Learn why popcorn pops—and the secret to the fluffiest kernels—in this two-part (edible!) experiment.
At least 8 hours before (or the night before) you pop all your kernel samples, make your hydrated sample of popcorn kernels (“hydrate” means “to add water”). Use a piece of masking or painter’s tape and a pen/marker to label 1 resealable container “Hydrated.” Measure ¼ cup of popcorn kernels and ¼ cup of water into the container. Seal the container. Set the container aside on a shelf or counter for at least 8 hours or up to 24 hours.
At least 2½ hours before you pop all your kernel samples, make your dehydrated sample of popcorn (“dehydrate” means “to take away water”). Heat your oven to 200 degrees F. Measure ¼ cup of popcorn kernels and spread them into an even layer on a rimmed baking sheet. Place the baking sheet in the oven. Bake the popcorn for at least 2 hours or up to 4 hours.
Use oven mitts to remove the baking sheet from the oven (ask an adult for help). Place the baking sheet on a cooling rack and let the kernels cool completely, about 15 minutes. Put the popcorn into the second resealable container and seal the container. Use a piece of masking or painter’s tape and a pen/marker to label the container “Dehydrated.”
Set out your 3 bowls. Use masking or painter’s tape and a pen/marker to label the bowls “Dehydrated,” “Hydrated,” and “Control.” This will help you keep track of your popcorn samples.
Set the colander in the sink. Open the container of kernels you soaked overnight and pour them into the colander. Gently shake the colander to remove excess water. Spread the kernels on a paper towel. Use a second paper towel to blot the kernels until they are dry. Set paper towel with the kernels aside.
It’s time to pop the kernels! First, pop your control sample. Measure ¼ cup of popcorn kernels and place them in 1 brown paper lunch bag. Drizzle the kernels with ½ teaspoon of oil. Fold over the top of the bag 3 times to seal (do not tape or staple it).
Shake the bag to coat the kernels evenly with oil, place the bag on its side on 1 large microwave-safe plate, and shake the kernels into an even layer in the bag. Place the plate in the microwave and cook until the popping slows down to 1 or 2 pops at a time, 3 to 5 minutes. Use oven mitts to remove the plate from the microwave (the plate will be very hot—ask an adult for help). Set the popcorn aside to cool slightly.
Carefully open the bag (be careful of hot steam) and pour the popcorn into the bowl labeled “Control.” Taste one of the kernels. (OK, maybe a few . . . you can’t eat just one piece of popcorn!) Set the bowl of popcorn aside.
Pop your dehydrated sample of popcorn using the same process, but swap in the second microwave-safe plate. (The first will be very hot—ask an adult for help.)
Carefully open the bag (be careful of hot steam) and pour the popcorn into the bowl labeled “Dehydrated.” Take a taste, if you want. Set the bowl of popcorn aside.
Finally, pop your hydrated sample of popcorn using the same process. Use the first microwave-safe plate again, now that it has cooled. Use oven mitts to set aside the plate that’s currently in the microwave (ask an adult for help).
Carefully open the bag (be careful of hot steam) and pour the popcorn into the bowl labeled “Hydrated.” Take a taste, if you want. Set the bowl of popcorn aside.
Compare your 3 samples, side by side:
Which bowl is filled up the most? That’s the fluffiest popcorn—the popcorn with the most volume. Which is filled up the least? How do your results compare with your original prediction?
Eat your experiment! (How often do you get to say that in science class?!) Pick your favorite sample (or samples) and follow our recipe for Real Buttered Popcorn. Try out one of the flavor variations (hello, Sriracha-Lime!) or raid the pantry to come up with your own! Don’t forget to share with your friends and family.
Did you know that popped kernels can be categorized into three different shapes?
The popcorn industry categorizes popped kernels into three basic shapes: unilateral (pieces that expand in one direction), bilateral (pieces that expand in two directions), and multilateral (pieces that expand in three or more directions). The best popcorns have more unilateral pieces, which have the crunchiest texture.
Look through your samples of popcorn. Which shapes can you find?