How to Make Air Popped Popcorn

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If you want to enjoy popcorn as a healthy snack, you should probably learn how to make air popped popcorn. We'll show you how, with and without an air popper.

Popcorn is everywhere in American culture. We eat it at sporting events, send each other tubs of caramel corn for the holidays and string it up around the Christmas tree as an edible decoration. Half the fun of going to the movie theater is eating a bag of ultra-greasy, buttery popcorn!

While microwave popcorn has become the norm in most households, traditional popcorn-making methods have regained popularity. Not only that, but air poppers that were once reserved for carnivals and movie theaters have shrunk in size to fit on the countertop, opening up a whole new world of homemade popcorn options. We’ll show you how to make air popped popcorn—with and without an air popper.

What Is Air Popped Popcorn?

Although you can make air popped popcorn in the microwave (and we’ll tell you how in a minute), it’s traditionally made with a special appliance. The air popper circulates hot air around the popcorn kernels. When it gets hot enough, the kernels pop, forcing them out of the popping bowl and into a storage area. They’re used at movie theaters and carnivals, and they were once so large they were impractical for home use. Today, you’ll find electric versions small enough to fit on the countertop.

Movie-theater popcorn might be far from healthy, but air popped popcorn is actually one of the healthiest kinds of popcorn. It doesn’t require any oil to cook—that’s added later to create flavor. This type of popcorn is also hard to burn or overcook since the popcorn is no longer in contact with heat after it pops.

Air Popped Popcorn vs. Microwave Popcorn

The major difference between air popped popcorn and microwave popcorn is the way the kernels are heated. An air popper uses hot air to heat the kernels. The microwave, on the other hand, sends microwaves (radio wave particles) through the kernels. The kernels are kept in a bag to trap steam and help the popcorn pop.

An air popper doesn’t require any added oil or flavorings, but store-bought microwave popcorn has additional ingredients, like salt, oil and chemical flavorings that taste like butter. The bags themselves also contain perfluorinated compounds (PFCs), which keep oil from seeping through the container. These chemicals make their way into the popped popcorn, leading many to question whether microwave popcorn is healthy.

How to Air Pop Popcorn

There are dozens of electric air poppers that make it easy to pop popcorn without using any oil. They range in size and storability, and some are louder than others. We tested several different brands to find the best air popped popcorn makers.

You can also use a paper bag in the microwave. Better yet, pick up a reusable microwave popcorn maker, like this collapsible Cuisinart container. They allow you to pop popcorn with or without oil, and they’re easier to clean and store than a dedicated appliance.

We’ve also had success making air popped popcorn in an air fryer, like the Ninja Max XL Air Fryer. You’ll definitely want to line the bottom of the bowl with aluminum foil to keep from making a mess, though.

How do you make air popped popcorn without an air popper?

If you don’t own an electric air popper, don’t despair. You can make air popped popcorn without one! The easiest way to make air popped popcorn is in the microwave with a paper bag. Simply add the kernels to the bag, fold the top over to trap the steam inside, and microwave it on high heat for two to three minutes.

You can also make air popped popcorn in an air fryer. Preheat the air fryer to 400°F. Line the bottom of the basket with aluminum foil and add 1/2 cup of popcorn kernels in a single layer. Cook the popcorn for eight to ten minutes, turning the appliance off when you hear it stop popping. Let the popcorn rest for an extra minute or two just in case any extra kernels want to pop after the fact.

Finally, it’s not air popped popcorn, but you can also make popcorn on the stove. You’ll need a large, heavy-bottomed pot with a lid to pull it off. Heat the kernels and oil over medium heat. Once the kernels start popping, shake the pan to help the popcorn heat evenly for two to three minutes, until all the kernels have popped.

How to Season Air Popped Popcorn

Plain, air popped popcorn is a healthy snack because popcorn is a low-fat, high-fiber, whole-grain food. That said, popcorn always tastes better with a little seasoning. The seasonings stick best with added oil or butter, but spritzing the popcorn with water works almost as well for oil-free popcorn.

Our favorite simply seasoned popcorn recipe uses a little melted butter, Parmesan cheese, salt, dried oregano and garlic salt. If you want to keep things vegan-friendly, use olive oil and skip the cheese, using nutritional yeast instead. We also love adding spice to the mix, like cayenne pepper, smoked paprika or ancho chile powder. Don’t be afraid to turn your popcorn into a sweet treat, either. Try adding powdered sugar or brown sugar to your popcorn along with warming spices like cinnamon, nutmeg or cloves.

Need more inspiration? Check out these incredible flavored popcorn recipes.

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Lindsay D. Mattison
After years of working in professional kitchens, Lindsay traded her knives in for the pen. While she spends most of her time writing these days, she still exercises her culinary muscles on the regular, taking any opportunity to turn local, seasonal ingredients into beautiful meals for her family.