You know the Christmas shopping season is truly upon us when round metal tins emblazoned with colorful scenes containing three flavors of popcorn appear on store shelves.
Those popcorn tins were prominent in my childhood memories of Christmas and though my siblings and I fought over which flavor was best — caramel or cheese — we all agreed the butter-flavored kernels were vastly inferior.
Popcorn is high on my junk food go-to list; I almost always have kernels ready to be dumped into my air popper and smothered in butter and salt (or, if I'm feeling classy, coconut oil) or a microwave popcorn bag at hand to shove into the magical box that has a button devoted solely to the cooking of the treat.
Since I am a popcorn connoisseur, let me save you some time and money and tell you which popcorn flavors are worth your time and which should go straight to the trash.
Of course, there is no substitute for air-popped popcorn with butter. Unless it's popcorn like my grandma made in a pot on top of her stove. Or a tub of popcorn with extra butter at the movie theatre.
Whenever I'm able to stop by Leeker's in Park City, I pick up a bag of their pre-popped popcorn. It has a buttery, salty powder on it that makes it hard to stop eating, and it's cheap.
As for microwave popcorn, I haven't found a brand I'd turn my nose up at, nor one that I grab every time. My only consistent requirement is that it be labeled "extra butter." "Extreme butter" or "butter lovers" are also acceptable. I mean, who wants to go to the extra effort of melting butter (the real stuff, not margarine) to add on top of microwave popcorn? That's not to say I haven't done just that on more than one occasion, but I prefer to skip that step.
I should note that you do tend to get more hulls stuck in your teeth with microwave popcorn, so it's a reminder to floss regularly. For that benefit alone, it should be considered health food.
Several of the "light" popcorn flavors I've tried have been surprisingly good. My personal favorite is Skinny Girl Popcorn, which makes a microwaveable bag of popcorn flavored with lime. It's a great option if you want to go that route.
Caramel corn is best when homemade. It disappears fast at our family gatherings over the holidays. Forget the microwaveable varieties — you might as well send the money straight to your dentist. Pre-packaged caramel corn like Cracker Jack or Fiddle Faddle is a better choice. Those brands are time-tested and one even includes a prize. If you don't know which one, ask someone with gray hair.
Chocolate-drizzled popcorn is delicious, but very rich and should be purchased from a reputable store unless you like the taste of stale kernels. The same goes for cinnamon-flavored popcorn — which is one of my personal favorites if done right.
Cheese-flavored popcorn is another flavor that is best when purchased from a trusted popcorn store — microwaveable bags should be avoided. Making cheesy popcorn at home is tricky. My sister will toss shredded cheddar on top of her popcorn, but I prefer using shredded Italian cheese blends for my bowl.
And now for the popcorn flavor that baffles me most — kettle corn. Kettle corn is disgusting in every iteration. If no trash can is handy, use it to decorate your Christmas tree. Then throw it out with the shreds of wrapping paper.
Any flavored powders, whether ranch, dill or jalapeno, are to be avoided at all costs. Burning popcorn — or oversalting it — is a crime against humanity.
Mixing popcorn with other ingredients — like M&Ms or peanuts — can be quite tasty if the proportions are correct.
Now, your mission — should you choose to accept it — is to assemble the ingredients for a perfect evening. Choose a few friends or family members, pop some popcorn and turn on a movie. Life doesn't get any better than that.