Although small quantities can be popped in a stove-top kettle, or pot in a home kitchen, commercial sale of freshly popped popcorn employs specially designed popcorn machines, which were invented in Chicago, Illinois, by Charles Cretors in 1885. Cretors successfully introduced his invention at the Columbian Exposition in 1893. At this same world’s fair, F.W. Rueckheim introduced a molasses-flavored “Candied Popcorn”, the first caramel corn; his brother, Louis, slightly altered the recipe and introduced it as Cracker Jack popcorn in 1896.
Cretors’s invention introduced the first patented steam-driven popcorn machine that popped corn in oil. Previously, vendors popped corn by holding a wire basket over an open flame. At best, the result was a hot, dry, unevenly cooked snack. Cretors’s machine popped corn in a mixture of one-third clarified butter, two-thirds lard, and salt. This mixture could withstand the 450 °F (232 °C) temperature needed to pop corn and it did without producing much smoke. A fire under a boiler created steam that drove a small engine; that engine drove the gears, shaft, and agitator that stirred the corn and powered a small automated clown puppet-like figure, “the Toasty Roasty Man”, an attention attracting amusement intended to drum up business. A wire connected to the top of the cooking pan allowed the operator to disengage the drive mechanism, lift the cover, and dump popped corn into the storage bin beneath. Exhaust from the steam engine was piped to a hollow pan below the corn storage bin and kept freshly popped corn uniformly warm for the first time ever.
An in-home hot-air popcorn maker
A very different method of popcorn-making can still be seen on the streets of some Chinese cities today. The un-popped corn kernels are poured into a large cast-iron canister — sometimes called a ‘popcorn hammer’ — that is then sealed with a heavy lid and slowly turned over a curbside fire in rotisserie fashion. When a pressure gauge on the canister reaches a certain level, the canister is removed from the fire, a large canvas sack is put over the lid, and the seal is released. With a huge boom, all of the popcorn explodes at once and is poured into the sack. This method is believed to have been developed during the Song dynasty originally for puffing rice.
Individual consumers can also buy and use specialized popping appliances that typically generate no more than a gallon of popped corn per batch. Some of these appliances also accept a small volume of oil or melted butter to assist thermal transfer from a stationary heating element, but others are “air poppers” which rapidly circulate heated air up through the interior, keeping the un-popped kernels in motion to avoid burning and then blowing the popped kernels out through the chute. The majority of popcorn sold for home consumption is now packaged in a microwave popcorn bag for use in a microwave oven.
Expansion and yield
Popping results are sensitive to the rate at which the kernels are heated. If heated too quickly, the steam in the outer layers of the kernel can reach high pressures and rupture the hull before the starch in the center of the kernel can fully gelatinize, leading to partially popped kernels with hard centers. Heating too slowly leads to entirely unpopped kernels: the tip of the kernel, where it attached to the cob, is not entirely moisture-proof, and when heated slowly, the steam can leak out of the tip fast enough to keep the pressure from rising sufficiently to break the hull and cause the pop.
Producers and sellers of popcorn consider two major factors in evaluating the quality of popcorn: what percentage of the kernels will pop, and how much each popped kernel expands. Expansion is an important factor to both the consumer and vendor. For the consumer, larger pieces of popcorn tend to be more tender and are associated with higher quality. For the grower, distributor, and vendor, expansion is closely correlated with profit: vendors such as theaters buy popcorn by weight and sell it by volume. For both these reasons, higher-expansion popcorn fetches a higher profit per unit weight.
Popcorn will pop when freshly harvested, but not well: its high moisture content leads to poor expansion and chewy pieces of popcorn. Kernels with a high moisture content are also susceptible to mold when stored. For these reasons, popcorn growers and distributors dry the kernels until they reach the moisture level at which they expand the most. This differs by variety and conditions, but is generally in the range of 14–15% moisture by weight. If the kernels are over-dried, the expansion rate will suffer and the percentage of kernels that pop at all will decline.
Two explanations exist for kernels which do not pop at proper temperatures, known in the popcorn industry as “old maids”. The first is that unpopped kernels do not have enough moisture to create enough steam for an explosion. The second explanation, according to research led by Dr. Bruce Hamaker of Purdue University, is that the unpopped kernel may have a leaky hull.
Popcorn varieties are broadly categorized by the shape of the kernels, the color of the kernels, or the shape of the popped corn. While the kernels may come in a variety of colors, the popped corn is always off-yellow or white as it is only the hull (or pericarp) that is colored. “Rice” type popcorns have a long kernel pointed at both ends; “pearl” type kernels are rounded at the top. Commercial popcorn production has moved mostly to pearl types. Historically, pearl popcorns were usually yellow and rice popcorns usually white. Today both shapes are available in both colors, as well as others including black, red, and variegated. Commercial production is dominated by white and yellow.
“Mushroom”-shaped popcorn, left, is less fragile and less tender than “butterfly”-shaped, right
In popcorn jargon, a popped kernel of corn is known as a “flake”. Two shapes of flakes are commercially important. “Butterfly” flakes are irregular in shape and have a number of protruding “wings”. “Mushroom” flakes are largely ball-shaped, with few wings. Butterfly flakes are regarded as having better mouthfeel, with greater tenderness and less noticeable hulls. Mushroom flakes are less fragile than butterfly flakes and are therefore often used for packaged popcorn or confectionery, such as caramel corn. The kernels from a single cob of popcorn may form both butterfly and mushroom flakes; hybrids that produce 100% butterfly flakes or 100% mushroom flakes exist, the latter developed only as recently as 1998. Growing conditions and popping environment can also affect the butterfly-to-mushroom ratio.