Movie Theatre Popcorn Secret Ingredient?

I’m not a huge fan of popcorn, but once in awhile I make it to satisfy a curious craving. I’ve tried for years to duplicate the taste of popcorn sold in movie theatres and was disappointed in the results.

Secret ingredient of movie theatre popcorn?

I’ve tried popping it on the stove with oil, in hot-air machines, in ready-to-pop prepackaged microwave bags, and in a reusable microwave cooker specifically designed to pop dried corn kernels. This latter method is how I make popcorn now, and I don’t use any oil in the container during popping, though the container’s instructions indicated it was permissible to add oil if desired.

I’ve tried various oil toppings, including butter-flavored oils said to be specifically for popcorn, and still was disappointed, it never tasted like what they sold at the theatre. Popping the kernals using an oilless method led to the problem of getting salt to stick to the popcorn, and clearly, the theatre popcorn seemed to have a butter flavor. Cooking popcorn in butter never worked for me, the temperatures involved burned the butter. So, after using the oilless microwave method, I’d drizzle a small amount of gently melted butter on the popcorn after it was popped and stir it thoroughly. After this I’d sprinkle it with table salt to taste, stirring the pocorn several more times. It didn’t taste like theatre-quality popcorn, but it was the closest I’d found.

The other day, browsing one market’s eclectic products, I happened across some Flavacol. At first I was confused as to what precisely was in the carton, but after reading the label and noting the price, I purchased some to satisfy my decades long quest of homemade theatre-grade popcorn.

An Internet search lead me to various popcorn supplies, caramel, kettle, and cheese corn, various flavors of glaze pop, and some savory shake flavors. Finding a retailer that stocks them at a reasonable price is the challenge, the store where I bought the above-pictured product sold only this one type of flavored salt on the popcorn aisle. After making a batch of popcorn and sprinkling some Flavocol on as a final step, then tasting it, I believe it’s likely one secret of movie theatres’ popcorn! It seems to need less butter for a butter flavor when using Flavocol: ‘artificial butter flavoring’ and ‘real butter’ don’t have quite the same flavor.

I also learned from the Internet search that it’s not much of a secret anymore. Hydrogenated coconut oil with artificial butter flavoring is typically used to pop the kernals, and there’s an artificial-butter-flavored topping available that is composed largely of hydrogenated soybean oil, both of which include beta-carotene for coloring, according to their respective ingredient labels.

A search for the label ingredient “artificial butter flavoring” is revealing, it seems one should not deliberately concentrate and inhale it, some workers in popcorn production plants appear to have had lung problems.

Added on 2/16/06:

For my future reference, I’m adding a link or two regarding various cooking oils’ critical temperatures, otherwise known as the ‘smoke point:’

Coconut oil is high in saturated fat, and so is butter. For those of us who try to improve the health of our diets, any type of hydrogenated oil should probably be avoided.

It might be interesting to try popping corn using an extra light and highly refined olive oil, or some other less flavorful oil (with a high smoke point) as a method of further reducing the real butter added. Avocado oil would be interesting to try because it seems to have the highest smoke point, but I wonder about its cost and availability. Peanut oil might be good to try except for the people who are allergic to it. Fully refined soybean oil (the non-hydrogenated variety) is another.

edited on 2/22/2008

75 thoughts on “Movie Theatre Popcorn Secret Ingredient?

  1. I sure miss being able to eat salt on anything , esp.popcorn. Enjoy it while you can.

  2. Hi,
    I recently bought an old fashioned theatre style popcorn machine.
    This model to be exact:
    The problem is that I’ve tried canola oil, and cocnut oil, and it still tastes air popped and all the kernels are white. When you get popcorn in the theatre, many of the kernels are a rich yellow colour, and they are usually the ones that taste the best/saltiest. How can I get those yellow coloured kernels to pop in my new machine?
    I did recently buy Flavacol, but have yet to use it. The theatres seem to pour in this type of yellow salt into the kettle, along with the kernels. Is that the key to yellow popcorn?

  3. Check your facts on peanut oil allergies. Most extruded oils (peanut, soy, etc.) are not considered an allergen. People are only allergic to the peanut proteins, not to the oils.

  4. So how do you mix all this up to get the theater tasting popcorn? I have a 4oz kettle. What measurements do need for this size kettle? How much oil? what kind of oil? How much of this Flavacol salt do I need? I don’t want to buy the pre-measured packs they get to expensive. This seems like the cheapest route.


  5. Well, Brian, maybe too late to see this answer, but for a 4oz popper I use 1/3 cup kernels, about 1/8 cup coconut oil, and 1/8 teaspoon Flavacol. The Flavacol you can experiment, if you like it salty put a little more.
    I put all the ingredients in the pot together.
    I have a stove-top hand-crank popper which makes awesome popcorn. I order the ingredients in bulk online and it’s very very cheap compared to retail.

  6. I am currently on a diet and need to find the caloric rating of theatre popcorn. If you have it would you mind passint it along.


  7. Jack, whenever I’m curious about calories in something, I check the USDA Nutrient Data Library.

    You might find you need to lookup separate ingredients, such as corn and oil, then add the results together to come up with a close caloric estimate.

  8. I am so happy I found this post! I have been struggling to make the perfect popcorn. I love the popcorn at the cinemas, but I hardly go now-a-days, and when I do go, the prices for the popcorn are getting higher and higher by the minute it seems. I will definitely try your suggestion. Now if I could just find a good way to make kettle corn on my own, I will be the happiest man alive.

    – Gary Webber

  9. I stumbled on this site doing a google search.
    Well I do work at a Movie Theater and this site listed the popcorn salt which is one of the ingredient’s that is used.
    Another one is the oil well I will share the secret of the company that we use it’s called Odell’s I have seen them on ebay as well and they do have an online store
    We use Classic blend and for the butter which is listed on popcorn topping’s supur-kist 2
    To all who quest for movie popcorn enjoy

  10. The company that makes that stuff, Gold Medal, sells just about every popcorn-related thing imaginable. It seems as though they are THE market leader in everything from paper sacks to industrial-sized poppers.

    If anyone is interested, they can buy Gold Medal stuff (including the magic ingredient you covered) via Amazon.

  11. Hi Most How, I looked over your webpage, and was going to comment there, but it seems you don’t accept what blogger terms as “Name/URL” comments, and I have no membership in blogger.

    I have no cell phone or phones to test if that is a technique that really works to pop corn kernels. Snopes claims that an egg cannot be cooked between two cell phones.

  12. Isn’t it amazing on 2 points – you learn to like the substitute rather than the real product
    The industry charges you full bore price , substitutes and then its the less costly product you crave.
    Its not as if the movie theatre gave you a discount for the “yellow topping”
    The second point is how the internet allows for research of what would of been trade secrets , or at the least a very costly search , prohibitive cost wise to most.
    Anyways good for you for conducting a thorough and complete job of working through this puzzle

  13. As a former theater worker, Flavocol is precisely what they use. But you are not supposed to sprinkle it on AFTER making a batch. You put the correct amount of Flavocol in the kettle (or whatever you are using) along with the kernels and the oil and then pop the corn. Theaters don’t have a “secret” recipe. It’s simply popcorn kernels, popping oil, and Flavocol.

  14. I am a movie theater popcorn lover. I am a big popcorn lover and I have the taste for some right now. Too bad I don’t have any flavocol, or a kettle.

  15. I called the three local theaters that I go to. I go to the movies 2-3tmes a week, and the theater that is furthest has the BEST popcorn. I can’t put it down! Anyway, here is what they are using for popping, as well as “buttery topping” oil.

    Least favorite
    Plaza Cinema – A Cleveland Cinema Theater
    Pops in coconut oil, topping is Vistar SBO (Soybean oil based) It oils up the popcorn, but always has an old taste, no matter which dispenser they use.

    Good and enjoyable
    Regal Cinemas. I called the Independence and Hudson theaters. Same stuff.
    Pop in Coconut oil, topping is soybean oil based (brand not given). This is the same oils used at the Plaza theater above, but is much more enjoyable. Probably a different brand of sybean topping. The popcorn does taste the same.

    Mine and all my friends favorite
    Finally, Cinemark. I’ve been to Rockside, Tinsletown and Macedonia. They’re all the same. They use 100% Canola oil for popping and for the topping! It tastes fresh, complex, (I thought it may have just the slightest hint of peanuts and garlic). I thought they may use peanut oil, it is so good. I was happy to find out that although Canola is pretty bad for you in the form and quantity theaters use it, it is still MUCH better than Coconut or soy (since the soybean oil is typically partially hydrogenated). I thin the secret is that the oil doesn’t get in the way of the wonderful seasoning (Another mystery to unravel). I can eat scads of this popcorn without feeling bloated, and is the OLY theater that I take the remaining home and snack on it.

    At home I use Orville Redenbackers Original (not Hot Air), Corn oil, and a Stir crazy popper. It kicks butt. You can add butter topping afterwards too.

    I was recently diagnosed as mildly diabetic, and was happy to find that popcorn, being a medium glycemcic indexed food, is still okay in my diet (If you’re diabetic, test your blood sugar after eating popcorn) It works for me, and I just don’t eat dinner that night. Popcorn is a whole grain, not processed or refined. That’s why it rates lower than other snack foods for how fast it raises your blood sugar. I just have popcorn and Coke Zero.

    As I get older, I have to choose my vices carefully, as I can’t have as many as before. This is the last one I didn’t give up. Good popcorn and a movie.

    Thanks for this page.

  16. My wife and I went to a movie and shared a large buttered popcorn. About half way through the bag I had a serious athsma attack, and my inhaler did not help. I never had a problem at the other theaters. Has any body else had this problem? Do you know what caused this?


  17. woops, pressed submit too early :-)
    I also wanted to say that I think that the whirley pop popcorn popper is the best choice if you want to make movie theater style popcorn. I tried everything else, someone commented on the stir crazy poppers, they all got jammed when I tried them for some reason, the dasher gets stuck on the kernels….

  18. i called the cinemark in denton tx and they said there canola oil is called funtastic and the salt they said did not have a brand name or lable it just came in a bag.they buy all this from a company called buystar i know someone that works there maybe he can get me some of that movie goodness.

  19. ok I need some help here. I bought some Flavacol and tried making a batch. I put about 1/3 cup unpopped corn, 4T corn oil, and 1/2 tablespoon of Flavacol in the pan. The resulting popcorn had only a very light yellow color, and it was too salty to eat! I could barely taste any buttery flavor too. So what else is missing? Obviously the deep yellow color and buttery flavor of movie theatre popcorn does not come from Flavacol alone. If I added enough Flavacol to match the yellow hue of movie theater popcorn, I am sure one piece of the resulting popcorn would exceed my daily allowance for sodium! The person who posted message #15 said they used to be a theater worker, and that the theater used Flavacol. Could that person let us know what else went into the popcorn popper?

  20. Hi, this is poster #23 again. I want to give an update. I tried making the popcorn again with Flavacol, but this time using only 1/2 level teaspoon. It came out MUCH better, and the butter flavor also came out better. I guess when I used 1/2 tablespoon, the saltiness overpowered the butter flavor. I can definitely taste the resemblance to movie theatre popcorn, and I am pretty sure flavacol is one of their ingredients, after tasting this second batch. I think if I could find some butter flavored coconut oil, the taste would match the theater’s exactly. But there is still the nagging question about how the theatre achieves that deep yellow color…

  21. I just got a 4 oz kettle machine from Costco (Elite/Maxi-matic), which only instructs using 1 tbs oil with 1/2 cup of popcorn. I used a “Back to Basics” value pack, which has 3 tbs of yellow sunflower oil, 1/2 cup of kernals, and what appears to be 1/2 to 1 tsp of the flavored salt per pouch. Dumped the oil in the kettle, heat to smoke, dumped the corn and salt, and OMG some fine movie theater corn. I didn’t put my Orville butter topping on it (which of course completes it). Those pouches get expensive, so I’ll experiement with the individual oil and salt combos.

  22. My experiment to make ‘Yellow’ popcorn (when I did not have a specialized oil):

    I took a beta-carotene based Vitamin A capsule, pricked it with a needle, and squeezed a few droplets into the oil used to pop the kernels. Result: yellow popcorn.

  23. I use the popping cart machine from Costco too, but still can’t duplicate a good theater’s popcorn. I’m close, using O’dell’s Classic blend oil and flavacol, but I think the problem is in the kernels themselves. I’ve tried several different types and each brand gives a different result. None of them are as light and fluffy as the theaters. Does anyone know the brand that the theater’s use?

  24. I have been a Huge Corn based food Fan, Other then popcorn tortillas and anything else that corn whips up, how ever Since coming to U.S. what I discovered was Movie popcorn and when kids we never could afford to go to theater, so my mission was always try to bring the taste home.

    Moving forward I am 30 and interested in going in to the business of popping corn, Recently I was back home to what I discovered that they were still popping Plain popcorn including street vendors as well as movie theaters that were local, They have not been introduced to the world of western style Movie theater popcorn, and my goal is to bring the taste back home, how ever as long as its feasable.

    Things are Ususally imported from a 3rd world country to N. America how ever when you Take something to a

  25. Oppse I hit submit accidently

    Continue from above.

    As i was saying if you were to take any product from N. America to a 3rd world country dont know if it will be feasable, Now I know Corn is already there for popcorn how ever my interest was possibly to distribute import the other Ingridients that makes it possible for the movie theater popcorn flavour profile.

    I work as a chef at hotel and we started to do a Popcorn break item, and the company who supplies us is PoP weaver, they have a all one kit which contains Popcorn, Coconut oil which has beta carotine for colour and artificial butter flavour, plus some seasoning, and by far that has come the closest to producing the smell, flavour, look and other charecteristics of movie theater style popcorn.

    Now you need a kettle that has a turning stuics or else if you try popping that in a regular pot with out any movements all the seasoning gets stuck on the bottom of the pot unless there are some moving parts.

    I hope this helps someone and also if anyone knows any place who supplies and wholesale Popcorn supplies and ingridients pls fwd me to my supplied email address.


    M.T. Zaheer

  26. Thanks! That’s very interesting!

    “Now you need a kettle that has a turning stuics or else if you try popping that in a regular pot with out any movements all the seasoning gets stuck on the bottom of the pot unless there are some moving parts.”

    When I tried adding the salt to the popping oil, it stayed on the bottom of the popping pan, and didn’t seem to become infused throughout the popped corn, but then I’ve never used a stirring type popper!

  27. If you’re interested in combining olive oil with popcorn, it’s easy. Olive oil is an excellent substitute for melted butter on hot-air popped corn. The key is to drizzle it, not pour it. You need a cruet: those glass bottles with the small opening at the top (they’re usually used for salad dressings). Some have spouts with little hinged flaps and strange internal ball bearings, but I prefer the plain, conical metal tops with a simple little hole.

    Drizzle some oil, sprinkle a little salt, add any other seasonings or herbs, toss the popcorn. Repeat two more times.

    Olive oil gives the seasonings something to stick to without the greasiness of butter. And it’s much healthier, as you’ve already mentioned. My family has been using this technique for as long as I can remember. Hope you enjoy it!

  28. Kev, this is the store where I purchased it retail, the Murrieta Smart and Final. It seems like a long time ago.

    Not all of their stores carry the same exact products, and keep in mind I haven’t looked for it recently. No guarantees! Enjoy. [edit of 3.14.09: I was just at the store, they still have it.]

    Drizzling! That’s a nice visual and explanation, Matt! I’ll have to look around for one of those cruets!

    I have a somewhat large, shallow and roundish stainless steel bowl that has sort of a point that’s close to the middle of its flat bottom. It’s actually more of a dimple or deformation or slight dent that I put in the bowl’s bottom for the following purpose: When the already popped corn is balanced in the bowl just right I’m able to spin it somewhat fast, while drizzling real butter slowly and evenly from a small melting pan. Visualize a spinning top!

    While the bowl with popped corn is spinning, I move the pan with melted butter from above the center of the bowl towards its edge, along a straight line, back and forth, and pour the butter slowly from the melting pan, a quite small stream. I’ll drizzle about 1/3-1/2 the butter from the pan, then shake some salt on it while it’s still spinning, stop it, then stir — or more precisely a process of folding where the popped corn on the bottom is brought repeatedly to the top — to mix, then repeat enough times until the all the melted butter is used.

    The salt shaker used is kind of important. Once again the same store used to have nice glass ones with stainless-steel tops with multiple slightly-larger-than-typical holes, sort of restaurant-style shakers that came in packs of six, the store label refers to them as “mushroom top”. None of this shake-shake-shake and get only one or two grains of salt on each shake! It would take too much time, as the spinning bowl does slow down. When applying the salt, I shake along an imaginary diagonal line, instead of the radius line used for the melted butter. One trick with these particular salt shakers is that only a slight movement is required: turn it upside down, and move it just quickly enough back and forth so, as the salt falls, it follows the imaginary diagonal line above the spinning bowl. An actual hard shake isn’t required.

    I’ve also found that avocado oil is available, but it’s a bit pricey. Some of the vendors have it at our yearly avocado festival.

  29. I love salt on my popcorn. I have found Flavacol to have an unplesant aftertaste. My local theatre directed me to Great Western Products. They supply theatres nationwide with Season-It Buttery Flavored Salt, but will sell to the public too! is their website.

  30. Any one know the ingredient of Regal Edward’s popcorn. I compared many theaters, I prefer theirs.


  31. I just recently bought a 4 once kettle machine from Costco and have been trying some different types of popcorn. So far, the best popcorn has been from the Back-To-Basics popcorn and oil pak. So far, for us, it is the closet thing to movie theater popcorn. They are a little expensive though.

  32. I actually used to work in a movie theatre. Its actually quite simple. You can use the same process at home as we did in the theatre. Heat the cooking device (prefurably a crank stove top popper) with the oil (I forgot the type of oil we used, it was like corn oil or something) I just use cooking oil with a tablespoon of butter and while that is heating up, put the popcorn kernals in a cup and add 2 tablespoons of flavacol in the kernals. Then add the kernals into the heated cooking device and when its done you have quality popcorn.

  33. I love popcorn at the movies and at home. Movie theatre popcorn is great but leaves me with the feeling of salt overload, so I don’t indulge as much as I would like too! When making popcorn at home I use a 2 qt, 1/3 cup of Orville’s and 1/4 cup of Hollywood’s Safflower oil, pop and add salt to taste. Whola! Great popcorn (I sometimes even sneak into the theatre.) The safflower oil heats to high temps and has Vitamin E. AND the salt easily sticks!

  34. Absolutely. I worked at a theater. Heat up the kettle (which had a rotating arm inside to keep the kernels moving), pour the kernels in with the butter salt, and then pour the hot popping oil in (butter flavored oil; ours was coconut oil-based mixed with coloring and flavoring). Afterward, you can pour more popping oil on it. Terrible for you, but so, so good.

  35. My method:

    1)Pop corn in air popper
    2)Spray popcorn lightly with PAM or generic cooking spray. Sprinkle on some Flavorcol. Stir popcorn and repeat once or twice.

    The cooking spray, when lightly used, allows the Flavorcol (or salt) to stick to the popcorn and not wind up in the bottom of the bowl. Air popping means no oil calories or oil taste; the cooking spray has no calories or taste. By the way, you don’t have to coat every single kernel with the Flavorcol; a little goes a long way. When you grab a handful of popcorn and begin chewing, as long as a few of the kernels have the flavorcol, you’ll get all the taste you need. The Flavorcol coloring also lets you see how much you’re using.

    Excellent taste, and the only calories are from the popcorn itself! Hope this helps.

  36. Hi Gravis, your calorie-free words “cooking spray has no calories” caught my attention.

    You might want to double check your facts on the spray oil. I checked one manufacturer’s online nutritional information and found that calories from spray oil are rated as a function of the amount of time the spray nozzle is depressed. So it seems the longer the nozzle is depressed, the more calories the food it is sprayed on will have. Similarly, shorter spray times would seem to result in fewer calories.

  37. Home made kettle corn is easy to make. Use a 2-to-1 ratio of corn to sugar.

    Try 1/2 cup corn, 1/4 sugar, 1/4 cup oil of your choice.

    Keep shaking the pot as it begins to pop. Add salt to taste.


Comments are closed.