View Full Version : Experts Solve Mystery of Unpopped Popcorn

04-21-2005, 09:26 AM
By RICK CALLAHAN, Associated Press Writer

INDIANAPOLIS - Eat your way to the bottom of almost any bag of popcorn and there they are: the rock-hard, jaw-rattling unpopped kernels known as old maids. The nuisance kernels have kept many a dentist busy, but their days could be numbered: Scientists say they now know why some popcorn kernels resist popping into puffy white globes.

It's long been known that popcorn kernels must have a precise moisture level in their starchy center about 15 percent to explode. But Purdue University researchers found the key to a kernel's explosive success lies in the composition of its hull.

It turns out there is an optimal hull structure that allows kernels to explode, and leaky hulls prevent the moisture pressure buildup needed for kernels to pop.

"They're sort of like little pressure vessels that explode when the pressure reaches a certain point," said Bruce Hamaker, a Purdue professor of food chemistry. "But if too much moisture escapes, it loses its ability to pop and just sits there."

He and his associates compared the microwave popping performance of 14 Indiana-grown popcorn varieties and examined the crystalline structure of the translucent hulls of both the popped kernels and the duds.

In the varieties popped, the percentage of unpopped kernels ranged from 4 percent in premium brands to 47 percent in the cheaper ones.

The findings could be good news for people who savor the snack and those who grow the 17 billion quarts of popcorn sold each year in the United States.

Wendy Boersema Rappel, a spokeswoman for the Chicago-based Popcorn Board, said popcorn processors are always looking for ways to improve their product, including reducing the number of old maids.

"It's one of life's annoyances it's not rocking anyone's world, but our members always like to improve their product," Rappel said.

Hamaker said two popcorn manufacturers have already expressed interest in Purdue's findings.

The research, funded by Purdue's Whistler Center for Carbohydrate Research, which Hamaker directs, has been published online and will appear in the July 11 edition of the journal BioMacromolecules.


04-21-2005, 09:35 AM
Thank God! I can finally get a full night's rest now that this has been solved.

Now... on to more important things in life. They need to find the answer that has eluded us all for many years. How many licks does it take to get to the center of a Tootsie Roll Tootsie-Pop. I never believed that darn Mr. Owl and his answer of three.


Johnny Footstool
04-21-2005, 09:37 AM
This is bad news for me. I love crunching the unpopped kernels.

Red Leader
04-21-2005, 09:54 AM
I like the 1/2 popped old maids, myself. The ones that aren't just the kernel, but have a came up just short of being fully popped.

Roy Tucker
04-21-2005, 10:03 AM
One of the great gambles in life is just how long to leave the bag in the microwave to pop all the pop-able kernels but not cause it to start to burn. It's a bell-shaped curve and just how long to wait at the tail end to get those 3.5 sigma kernels is an art form.

But as far as the study goes, duh. Some kernels pop, some don't, and the reason why the ones don't is because they're duds. And the reason why they are duds is because something is wrong with them. Duh. And better corn has less duds than cheap corn. More duh.

So do they want to QA the corn with x-rays, etc. to eliminate the duds and raise the price or just tell peoples to sac up and endure the unpopped like we've always done?

04-21-2005, 10:07 AM
Burnt popcorn has such a distinct smell. At my old job we were not allowed to have any microwaved popcorn because of an incident when "visitors" came and someone had the nerve to burn their popcorn. I'm sure they did it on purpose though. :p:

How many times has popcorn smelled better than it taste? Movie popcorn for instance, smells great, but sometimes it tastes so nasty.

They have chili cook-offs...there should be popcorn cook-offs! ;) :p:

BTW, I have been getting those little mini bags. Perfect size for one or two just wanting a little snack...if an entire bigger bag is popped...it will be eaten. :cool:

04-21-2005, 10:39 AM
All you good cooks and you dare mention microwave popcorn.

Here's how we roll at the '62 crib.

Best popcorn ever.


Roy Tucker
04-21-2005, 11:08 AM
RFS has shamed me. :redface:

With kids, turning them loose on the stove is a dicey proposition. So we do the microwave thing with them. My wife buys it from Costco by the gross.

When I want some good popcorn, I use an outdoor campfire popper over a burner on the stove. Pop it up, season with melted butter/salt or other seasonings/cheese, and its good stuff. But thats when I want to spend a little time on it.

We also have a microwave popper (basically a big plastic box with a lid on it) that we sometimes use. It's not bad.

We also have an air popper that has fallen into disuse.

And I prefer the spikier popped kernels rather than the big poof balls. I like a little roasted hull in the kernel to give it some character.

04-21-2005, 11:16 AM
No shame from me, Roy. You and WOY are the cooks around here. My range is very limited.

A friend gave me one of those years ago, and I couldn't believe how well it works. The secret is high temperature. I turn the burner on 8, put in one and a half tablespoons of oil, toss in a few kernels and wait until it's hot enough to pop one of those. As soon as one pops, I pour in a half cup of Orville Redenbackers original, or any premium popcorn, and turn the crank to keep 'em moving.

It's the best popcorn I've ever tasted.

04-21-2005, 11:28 AM
So who is having popcorn today or tonight? :p:


Falls City Beer
04-21-2005, 11:53 AM
I like the 1/2 popped old maids, myself. The ones that aren't just the kernel, but have a came up just short of being fully popped.

If they marketed these babies, they'd be billionaires. Everybody I know loves these half-popped suckers. Yummy. Better than chewing on nails.

04-21-2005, 12:26 PM
I have a movie-theater style popcorn popper (you know, with the pan thing that hangs from the top with a lid so that the popcorn goes flying every where in that glass container thing). It takes up to much room but the popcorn tastes GREAT. Just like the movies.

Johnny Footstool
04-21-2005, 12:49 PM
Those 1/2 popped kernels are indeed golden. They have a great roasted flavor, and they aren't as hard to chew as the unpopped kernels.

I have a Whirly-Pop like RFS62's. You can really do some great things with it, like adding garlic, cinnamon, or even a dash of liquid mesquite. But for a quick fix, I microwave single-serving bags of Pop Secret Homestyle.

04-21-2005, 12:53 PM
TeamBoone commented for YEARS that she wanted an old stove top popcorn popper. I finally found one and gave it to her for Christmas.

She microwaves instead.


04-21-2005, 12:54 PM
I guess this an appropriate thread to share a cute story involving a child I know. His parents took him somewhere (not a cinema, but I forget where) where popcorn was being popped. As they entered, he said, "Hey, I smell movies!"

04-21-2005, 12:55 PM

04-21-2005, 12:55 PM
I haven't popped corn in my house in maybe... 15 years?

For quick toastted snacks I prefer pappadums.

I guess that's what happens when you work in a movie theater.

04-21-2005, 06:14 PM
The research, funded by Purdue's Whistler Center for Carbohydrate Research, which Hamaker directs, has been published online and will appear in the July 11 edition of the journal BioMacromolecules.

Your tax dollars, hard at work