What Makes Popcorn Pop?

Published: 28th April 2010
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Popcorn! It's one of the favorite snack foods throughout the world, and yet one with somewhat mysterious origins.

Many archeologists believe popcorn originated in Mexico; however, evidence also indicates popcorn was grown in other parts of the world, including China, India and Sumatra, prior to Columbus's arrival in the western hemisphere in 1492. There has long been evidence of encounters between Asian and European peoples and the native populations of the Americas before Columbus; perhaps the trade of popcorn is simply another piece of evidence that points to that conclusion. After all, the natives encountered by Columbus and his crew tried to sell the travelers popcorn.

There are several critical archeological finds that pinpoint Central America and Mexico as the birthplace of popcorn. Among them is the discovery of a cash of popcorn nearly 5,600 years old in a cave in West Central New Mexico. Another archeological site in Peru turned up grains of popcorn nearly 1,000 years old. Perhaps the most amazing was one in Mexico City that unearthed fossilized popcorn pollen that was nearly 80,000 years old!

Popcorn is one of the several types of maize in the world and a member of the grass family. Its scientific name is "zea mays everta," and it is the only variety of maize in the world that pops.

So What is it That Makes Popcorn Pop?

There are several distinctions that make popcorn unique from other types of maize, and these differences are also part of what make popcorn pop.

1. The popcorn hull is slightly thinner than the hull found on other types of corn kernels. This thinner hull allows the popcorn kernel to burst open when heated, a feature unique to this particular variety of maize.

2. All varieties of corn contain water inside the kernel but only popcorn has just the right amount of water to allow for sufficient heating to create the popping of the kernels. Popcorn has between 13.5 and 14 percent moisture encapsulated in each and every kernel on an ear of corn. This particulate percentage of moisture makes for the volatile burst of the corn kernels when heated to the correct temperature.

The unique features of popcorn kernels are only part of what makes popcorn pop. These features have to be combined with the right conditions to produce popcorn. The heating of popcorn kernels produces three stages of changes within the kernel.

3. The first stage is reached when kernels are heated to about 200 degrees Fahrenheit, when the water inside the kernel changes to steam.

4. At about the same temperature, the starchy material that is inside the corn kernel changes to a gooey, gel-like substance.

5. Around 450 degrees Fahrenheit, the built up pressure inside the kernel causes the steam and goo mixture to expand, resulting in increased pressure on the kernel's hull, causing it to burst open.

So how does popcorn go from being steam and goo to that yummy, fluffy stuff that we eat?

6. After the kernel swells to 40 or 50 times its original size, with the pressure reaching around 135 pounds per square inch, the hull finally bursts and the steam inside is released.

7. The soft, gel-like starch inside the kernel is forced outward by the pressure build-up and the explosion of the kernel's hull. During the explosion, the starchy goo is filled with air. The puffed-up gooey substance cools off from exposure to the external hull temperatures which makes it solidify.

Popcorn Popping Methods Today and in the Past

The popularity of popcorn has caused popcorn popping methods to change and branch out over the years. Some people enjoy popping popcorn on the stovetop, inside their own metal pan. Retailers sell prepackaged stove-top popcorn, contained in tinfoil pans. Some people like the convenience of bagged microwave popcorn. There are numerous popcorn poppers on the market, including air poppers which depend on heated air to produce pop popcorn, as well as the more complex machines that use heat and oil to produce the conditions needed for popcorn to pop.

In the past, people generally relied on more natural methods for popping popcorn. American Indians often placed whole ears of popcorn into a fire, allowing the kernels to pop while still attached to the ear. They then ate the popcorn similar to how one might eat corn-on-the-cob.

However, there is archeological evidence that the popcorn popper is not a new concept at all. Popcorn poppers that are nearly 2,000 years old have been discovered in Peru. These poppers were created by the Mohica peoples who were a pre-Incan civilization. The Mohica popcorn poppers were shallow vessels with a single handle which allowed the holder to remain a safe distance from the fire, while also keeping the dish balanced in the fire. These dishes were similar to bowls, with a single hole in the top and center of the dish.

Regardless of how it's made, flavored or consumed, popcorn is a curious snack with mysterious historical origins. It requires a surprisingly complex series of scientific steps to produce. And it is quite simply beloved by so many people throughout history and all around the world.Manufacturefun.com offers a wide range of possibilities for businesses, schools or concessionaires. Visit them online for more information on their popcorn maker, snow cone machines or cotton candy machines.

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