General Food

Microwave vs Air-Popped Popcorn – Which is Better?

People had had a love-affair with popcorn for thousands of years. In fact, there is archaeological evidence that corn was cultivated originally to be popped. Popcorn has been found in the “Bat Cave” in New Mexico that was over 5000 years old, and in sites in Peru, corn that could be considered popcorn was found dating from around 5000 BC. That’s over 7000 years ago! Popcorn was not only eaten, but used in religious ceremonies by the Aztecs, Mayans, Incas, and others. When the Europeans arrived in the New World, the Native Americans astounded them with this magical snack.

The early Native Americans believed a spirit lived in the kernels, and it became angry when heated. It would eventually burst out and leave as a puff of steam.

Of course, in the modern world, we have identified the ‘spirit’ as plain water. Of the four types of corn, all contain water, but their hulls are too thin to allow enough pressure to build up internally, and they just fizzle. All, but one, that is. Popcorn is a specific type of corn with an extra-thick husk. This is what works the magic.

A popcorn kernel is made up of a strong husk, a soft starchy inside, and around 14% water in the center. When the kernel is heated to 212°F, the water boils into steam. This turns the starch into a semi-gelatinous glue. The water continues to turn to steam, and when an internal pressure of 135 psi is reached , the husk splits, and the gelatinous ‘goo’ erupts out, expands up to 50% in volume, and cools instantly into a Styrofoam-like mass. This is the treat we all know and love as popcorn.

Native Americans usually just threw it into a skillet, or pot, dry, and let it pop, catching the kernels as they were propelled through the air. (this was undoubtedly half the fun….). Some burned before it popped, but they didn’t care. There was always plenty of corn available. When their new neighbors from across the Pond began experimenting with this fun food, someone got the idea of putting on a lid to catch the energetic projectiles. To lessen the danger of scorching, someone added oil to more evenly distribute the heat, and stove-top popcorn was born. This kept everyone happy until the late 1800s, when businessmen began to wonder if they could make large quantities of popcorn to sell to crowds at fairs, and other public entertainment venues. The first ‘portable’ commercial popper was exhibited at the Worlds Fair in Chicago in 1885. It weighed 500 pounds. By the early 20th century, oil poppers were scaled down to reasonable sizes for home use. But many still preferred the classic stove-top popcorn (and still do….). In 1958, Fred Mennen invented Jiffy Pop. It was simple and ingenious. A foil pan containing pre-measured popcorn and oil, with an expanding foil top. For those of us that were around then, this was the coolest thing ever invented for the kitchen. A lot of times, we young-uns would pop it just to watch the top expand (we were easily entertained back then….). In 1978, my favorite company, Presto (inventor of the first consumer pressure-cooker) came out with the world’s first air popper, the Popcorn Pumper ( believe it or not, I still have one, and it still works…..). This ingenious device used no oil. It blew hot air over the kernels, and when they popped, the increased surface area was enough for the air to blow it through a chute, into a waiting bowl, so that it could not scorch. For the first time, all the kernels could be popped (all that would pop, anyway…) without burning the already-popped corn. Strangely enough, it was known when microwave ovens were invented in the early 1940s that popcorn could be popped in them. Popcorn was what was used to test the new units. But for some reason, microwaveable popcorn did not appear on grocery store shelves until 1981. General Mills had invented a special popcorn bag for microwaves that contained a ‘susceptor’ that concentrated the microwaves in the kernels. They pre-packaged the bags with popcorn, oils and flavorings. A few years later, the engineer that developed the bags for them quit to form his own microwave popcorn brand called Act II. This was in 1984.

Since then, there has been a hot debate over which is better; Air-Popped, or Microwave-Popped popcorn. From a nutritional standpoint, there is no difference between microwave popped, and air popped popcorn, if the same corn, and flavorings are used. Actually, a microwave oven can also ‘air-pop’ corn. All you have to do is place 1/4 cup of popcorn in a brown paper lunch bag, fold the end over and tape it shut with paper masking tape. Do not use electricians, duct or scotch tape. They will melt and mess up your oven. And please don’t uses staples, paper clips or clothes pins. Metal and microwaves don’t play well together. Just set the microwave timer for a few minutes, and when the popping slows down, remove the bag from the oven. That’s all there is to it.

I think most people will agree that oil popped popcorn tastes better, but it will have more calories than air-popped, by the time we add butter, salt and all the other goodies we know we are going to add. Air-Popped popcorn tends to taste dry, and unless butter, or other oil is added to it after popping, salt and other flavoring will just wind up in the bottom of the bowl. They won’t stick to the kernels. And adding butter, etc…negates the low calorie option. But, once you’ve added this, air-popped popcorn is perfectly edible, and enjoyable. At this point, it is probably just a matter of personal choice.

I will say this, though. Making your own popcorn at home from plain popcorn is very much superior to the pre-package stuff, microwave, or otherwise. Pre-packaged popcorn ‘kits’ often have a lot of additives you don’t want, or need to eat, like lots of salt, lots of sugars, dyes, and things you can’t pronounce.

There will probably never be an end to the debate, so my best advice is to fix your popcorn however you like, put on a good movie, and enjoy.

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