Best Cheap Popcorn Machines

Price Range

$20 - $30

Cheapism

$30 - $60

Mid-Range

$60 and up

High End

It’s tough to beat the taste of freshly popped popcorn, and with a cheap popcorn machine you can savor those fluffy and tender morsels whenever the mood strikes. No need to invest hundreds of dollars in a concession-stand behemoth or fork over $4.99 per bag of pre-popped stuff at the grocery store. For less than $30, you’ve got your choice among hot air poppers, stove-top popcorn poppers, and electric poppers -- the former being oil-free and the latter two types requiring a tablespoon or two of oil. In five minutes or less, any one of these popcorn poppers will deliver a tasty, versatile, and healthy snack that can be personalized with a mix of salty, savory, or sweet flavor enhancers to suit your taste preferences.

Best Cheap Popcorn Machines

For years now, health experts and scientists have cautioned consumers about the potential dangers of microwave popcorn. In 2007, the Flavor and Extract Manufacturers Association recommended reducing the amount of diacetyl used in butter flavorings in the aftermath of several lawsuits linking the chemical to lung disease. While microwave popcorn may seem to be an easy way to satisfy a popcorn craving, take note: Microwave popcorn contains more calories and chemicals than its air-popped and oil-popped counterparts, doesn’t save much time, and is far more expensive over the long haul. Most cheap popcorn makers pop a batch of kernels at least as fast as a microwave, and the per-ounce cost of regular or premium kernels is about half that of the microwave varieties.

Oil, Stove-Top, and Air Popcorn Poppers Popcorn Popper Reviews

What, then, is the best route to enjoying the high-fiber, low-fat joys of popcorn? If health is the top concern, a cheap hot-air popcorn popper would be the best buy, because the corn is popped without oil, butter, or salt. If that sounds a bit dry, and you don’t mind some fat in your diet, an oil-popped-popcorn machine produces a snack with slightly more calories and slightly more flavor (you can even add flavoring to the oil). Of course, with either method, you can up the taste and calorie ante by adding melted butter or margarine, grated cheese, chocolate, sugar or honey, or some other seasoning once the popping is complete.

The home popcorn-popping market is largely divided into professional-style poppers, hot-air poppers, and oil and stove-top poppers. As might be expected, the professional-style models cost the most, ranging from about $75 for an off-the-shelf unit to more than $1,000 for an antique reproduction commercial-style home popper. These high-end machines are large and relatively complicated, and include electric components and require specific oil temperatures. Electricity-powered hot-air and oil-pop popcorn poppers are smaller and simpler machines than the upscale models and range in price from about $17 to $60. Stove-top popcorn poppers max out at about $20; they have no electrical parts and the aluminum used in their bases is often quite thin, which helps the popcorn heat evenly and quickly. Taste or quality aren't necessarily correlated with price, however. We found decidedly mixed reviews for pricier popcorn poppers in which consumers gripe about the consistency of the popcorn and the number of unpopped kernels.

Many companies, including the big kitchen appliance companies such as Cuisinart, Toastmaster, and Waring, make popcorn poppers. But the best popcorn poppers are the simplest. In this segment of the market, you’ll find good inexpensive popcorn machines from companies such as Presto and West Bend and other specialized producers you might not have heard of. What you get with the best popcorn machines is a unit that pops the corn kernels evenly -- without burning or leaving too many unpopped -- and yields a light, fluffy, and crunchy end product. Good cheap popcorn poppers are also user-friendly; that is, no hassle to operate and easy to clean, without too many parts or complicated deconstruction steps before you can wipe them down or quickly wash them out.

Our research into the low-priced segment of the market turned up several good popcorn machines. In the best bucket, we put the stove-top Wabash Valley Farms Whirley Pop (starting at $20) and the Presto PopLite Hot Air Corn Popper (starting at $20). Both offer consistent, delicious results with virtually no kernels left behind, according to scores of reviewers. In the good bucket we placed the West Bend Air Crazy Corn Popper (starting at $25), which receives mostly positive user reviews for the evenness of the popping but a few dings for its design. We deposited the Kalorik PCM28276 Hot-Air Popcorn Maker (starting at $19) in the "think twice" bucket, because consumers complain about a design feature that interferes with the popping action.

Oil, Stove-Top, and Air Popcorn Poppers

Stove-Top Popcorn Poppers.

Stove-top popcorn poppers have two pieces: a lid with a handle and stirring arm, and a thin metal (usually aluminum) pot-like base. The oil and popcorn kernels go into the pot, the lid goes on, and you stir over heat until the popcorn is done. The Wabash Valley Farms Whirley Pop (starting at $20) makes up to 6 quarts at a pop with 1 to 3 tablespoons of oil; the specs say that over time you can reduce the oil to a mere teaspoon. A similar model, the Cook N Home Aluminum Popcorn Popper Stove-Top (starting at $18), makes up to 6.5 quarts and also comes in a stainless steel version with a clad bottom that costs about $12 more. Both the Whirley Pop and Cook N Home have steam vents in the lid, which insures crunchy results. If the old-fashioned hand-crank approach doesn’t grab you, the West Bend Stir Crazy Popcorn Maker (starting at $25) is an option. This popcorn machine is a plug-in with a motorized stirring arm that also uses a spot of oil on its popping plate. It makes up to 6 quarts of popcorn in five minutes and its dome-shaped lid doubles as a bowl. There’s also a small container at the top for melting butter while the popper does its thing.

Oil Popcorn Poppers.

Good low-cost oil popcorn poppers are easy to find in the frugal consumer’s price range. Oil popcorn poppers may be hand-operated or electric powered; either way, they require some oil on the cooking surface and a stirring arm to keep the kernels moving so they don’t stick and burn. Health-conscious consumers may want to keep in mind that although with oil popcorn poppers you are paying more calories upfront with the oil, the alternative can be quite dry and may induce snackers to pour on butter or flavoring after the fact, which adds plenty of calories on its own. Oil popped popcorn tends to have more flavor right out of the machine, and it holds salt better. All the oil popcorn poppers we researched let you add a variety of oil and flavorings; coconut, corn, canola, vegetable, olive, or any other liquid fat will do. Whether air- or oil popped, some users claim the best results come from using premium kernels -- but read the owner’s manual to see what the manufacturer recommends.

Hot Air Poppers.

Cheap air poppers range in price from about $17 to $30 and their features are nearly identical. Air poppers require a power source (i.e., electricity) but no cooking oil. Just toss the recommended amount of popcorn kernels into a small cylinder, put on the lid, and wait to catch the hot popcorn in a large bowl as it blows out the chute. The Presto PopLite Hot Air Corn Popper (starting at $20) churns out up to 18 cups of popped kernels in less than three minutes. Like most other air poppers, the Presto PopLite comes with a measuring cup for the kernels that sits atop the lid and can be used to melt butter as the kernels pop. The West Bend Air Crazy Corn Popper (starting at $25) is another air popper that some users report enjoys a second life as a small coffee roaster.

Popcorn Poppers Safety.

Although a watched pot never boils, a watched popcorn maker is a necessity, especially in the low-priced end of the market. Many cheap air poppers and electric oil poppers lack an automatic shut-off feature -- the Kalorik PCM28276 Hot-Air Popcorn Maker (starting at $19) being an exception -- so whoever is in charge must be vigilant. When the last kernels are just about ready to explode, turn off the popcorn maker or pull out the plug; the West Bend Air Crazy features an on/off switch but the Presto PopLite and West Bend Stir Crazy do not. None of the stove-top popcorn makers let you walk away from the stove; you must keep stirring until the popping stops. Although higher-end popcorn makers may allow for less focused attention, the entire process doesn’t take very long so it probably isn’t worth any extra cash for those few minutes of freedom. And when kids are involved, always make sure there’s adult supervision; stoves get hot and electric sockets can be shocking.

Popcorn Makers Clean-Up.

The more complicated a popcorn maker is, the harder it is to clean effectively. Cheap air poppers, like the Presto PopLite, only need a wipe down after each use. Stray pieces of popcorn can be brushed out but the plastic cover may need some soapy water, especially if you melt butter in the measuring cup. A quick wipe down for stove-top popcorn makers usually works despite the oil that’s required. The manufacturer’s specs for the Wabash Valley Farms Whirley Pop, for example, say no further cleaning is necessary if it’s used at least once a week. Cleaning the West Bend Stir Crazy is a bit more complicated. The plastic dome gets a soapy wash, the stirring rod must be unscrewed and washed, and the popper base also gets a swipe from a damp, soapy cloth or sponge: each piece must then be dried. The Cuisinart CPM-900 (starting at $40) is an electric oil popper like the West Bend Stir Crazy, but the popping base, stirring arm, and plastic popping cover are all dishwasher-safe.

Popcorn Popper Reviews

Although any popcorn popper is probably capable of producing at least a handful of high-quality popped kernels, popcorn popper reviews indicate that the best popcorn poppers stand apart for their ability to pop nearly every kernel. The best popcorn poppers produce fluffy, dry, and crunchy results. Users also frequently comment on the fresher taste of air and oil popped popcorn, and say there's no going back to the microwave variety. Popcorn popper reviews also remark on the dollar-wise value and user friendliness of DIY popcorn.

Popcorn Popper Quality.

Based on the popcorn popper reviews we read, cheap poppers are mighty performers. In the hot air popper category, the Presto PopLite earns accolades in consumer reviews on sites like Amazon and Walmart. Users rave about its no-kernel-left-behind prowess, the light and fluffy results, and the money-saving convenience of making a healthy snack in minutes. For people on restricted diets, this no-oil/no-salt hot-air popper is a godsend; as one consumer points out in a popcorn poppers review, that option doesn't exist in the microwave popcorn aisle.

The stove-top Wabash Valley Farms Whirley Pop is also a hit with popcorn fans who relish the thoroughness of its low-tech manual operating system. Popcorn poppers reviews on Target, for example, say the finished product beats the movie-house variety hands down and the ability to control the amount of oil and salt is a welcome advantage. Consumers' assessment of the West Bend Stir Crazy is less gushing but still enthusiastic -- one family of 10 makes up to 12 batches a week, according to a popcorn popper review on Amazon. Other reviews on the same site variously describe the end product as light and tasty or a bit stick-to-your-teeth. One user suggests this latter outcome results from a build-up of humidity inside the popping dome, and another says you must open the dome immediately to avoid winding up with a soggy treat. Unpopped kernels don't seem to be an issue with the West Bend Stir Crazy, but a popcorn makers review on Walmart notes that the stirring rod at the bottom of the dome sometimes gets caught on the kernels.

By contrast, popcorn popper reviews for the Kalorik PCM28276 are largely critical. Users posting comments on Warehousedeals.com gripe about the small quantity of corn that can be popped at once, the proportion of kernels left unpopped, and a design flaw that automatically shuts off the popper when it gets too hot, which tends to occur before the batch is popped or prevents you from preparing a second batch right away.

Popcorn Poppers Ease of Use.

Generally speaking, cheaper popcorn poppers are the easiest to use because there are fewer parts and fewer opportunities for things to go wrong. Popcorn popper reviews on Cooking.com assert the Wabash Valley Farms Whirley Pop is easy to clean -- just a quick wipe with a paper towel or a hand wash with some soapy water. The hand-cranking process appeals to the pre-teen set, according to users, and with slight modifications, like extending the handle and crank, the Whirley Pop also proves its mettle over campfires. But do make sure the lid is shut tight; one popcorn popper review on Target grouses about a loose lid letting oil splatter all over.

The swipe of a cloth is all that's needed to clean the Presto PopLite, and popcorn popper reviews on Walmart crow about the easy convenience of air-popping bowls of popcorn for family movie nights. Some users, though, grumble a bit about the absence of an on-off switch and butter that doesn't melt in the little top dish. This latter issue pops up occasionally in hot air popper reviews, but consumers seem nonplussed, noting the microwave excels at this task.

Many users say cleaning the West Bend Stir Crazy is a no-fuss job even though it needs to be disassembled and hand-washed with soapy water. A few popcorn popper reviews on Amazon grouse about oil build-up (one says it gums up the stirring rod after several months of heavy use) and one reviewer reports that the round base is awkward to clean. And yet, several users remark that the clear plastic dome affords a bird's eye view of the popping process that adds to the fun of making your own popcorn. Users posting reviews on Viewpoints also seem appreciative that the machine requires no out-of-box assembly.

Then there's the Kalorik PCM28276 hot-air popper, which gets panned in popcorn popper reviews for not being much fun at all. Its tendency to shut down before all the corn is popped and needing to wait until it cools down before popping another batch, its small size and loud operation, and hot-to-the-touch housing all turn off many users.

Popcorn Poppers Durability.

In terms of value, popcorn popper reviews suggest that the cheaper models tend to be the most durable. Many users posting popcorn popper reviews claim the Wabash Valley Farms Whirley Pop lasts for years (a 25-year warranty is available), although we did find a report on Amazon about the plastic gears in the sweeper mechanism melting after about a year of use and a few complaints that the aluminum bucket seems flimsy. Consumers give a thumbs up to the Presto PopLite's durability in popcorn popper reviews on Walmart, noting that it appears well-made. The West Bend Stir Crazy also passes the durability test, according to consumer reviews on Amazon, if users take proper care. A few consumers note that the stirring rod scrapes up the nonstick coating on the base (bend the arms slightly upward, counsels one user), and we read a few posts about the popper not heating sufficiently to get the kernels popping. But overall, these cheap popcorn poppers seem to be worth more than their weight in popped corn.

Maralyn Edid

Maralyn is a veteran reporter, writer, researcher, and editor. From her early years at Crain's Chicago Business and the Detroit bureau of Business Week, then on to a long-term stint at Cornell University's ILR School and now at Cheapism.com, Maralyn has been -- and remains -- committed to getting the story straight. That means a devotion to balance, to thorough investigation, and to making sense of diverse ideas and facts. Maralyn earned a Master's in Industrial and Labor Relations at Cornell, a Master's in Journalism at University of California-Berkeley, and a B.A. at Tufts. Maralyn resides in New York City.

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