How Does Popcorn Pop?

fact-finder | Student

The starch grains in a popcorn kernel are embedded in a very strong protein matrix (shell). When the kernel is heated in hot oil to 150° Fahrenheit (66° Celsius), the water within the kernel evaporates. This water vapor softens the starch, which, in turn, rapidly expands in volume and breaks apart the protein matrix. The shell bursts open under tremendous pressure, which creates the "popping" sound. As the water vapor escapes, the starch grains dry out and become light and crisp.

The practice of popping corn, perfected by Native Americans, is at least five thousand years old. The process was simplified in the 1880s with the introduction of specially designed home and commercial machines. With the advent of the movies and later television, the American demand for popcorn increased.

In 1952, Orville Redenbacher (1907-1995) and an associate produced a corn hybrid (the offspring of genetically different varieties of species), the kernels of which seldom failed to pop. However, because the hybrid was expensive to produce, popcorn companies refused to sell Redenbacher's product. They believed that Americans would not buy the higher-priced corn. Redenbacher decided to market the corn himself. It was a wise decision; Redenbacher's has become America's best-selling popcorn.

Today the average American consumes almost two pounds of popcorn per year.

Sources: Chalmers, Irena. Great American Food Almanac, p. 76; McGee, Harold. On Food and Cooking, p. 242; Panati, Charles. Panati's Extraordinary Origins of Everyday Things, pp. 390-93.