Popping a batch of popcorn seems so easy. However, most people who have tried making popcorn at home often wonder, why is my popcorn chewy? Heck, it's such a simple recipe, with nothing much to do.
Why isn't my popcorn texture just like the one available at cinema halls? Did I make a mistake with the recipe?
When you look at the recipe for stovetop popcorn, it's basically nothing more than popping kernels and oil. And in most cases, microwave popcorn may require just one ingredient, kernels.
With popcorn requiring so few ingredients, it's not surprising that you keep wondering, what could possibly go wrong?
So why is my popcorn chewy? Here's the quick answer.
Did you know that there is a logical answer to the question? Well, it's because of the steam that gets trapped in the pan while the kernels pop.
So the quick fix to avoid chewy popcorn lies in making your popcorn in a pot with a well-vented lid. Don't worry if you don't have such a lid. Alternatively, you can leave it slightly ajar and open to get light and crispy popcorn.
Read on to learn how to make popcorn not so chewy and how you can avoid different popcorn mistakes.
Why is my popcorn chewy?
The most typical reason for popcorn turning out chewy is the steam that remains trapped in your pot while the popcorn kernels pop.
Suppose you wonder how steam forms. It's because of the moisture in each kernel. So it is when the kernels start heating this moisture turns into steam, which makes the kernels pop.
The steam, later on, collects in the popper or pot. And poor ventilation can lead to the collected condensation forming excess moisture in the pot or popper.
You can prevent this by using a well-vented lid or leaving the pan slightly open to give you light and crispy popcorn instead of chewy popcorn.
Why does this happen?
There's nothing that complicated involved! It's all a matter of basic science.
Each popcorn kernel has some water stored in a circle of soft starch. This water starts inflating once the kernel is heating up to build pressure against the hard, starchy surface. This pressure accumulates and leads to the outer layer giving way, leading to the popcorn's explosion.
And once the kernel ruptures, the soft starch inflates, bursts, and turns it inside out to release steam.
1 Moisture impacts the kernels
One of the main reasons for chewy popcorn is steam.
Each popcorn kernel releases a burst of steam as it pops. And what happens after the steam is released is crucial as it has to go away swiftly.
If it doesn't, the steam gets trapped in the popper with your freshly popped corn. And this steam only ends up steaming the popped kernels, thus leading to tough and chewy popcorn.
However, never make the mistake of popping popcorn in any kind of tightly covered popper. You must ensure the popper is adequately vented to let steam freely move past the corn outside and not harm it.
2 Too much oil is bad
Just like you need to choose the proper oil for making popcorn, it's equally important that you adjust and use the right amount of oil while popping kernels to avoid chewy popcorn.
This is because the right amount of oil works as an effective and protective barrier that repels and prevents moisture from the kernels.
Making your kernels bathe in oil is unnecessary as once all the kernels have popped, leftover oil in the pan can impact the texture of already popped kernels.
You need to look at some specific properties of the oil used for popping popcorn.
- Sustain temperatures measuring more than 500° (Fahrenheit) without smoking, breaking down, or catching fire.
- Either has a flavor complementing the corn's taste or no flavor at all.
- Be thin enough to coat the kernels at high temperatures while they pop evenly and firm enough at room temperatures to not leave a gooey mess while eating.
I have accordingly tried out so many types of oils and have finally found out the critical ingredient for the perfect popcorn.
You must use saturated fat for popping popcorn. And if you ask me, I'd say that Coco-Pop, from the company LouAna, is the best.
3 Using different salt
It would be best to use popcorn salt to make popcorn, which is quite different from regular table salt. Popcorn salt is finely ground and refined than the standard large table salt granules.
The reason to use this salt is that its small, stickier particles tend to cling to the oil on the kernel surface. The salt ends up in your mouth instead of reaching the bottom of the bowl with old maids.
4 Disproportionately heated
To get big, beautiful, and fluffy kernels, you need to heat popcorn evenly and correctly. You can understand this better if you know how popcorn pops.
Popcorn kernels have a hard and moisture-impervious shell that's filled with starch. This starch is naturally hard, dense, and solid, carrying a small amount of water usually found towards the kernel center. As the shell is, for practical reasons, hermetically sealed, there is no evaporation of moisture over time.
So what happens?
- As you know, the temperature inside starts rising once you begin heating a popcorn kernel. But once you pass the water boiling point, the moisture turns to steam and expands.
- The steam starts saturating in the kernel to soften and eventually gelatinize it to something more pliable. In the process, the kernel ends up slightly cooked.
- Pressure in the process starts accumulating inside the shell, building up to more than 100 pounds of pressure per square inch. The shell eventually cannot withstand the pressure, which is when it fails.
- The steam that was in confinement all this while expands into a vast explosion once released. It thus expands and escapes from the starch. The remnants are a puff the foamed and cooled starch forms.
Uneven heating of the kernel leads to burning one side of the shell. The shell in the process loses strength, and the kernel either prematurely bursts or does not burst at all. Thus, you are left with either an old maid or a small 'dud' popcorn kernel.
Too slow heating of the kernel leads to the shell spending too much time under pressure. The shell thus either develops a defect for the moisture to leak away or the starch inside overcooks. You are usually left with dud kernels.
Rapid heating of the kernel ends with the shell rupturing before the starch starts to gelatinize. The cover either breaks into fragments before expanding or just turns inside out.
So what is the perfect heat level?
As you find so many different poppers, you can find the ideal temperature only by experimenting. However, the perfect popping heat level will make the corn pop evenly within two to three minutes.
It's not just the heat level that is important. You also need to consider what happens after popping. You need to quickly remove the pan from the heat once the popping slows down to ensure the kernels at the bottom of the popper don't scorch.
Heavy metal bottom pots do not easily or quickly cool down. It is better to use a thin pot made of highly heat-conductive metal.
5 No agitation
It's not enough to just maintain heat levels as there's no point in heating only one side of the kernel. Keeping the kernels moving ensures all sides heat evenly and do not burn or scorch.
Some poppers like the 'Stir-Crazy' popper from West Bend have a built-in agitation device comprising a rotating wire that keeps the kernels rolling till they pop.
However, if you use an old-fashioned flat-bottomed kettle, shaking the pan helps, as long as you keep them moving till they pop.
6 Leaving popcorn outside for too long
Leaving uncovered popcorn out is perhaps the easiest way to make chewy popcorn!
So imagine it's your son's birthday party at 5 pm, and you start popping popcorn from midday. You leave it out in the open for some time, which only makes things worse. And what do you end up with? No guesses!
Because of the air humidity, you end up with chewy popcorn that gets even mushier the longer it is outside. You can entirely avoid this as your actions lead to chewy popcorn.
7 Kernel quality
The kernel quality also affects your final popcorn result. The kernel quality is most likely why you don't get crispy and delicious popcorn after following the proper process or recipe.
It's because the low-quality or old kernels lose moisture, thus leading to a less appealing taste or kernels that do not explode well.
So remember that whatever the type of popcorn you have, you have to store unexploded popcorn properly and avoid using old, expired ones.
How to properly store your popcorn kernels
Proper storage is imperative to ensure the popcorn kernels are ready for popping when you put them in the popper. Too much moisture is one culprit for getting that fluffy, crispy popcorn.
These containers need to be clean and dry with an airtight lid to maintain the freshness of the kernels. Store them in the pantry or a cupboard away from the sunlight. Label and put a date of purchase, noting that popcorn kernels are best used within a year from their purchase date if stored appropriately.
Popcorn container choices:
- Glass container with an airtight lid
- Mason jar
- BPA-free plastic container with snap lid
Popping popcorn concept
To get the best results, you need to understand and realize how popcorn works or pops. You generally have to strive to quickly introduce the kernels to lots of heat while not burning them.
This leads to the moisture held in the kernel by the hardcover shell turning into steam, thus increasing internal pressure.
When the internal pressure grows, an explosion turns the insides out. And yes, the white, fluffy popcorn you eat is actually the expanded popcorn seed insides.
Read: Popcorn Chicken Recipe
What is the best way to cook popcorn?
The most important thing to remember for the best popcorn is evenly heating the kernels. If you try to pop them too fast, the only thing that happens is burned and some un-popped kernels. On the contrary, slowly popping them leads to the shrinking and shriveling of kernels and lackluster popcorn.
About the best popping method, you have three options to choose from. You can pop kernels in:
- An air popper
- A stovetop
- The microwave
Which is the best?
Well, there's no steadfast answer because it's all a personal preference. Besides stovetop, popped popcorn is crunchier and has a rich flavor after being popped in oil. Microwave and air-popped popcorn are generally lighter and softer than stovetop popped popcorn.
1 Popping popcorn on the stove
Follow these steps:
Start by using a popcorn popper devoid of any hulls or old kernels. You don't have to wash and dry your popper every time you use it. In fact, some claim it's better to keep it 'seasoned' with some oil between uses and occasional washing. As coconut oil doesn't quickly get rancid, it's usually the best choice.
Keep a large bowl for your popcorn ready near you as you don't have time to look for one when it's time to dump the popcorn. Don't also forget to keep your salt and oil ready.
Start by adding three tablespoons of oil to the popper. If you use Coco-Pop, slice a cube as long as the stick's width from the stack end.
Fill a half cup measuring cup with popcorn kernels to the brim, and reseal the popcorn container. Next, add a level teaspoon of popcorn salt or Flavacol to the popcorn.
Place some oil in the popper, and add three popcorn kernels. Close the lid, and turn on the heat.
You will need between ¾ to full heat for electric range and medium-high flame for a gas burner. Just place the kernels and no need for any agitation.
Immediately dump the cup of popcorn and salt into the popper once you hear the first of the three kernels pop. Shake the popper to even out the kernels, close the lid, and start cranking.
I usually use 40 to 50 RPM, but you may have to agitate more quickly on a gas flame as there's a chance of hot spots forming on the kettle's bottom. Stirring mixes the finely powdered salt with the popcorn and salt at this stage.
Continue agitating after hearing the first pop, and give a quick side-to-side shaking motion every few seconds to even out the kernels. Continue stirring even after the popping increases to the extent that you cannot count the pops,
However, you need to simultaneously raise the kettle slightly off the heat source, about half an inch. This helps maintain the kettle temperature and prevent scorched, popped kernels.
The crank gets harder to turn with the popped corn weight. This is when you need to slow down the cranking, wherein the popping slows down within a few minutes.
You need to immediately open the lid and transfer the popcorn into the bowl once you can count to three in between pops. Be careful not to burn yourself with the steamy kettle and hot popcorn.
While the salt should be sufficient, if you need more salt, now is the time to add it when the corn is warm and moist from the kettle steam. The salt sticks perfectly at this moment, and you will have to shake or toss the popcorn for even coverage.
Add about a quarter stick to a microwave-safe coffee mug if you want to add some real melted butter to the popcorn. Heat it on defrost in the microwave oven for about two minutes.
Defrosting heats the butter intermittently without burning. Sparingly drizzle it over the popcorn, toss the corn for even distribution and repeat till you are happy with the butter coverage. The corn will have cooled down and be ready to receive the butter by the time the butter liquefies.
Preferred oil options
- Peanut oil if you aren't allergic to peanuts
- Extra-virgin olive oil, preferably Farmer Bob's Favorite
- Palm oil (warning- this is a high saturated fat) (not Palm seed oil)
- Vegetable oil is typically a generic blend of various oils
- Coconut oil (another high saturated fat)
- Canola oil
- Grape seed oil
- Avocado oil (expensive, and I've noticed doesn't add much taste)
- Sesame oil
- Hemp seed oil
Oils better avoided
- Flaxseed oil
- Sunflower oil
- Wheat germ oil
- Corn oil
2 How to pop with hot air
If popping kernels with hot air, you need to first run the air popper for a minute or two before adding the kernels. This warms the air popper perfectly to pop the kernels properly.
The critical thing to remember is to introduce high heat immediately.
Slowly introducing heat by first adding the kernels to the air popper and then turning it on leads to the slow heating up of moisture in the kernel; this leaks out. You want to get an 'explosion' in the giant mushroom-shaped popcorn.
3 Popping popcorn in the microwave
Do not pop kernels in the microwave. The way microwaves work, it's improbable that the popcorn pops well or consistently. No doubt the popcorn will pop and be edible, but it won't be beautiful. Instead, it's better to use a cheaper popcorn variety if popping it in the microwave.
Microwaving popcorn is a more convenient option for preparing a batch of popcorn with a pre-prepared pouch that comes with seasoning.
You can alternatively air pop kernels in a paper bag in the microwave by:
- Placing a quarter cup of popcorn kernels in a paper bag
- Using their the popcorn setting on the microwave, or high for two minutes
- Cook till the bag expands, and hear the speed of popping kernels slow down
Common problems while popping popcorn
1 Half-popped popcorn
This usually happens because the kernel's high moisture content weakens the outer walls, thus preventing steam buildup.
To me, the Princeton popcorn kernels seem to work the best as each batch of popcorn is moisture tested before packaging. This reduces the chances of ending up with half-popped popcorn unless you live in a high humidity environment and left the lid off the package.
Low heat leads to half-popped popcorn as the kernels are exposed to enough heat to pop but not enough to make a vigorous explosion.
2 Too many un-popped kernels at the bottom
Depending on how you pop the popcorn, there are various reasons for this happening.
If you pop popcorn on the stovetop, the reason may be a lack of agitation while popping. You must agitate the pan while popping to let the un-popped kernels fall to the bottom and remain in contact with the heat.
There's the risk of the kernels getting lodged within the popped kernels if you don't agitate and remaining un-popped when removed from the heat.
In the case of air poppers, the air movement constantly agitates the kernels and keeps them in constant contact with hot air. Any un-popped kernels left are due to the popcorn popper not producing enough heat or cracks in the popcorn outer seed shell.
No matter how you pop kernels, it's okay to have some un-popped kernels left.
3 Burned popcorn
Burned popped popcorn results if you leave the pan on the stovetop for too long. You no doubt want all the kernels to pop, but not at the expense of burning some of the popped popcorn!
The safest option to avoid this is immediately removing the pan from the heat once most popping stops.
The chances of ending up with burned popcorn from hot air poppers are meager.
4 Burned popcorn kernels
The only reason to end up with burned popcorn kernels at the bottom is to leave them in direct contact with the heat for too long. If the kernel is pop-able, you can avoid burning by agitating the pan while popping.
Generally, kernels with cracks on the outer shell won't pop but remain in contact with the heat and burns. While it's okay to have some unpopped kernels, leaving popcorn in the heat for too long is not ideal. You risk losing the whole batch by doing this.