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Types of Popcorn and Popcorn Machines

Types of Popcorn and Popcorn Machines

Popcorn is an easy way to boost impulse sales at your concession stand, movie theater, or convenience store. Because of its low costs for both supply and labor, this delicious, time-honored snack food offers one of the highest profit returns in the concession foods industry! Choosing the right kernels, seasonings, and popcorn poppers are all important considerations for the success of your business.

Types of Popcorn Kernels

There are two types of popcorn kernels: butterfly popcorn, which is also sometimes referred to as snowflake popcorn, and mushroom popcorn. Each kernel type yields popcorn that is unique in structure, which gives each a 'best' use.

Popped butterfly popcorn in a bowl

Butterfly / Snowflake Popcorn:

  • Irregular shapes with light, fragile "wings" protruding from all sides.
  • More tender, light, and fluffy than mushroom kernels. It's best served fresh for maximum crunch!
  • Most often used in movie theaters, stadiums, and carnivals.
  • Non-uniform shape allows you to fill serving sizes with less product to maximize profits.

Popped mushroom popcorn in a bowl

Mushroom Popcorn:

  • Compact, ball shape.
  • Larger, denser, and less fragile than butterfly popcorn.
  • Round shape and larger surface area holds up well against stirring and coating processes.
  • Ideal for gourmet popping applications where caramel, cheese, chocolate, and other coatings or glazes are applied.
  • Popcorn of choice for making kettle corn.

Popcorn Terminology

When buying popcorn for a popcorn machine, you will sometimes see these terms used. Learn what they mean so you can make sure you're buying the best popcorn for your business!

  • Expansion Rate: The expansion rate measures the number of popped popcorn servings produced from a specific amount of unpopped kernels. For example, 1 cup of popcorn kernels with an expansion rate of 38 will yield 38 cups of popped popcorn. An expansion rate between 35-40 is considered to be good quality - the higher the expansion rate is, the greater the volume of popped corn.
  • Moisture Content: To ensure maximum popping efficiency, it is best to strive for kernels with a moisture content somewhere between 13% to 14.5%. While popcorn with a lower moisture content may not pop to its fullest potential and yield some unpopped kernels, popcorn with a higher moisture content may yield a chewy product and limit its expansion rate.
  • Kernel Size: Kernel size is measured in K/10 g (kernels per 10 grams). To find the kernel size of popcorn, 10 grams of popcorn are measured and the number of kernels is counted. The greater the number of kernels, the smaller the kernel size. Kernel size simply refers to the size - it does not directly influence how the popcorn expands.

Types of Popcorn Kernel Colors

Each kernel color pops differently, resulting in a subtle difference in size, texture, and color.

Yellow popcorn kernels in a bowl

Yellow Popcorn Kernels:

The most common and least expensive popcorn variety. It has a slightly nutty flavor.

White popcorn kernels in a bowl

White Popcorn Kernels:

Has a neutral, pure popcorn flavor. It is great for adding flavors and seasonings.

Red popcorn kernels in a bowl

Red Popcorn Kernels:

Pops white and a little smaller than the other varieties. Offers a light, tender flake with a slightly nutty flavor.

Blue popcorn kernels in a bowl

Blue Popcorn Kernels:

Pops similar to red variety. Offers a light, tender flake with a unique, nutty flavor.

How to Store Popcorn Kernels

It is best to store kernels in a sealed container at room temperature to block out humidity and maintain a constant moisture content. Storing popcorn kernels in a hot, humid environment can increase moisture content and potentially cause mold, while storing them in a cold, dry environment (such as a refrigerator) can decrease the moisture content and leave you with unpoppable kernels.

What is the Best Oil for Popcorn?

When choosing a cooking oil for your popcorn, it is important to consider the smoke point of the oil. The smoke point refers to the temperature at which an oil breaks down and ceases to be useful. Some oils are not able to handle the heat from your kettle, which may end up burning and even changing the nutritional content of your popcorn. Another point to consider is the taste. Some oils do not affect popcorn's natural taste, while others may lend a richer flavor.

Coconut oil and canola oil are among the most popular popcorn oils due to their high smoke points, health properties, and neutral flavor.

Tablespoon filled with coconut oil
Tablespoon filled with coconut oil

Coconut Oil

  • Most popular oil type for movie theater style popcorn.
  • Refined coconut oil has a smoke point of 350-450 degrees Fahrenheit that will withstand a kettle's high heat.
  • Refined coconut oil has a neutral flavor and odor.
  • High in natural saturated fats that can encourage fat-burning and may help reduce the risk of heart disease risk.
  • Can affect the flavor of seasonings if too much refined coconut oil is used.
  • Unrefined, or virgin, coconut oil has a lower smoke point (350 degrees Fahrenheit) that may not be able to handle the kettle's high temperature.
Person pouring canola oil into a mixing bowl
Person pouring canola oil into a mixing bowl

Canola Oil

  • Smoke point of 400-475 degrees Fahrenheit will withstand a kettle's high heat.
  • High monounsaturated fat to saturated fat ratio.
  • Budget-friendly option.
  • Features a clean, mild flavor and odor.
  • Many contain GMO ingredients.
  • High in linoleic acid, which may cause inflammation when consumed in excess.
Person pouring sunflower oil into a frying pan
Person pouring sunflower oil into a frying pan

Sunflower Oil

  • Smoke point of 450 degrees Fahrenheit will withstand a kettle's high heat.
  • Features a neutral flavor and odor.
  • Contains many vitamins including D, A, K, and E.
  • High in linoleic acid, which may cause inflammation when consumed in excess.
Person pouring avocado oil onto a salad
Person pouring avocado oil onto a salad

Avocado Oil

  • Smoke point of 520 degrees Fahrenheit will withstand a kettle's high heat.
  • Refined avocado oil features a clean, neutral flavor and odor, while unrefined features a mild, slightly nutty and buttery flavor.
  • Rich in antioxidants and healthy fats, making it a great option for conscious-consumers.
  • Typically a more expensive option.

Types of Popcorn Supplies

There are a variety of popcorn supplies that make is easy to offer sweet or savory flavors to patrons, or that help take the guesswork out of making and serving popcorn!

A person opening a popcorn kit

Popcorn Kits

  • Conveniently pre-measured to fit a specific popper size so that any employee can operate
  • Single-use style is ideal for businesses that do not regularly make popcorn

A large bucket of popcorn on a table

Popcorn Buckets / Bags

  • Great for professionally merchandising popcorn
  • Can provide customers with various popcorn portion sizes

A person seasoning popcorn with popcorn salt

Popcorn Salt

  • Super-fine salt designed to adhere to popcorn
  • Subtly enhances the flavor

Great Western frosted caramel popcorn glaze

Popcorn Glazes

  • Makes it easy to offer flavored popcorn
  • Ideal for carnivals, stadiums, and concession stands

Parts of a Popcorn Machine

Commercial popcorn machines make the popcorn kernel explode, or "pop." Each kernel consists of water and starch that is concealed inside of the hull, and when the kernel heats up, the water expands and pressure builds up within the hull. The pressure will eventually create that unmistakable "pop" as the hull gives way to inflated starch that turns the kernel inside out. Popcorn machines allow the steam to escape during the popping cycle, which prevents the popcorn from becoming soggy.

Popcorn machine diagram
  1. Operating switches: quality units will include three switches for heat, which controls the turner, a merchandising light, and a motor/stirrer switch to initiate the popping.
  2. Kettle: heats the oil and kernels to make popcorn. Look for removable, stainless steel kettles for easy cleaning.
  3. Roller bar: turns the kettle to completely empty the contents of the pot and helps increase employee safety.
  4. Warming deck: keeps the popcorn warm and fresh.
  5. Door: provides easy access to the kettle and inside cabinet for convenient cleaning.
  6. Drop door: makes it easy to scoop popcorn without opening the unit's entire door.
  7. Kernel tray: allows for the removal of unpopped kernels, which have fallen through a perforated warming deck.
  8. Feet: non-slip rubber feet provide additional stability for countertop models.

How to Choose the Best Popcorn Machine

Two factors to consider when purchasing the best popcorn machine for your needs are kettle material and kettle volume.

1. Kettle Material

Close up of an aluminum kettle
Close up of an aluminum kettle
Aluminum Kettles
  • Heat up quickly and evenly to prevent hot spots and burning.
  • Provide a more economical alternative to stainless steel.
  • Not as durable as stainless steel.
Person using a stainless steel kettle
Person using a stainless steel kettle
Stainless Steel Kettles
  • Are extremely durable, long-lasting, and easy to clean.
  • Are non-reactive.
  • Take a longer time to heat up than aluminum.

2. Kettle Volume

Estimate how much popcorn you will be making each day to determine the kettle size you need.

picture of low, medium, and high volume popcorn poppers side by side
  • Low volume commercial poppers have kettles with capacities between 4 to 8 ounces. These are ideal for catering parties, offices, and fundraising events.
  • Medium volume commercial poppers have kettles with capacities between 12 to 14 ounces. These are ideal for some movie theaters, convenience and retail stores, and fundraising events.
  • High volume commercial poppers have kettles with capacities between 16 to 20 ounces. These are ideal for movie theaters, convention centers, arenas, and amusement parks.

Expert Tip

To entice customers and further increase impulse sales at special events and parties, consider using vintage popcorn carts and display stands to add nostalgic charm to your snack service! They are also great for locations with limited counter space.

How to Use a Popcorn Machine

Popcorn machines are easy to use. They require only a few simple switches to operate and only two ingredients, popcorn kernels and oil, to make popcorn.

  1. Turn the heat and light switch to ON.
  2. Add oil and let heat for 3-4 minutes. How much oil for the popcorn machine can be determined by using a ratio of 1 part oil per 3 parts popcorn kernel.
  3. Once the oil is heated, turn on the motor switch and add the popcorn kernels.
  4. Once the popping has completed, turn off the motor and heat switches. Carefully dump popcorn from the kettle by turning the roller bar. It is recommended to use an oven mitt or protective glove when dumping the popcorn as the kettle's surface will be very hot.
  5. At this point, only the light should be switched to ON. This will keep your popcorn warm and dry until it is served.
  6. If more butter or seasoning is desired, complete this step outside of the main unit in a separate bowl or container.

Important Safety Precautions:

  • When finished, be sure to unplug the machine from its power supply.
  • Always use oil when popping kernels; never operate with a dry kettle pot.
  • Once you are finished popping and the unit has cooled, clean your popcorn machine to prevent grease build-up and protect the longevity of your machine.

How to Use a Carnival King Popcorn Popper

This video from the Carnival King brand demonstrates just how easy it can be to install and operate a popcorn machine of your own!

How Profitable is Popcorn?

cashier handing customer popcorn
Americans consume 17 billion quarts of popped popcorn each year. The average American eats about 58 quarts. So just how profitable is popcorn? Here are some statistics to give you an idea:

  • A small order of popcorn costs about $0.22 in food costs and sells for about $1.25, giving you a profit margin of 87%.
  • A medium order of popcorn costs about $0.37 in food costs and sells for about $1.85, giving you a profit margin of 80%.
  • A large order of popcorn costs about $0.53 in food costs and sells for about $2.75, giving you a profit margin of 81%.
Enter your estimates in each field of our Popcorn Food Cost Calculator and see how much money you can make over the course of one year. You might be surprised!

Popcorn Food Cost Calculator

Unit Cost
Retail Price
Servings Per Day
Profit Per Day
Profit Per Month
Profit Per Year

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