How is Popcorn Made?

Popcorn is one of the world’s oldest and most popular snacks, but while we’re watching a movie and munching on the toffee-smothered puffed-up kernels of goodness, do any of us ever stop and think to ourselves ‘how is popcorn made’? Read on to find out how popcorn starts life in a field in America’s midwest and ends up in a cardboard box at the cinema!

How It’s Made
28 June 2022

Everyone loves popcorn, but did you know it is a story 10,000 years in the making?

Corn was first cultivated as a crop around 8,000 BC in modern-day Mexico, and it is believed that ancient civilisations from the coastal regions of what is now Peru were popping corn as far back as 4,700 BC.

So, the answer to the question ‘how is popcorn made from corn’ has an answer that is thousands of years old and is definitely not ‘in a microwave!’ Here is the story of popcorn.

The History of Popcorn

Popcorn being made (Photo: LIONEL BONAVENTURE via Getty Images)

Before we get on to that, this is the story about how popcorn became the king of snacks…

The corn used for popcorn itself is mainly grown in the American midwest states of Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Ohio, Missouri and Nebraska – it’s logically then known as the Corn Belt. It’s been eaten as a snack for centuries and the Spanish writer Cobo, after observing Peruvian Indians in the seventeenth century, said ‘they toast a certain kind of corn until it bursts. They call it pisancalla and they use it as a confection.’

Fast-forward to the nineteenth century and as the popularity of this simple (and cheap) snack grew, there developed some very innovative ways of making popcorn.

Even Ella Kellog, the wife of corn flakes king John Harvey Kellog, ate ground popcorn for breakfast with milk or cream and called it ‘an excellent food.’

Before the invention of the popcorn machine, it was made at home over stoves in big, heavy iron skillets, but all that was about to change…

Popcorn, Popcorn Everywhere…

Friends sharing popcorn while sitting in a movie theater (Photo: Klaus Vedfelt via Getty Images)

You won’t have heard his name, but Mr Charles Cretors of Illinois revolutionised how popcorn is manufactured. He invented a steam-powered popcorn maker, which could be taken to fairgrounds and circuses and country fairs, and heated the kernels in oil.

Yet despite this innovation, it wasn’t until 1938 that popcorn first appeared in cinemas. At first, the cinema owners thought it was a messy, annoying food that detracted from the enjoyment of the film. However, there were plenty of industrious entrepreneurs who set up shops next to cinemas to sell popcorn if the cinema refused to – and they soon realised that it was more profitable than the cinemas themselves. In fact it was so profitable the cinemas who didn’t sell it quickly went out of business.

There was a slump in sales during the 50s and 60s, when fewer people went to the cinema and started to watch TV at home. Yet as lifestyle changed, so did the products on offer, and in the 1980s – with the advent of the microwave oven – there was another revolution in how popcorn was made. This was microwave popcorn. Within two years of its launch in the early 1980s, it was a $50 million industry.

A Match Made in Popcorn Heaven

A bowl or homemade popcorn (Photo: Tetra Images via Getty Images)

Today, popcorn pops just as well in a microwave in a few minutes as it did on a stove 130 years ago. Today in the USA alone, the market for microwave popcorn is around $850 million. The ready-to-eat popcorn market is worth a staggering $1.5 billion. So we know how popcorn became so popular (and how delicious it is), but exactly how is popcorn made from corn?

How is Popcorn made from Corn?

Traditional Popcorn maker and vendor in action (Photo: Education Images via Getty Images)

Contrary to popular belief, popcorn is not made from dried kernels of sweetcorn. It is made from a strain of corn called Zea mays everta.

In its original state, each of the small kernels of pre-popped corn contains a tiny amount of water (around 13 – 20%) and an equally small amount of oily starch. As the water and starch are heated, they turn into pressurised steam at around 100°C and the starch turns gelatinous and pliable.

The kernel continues to heat up until the hard outer shell reaches bursting point and at 180°C the massive build-up of pressure causes an explosion and the soft starch inflates and spills out. It cools very quickly, the starch – which is now white and fluffy – crisps up in the air and hey presto, you’ve got popcorn!

You’ll always get a few kernels that don’t pop, because they don’t have enough moisture in them to cause the pressurised steam.

Popular the World Over

Scattered popcorn (Photo: Yevgen Romanenko via Getty Images)

Whether you like salt or sugar, butter or toffee or even melted chocolate, popcorn is one of the world’s best snacks and it’s fair to say the history and story of how popcorn is made is every bit as amazing as the snack itself!


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