended popping times may vary by microwave wattage.

If the bag is bereft of specific instructions, all hope is not lost. As no less of a popcorn authority than Orville Redenbacher suggests, the key to perfect popping is to listen to your microwave. They advise that you "always cook your popcorn to 'sound,'" which means you should "listen to the pop to know when to stop."

The secret is to pull your popcorn out once the pops start slowing down. Try to count the intervals between each pop towards the end of the process, and yank that bag out of the microwave when you're noticing a two- to three-second gap from one pop to the next.

Are there any other "advanced" techniques?

Glad you asked. If you want to get really crazy with it, bags from Aldi recommend that you "preheat the microwave oven by heating a cup of water for one minute on high" before the bag goes in. While some people felt that this technique resulted in fewer unpopped kernels and a more even distribution of butter, others thought this was merely a placebo.

Others think the secret to perfect popcorn is ditching the bag. Placing the kernels in a microwave-safe glass bowl and properly covering it allows the steam to stay in the bowl for superior popcorn. The caveat here is that you should take extra care once the popping is down, because that bowl is going to be very hot to the touch.

Just like learning other uncomfortable truths in this life, there's no going back to your state of ignorance once you know the popcorn button doesn't do its job. The good news is that as long as you still have your hearing, it's not too hard to get things right on your own. Go forth and use this knowledge to enrich your snacking experience, living a life full of unburnt popcorn pieces. You deserve it, champ.

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