One could even argue that this is more a matter of science than it is preference.
When you’re gifted one of those giant holiday tins of popcorn, your first reaction most likely isn’t jumping with joy. They’re a seasonal staple that, while not particularly cherished by most, seem to be a part of the décor this time of year, like candy canes and tinsel. But somehow, even if virtually no one would intentionally purchase one of these festive popcorn triads for their own enjoyment, upon receiving one, the contents of that decorative tin are just about always decimated by the end of the day. Popcorn is such an addictive, snackable treat that even flavors you’re just “meh” about are easy to munch into oblivion.
That being said, there is a definitive hierarchy of the classic popcorn tin flavors—and, sorry-not-sorry to the haters, #TeamCheese sits unwaveringly at the top.
Caramel corn and plain salted butter popcorn have their die-hard fans, and there are some who argue that you’re supposed to (*gasp*) mix all three flavors together. But they’re all wrong. Here’s the hard truth, if you can stomach it: Caramel popcorn tries too hard to be gourmet, but just makes otherwise perfectly good popcorn soggy, and provides more hassle than this snack should with the aggressively-sticking-to-your-teeth factor. Plain “butter” popcorn is a mediocre attempt to mimic the beautiful golden goodness of movie theater popcorn—and it doesn’t even come close.
Cheese-dusted popcorn, however, doesn’t try to pretend to be anything it’s not. That artificial neon orange dust that sticks to your fingers (but not your teeth!), strikes the perfect balance of saltiness and tang. Whatever is in that cheddar-inspired powder creates the most irresistible flavor combination that keeps you grabbing handfuls of the stuff long after you said you were “done.”
There’s even science to back up why this specific combo of crunchy food plus cheesy flavor is so addictive—it all comes down to the texture and the perfect ratio of fat to salt. This orange beam of purchased food gifts sunshine is also the ideal salty snack to cut through the monotony of other gifts and treats you’re receiving this time of year—most of which are heavy, creamy, chocolatey, and cloyingly sweet.
Some may cite the messiness of cheese popcorn as grounds for dismissal, to which I counter-argue: Aren’t the best junk foods often the messiest? In the same vein as powdered doughnuts, chicken wings, and tacos, there’s timeless and delicious nostalgia attached to these foods… and that matters. If you’re not licking your fingers after eating them, you’re not doing it right. Honestly, caramel and butter popcorn just aren’t as fun.
Looking to recreate or gift a homemade version of this holiday classic? Try whipping up some Smoked Paprika Popcorn or Garlic Parmesan Popcorn. Both of these recipes deliver the same tangy, cheesy, savory goodness that sets cheese popcorn leagues ahead of all others in the tin.