The Chemistry Magic Behind Popcorn

The Chemistry Magic Behind Popcorn

Joy of Science Channel: Culinary Chemistry Series


Discoveries in Mexico and Peru suggest that the earliest popcorn parties date back to cave people thousands of years ago. Undoubtedly, in roasting corn over an open fire and quickly collecting the popped kernels, the three-second rule was born. Legend has it that popped corn was first shared with the pilgrims during the first Thanksgiving. In modern times, popcorn has exploded as a favorite snack in the United States and is fast bursting into international fame. Americans consume an estimated 17 billion quarts of the white fluffy stuff every year. How has chemistry aided in making popcorn a favorite treat?



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“The Chemistry Magic Behind Popcorn” A short presentation followed by Q&A with speaker Dr. Sara Risch, Popz .


What You Will Learn

  • Ever wonder why and how popcorn pops?
  • The differences between regular corn and popcorn
  • Challenges in flavoring popcorn
  • Popcorn is a good for you snack
  • And much more…
Additional Resources
  • Enjoy this article and video from ChemMatters, An ACS educational publication, on how microwaves heat our favorite foods like popcorn.
  • Teaching guide for educators on popcorn.


ChemMatters – Episode 4: How Do Microwaves Work? from ACS Pressroom on Vimeo.

Webinar Details

Date: Thursday, April 19, 2012

Time: 2:00-3:00 pm ET

Fee: Free


Meet Your Expert

Sara Risch is the Director of R&D and QA for Popz Europe, a microwave popcorn company.  Prior to joining Popz, she had her own consulting business, working with food, flavor and packaging companies.  She received her both her B.S. and Ph.D. in Food Science from the University of Minnesota.  She has an M.S. in Food Science from the University of Georgia.  Her work has focused primarily on microwave foods and food-package interactions



Bill Courtney is the chef/owner of Cheese-ology Macaroni & Cheese, located in the University City Loop, just west of the city of St. Louis, Missouri.  Following completion of his undergraduate degree in Chemistry at the University of Missouri – Columbia, Bill worked a short time as a Q.C. Chemist for ConvaTec.  A shift in interest eventually took Bill to The Genome Institute at Washington University, where he spent 9 years working with the leading genetic and genomic research scientists in the United States. In a radical move, Bill struck out on his own to open Cheese-ology, the culmination of years of a self-described “un-natural obsession” with Macaroni & Cheese. Open since June 2010, Cheese-ology Macaroni & Cheese features over 15 varieties of Macaroni & Cheese to satisfy any Mac & Cheese craving.



The Fine Print

ACS Webinars™ does not endorse any products or services. The views expressed in this presentation are those of the presenters and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the American Chemical Society.



4 Responses to “The Chemistry Magic Behind Popcorn”

  1. Jaideep Sidhu says:

    Oops, posted it too soon!

    So, it was mentioned that the kernels expand 40-50 times their initial volume. Is the expanded volume made up mostly of air? If yes, does it mean that one is consuming a lot of air when eating popcorn?

  2. admin says:

    Jaideep — great question. Please post to the website ( so others might respond. — ACS Webinars

  3. Amelia Ambler says:

    Im doing a science fair project on popcorn, seeing what the best method is so the least amount of kernels will be left, if at all. Before I do the experiment, I want to know if theres a trick behind it, or if something is ACTUALLY wrong with the kernel itself.

  4. admin says:

    Amelia: Thank you for your question. I am not sure if there is a way to pop every kernel every time but this recipe found on “Simply Recipe” may help with how to pop perfect popcorn. Also, go to for more detailed information for your report.

    Cook time: 10 minutes
    Yield: Makes 2 quarts, a nice amount for two people, or for one hungry one.Add to shopping list
    3 Tbsp canola, peanut or grapeseed oil (high smoke point oil)
    1/3 cup of high quality popcorn kernels
    1 3-quart covered saucepan
    2 Tbsp or more (to taste) of butter
    Salt to taste

    1. Heat the oil in a 3-quart saucepan on medium high heat.
    2. Put 3 or 4 popcorn kernels into the oil and cover the pan.
    3. When the kernels pop, add the rest of the 1/3 cup of popcorn kernels in an even layer. Cover, remove from heat and count 30 seconds. (Count out loud; it’s fun to do with kids.) This method first heats the oil to the right temperature, then waiting 30 seconds brings all of the other kernels to a near-popping temperature so that when they are put back on the heat, they all pop at about the same time.
    4. Return the pan to the heat. The popcorn should begin popping soon, and all at once. Once the popping starts in earnest, gently shake the pan by moving it back and forth over the burner. Try to keep the lid slightly ajar to let the steam from the popcorn release (the popcorn will be drier and crisper). Once the popping slows to several seconds between pops, remove the pan from the heat, remove the lid, and dump the popcorn immediately into a wide bowl.
    * With this technique, nearly all of the kernels pop (I counted 4 unpopped kernels in my last batch), and nothing burns.
    5. If you are adding butter, you can easily melt it by placing the butter in the now empty, but hot pan.
    6. Salt to taste.
    Additional tips: If you add salt to the oil in the pan before popping, when the popcorn pops, the salt will be well distributed throughout the popcorn.

    I hope this helps you in your project.
    Erik Holderman
    Co-Producer ACS Webinars

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