The Subtle Mechanics of Popcorn Poppers

In my old apartment I didn’t have a popcorn maker. I would put some vegetable oil in a sauce pan, pour a layer of popcorn kernels in, cover it, and heat it until the popcorn was ready. I didn’t have an electric one. Now that I’ve moved in to the new place, Erin has the electric variety, so I’ve been using that. I was making popcorn this evening and thinking about the popcorn popper and how it worked, and specifically how kernels can remain unpopped.

By observation, at the beginning of the popping a kernel at the bottom will pop up, sending the kernels above it flying, and often out of the popper. This is a huge loss of kernels for no good reason. They’re perfectly fine kernels that were prematurely propelled out of the popper. As the popping intensifies, the popped corn doesn’t all escape out of the cylinder and into the bowl, forming a sort of protective layer to keep unpopped kernels from shooting out of the cylinder. The steady current of hot air elevates this layer and at times it looses cohesion and the layer breaks down and all escapes the cylinder into the bowl, allowing unpopped corn to escape again. It’s a delicate balance.

In order to preserve as many kernels as possible, I’ve played around with some tools. Initially I tried a spoon. By holding the spoon inside the chute and over the cylinder I could partially block the exit of the cylinder. A couple kernels still escape, but because I prevent the popped corn from leaving, the protective layer builds up faster. Further, I can control the flow of popcorn out of the chute, ensuring that the protective layer remains without breaking down early. The only catch was that the spoon was too short and the hot air was heating up the whole metal spoon and by the end burning my fingers.

I could use a large wooden spoon from now on. That would cover up more of the cylinder and eliminate the heat problem but could introduce a congestion problem if it gets in the way and clogs up the chute and doesn’t allow me the fine control of the protective layer.

A better design of the popper might have been a taller and slightly inverted funnel cylinder. Both the tallness and the funnel shape would make it more difficult for stray kernels to escape while also facilitating a sound protective layer and retaining the heat inside for longer.

The final adjustment that could be made to retrofit existing popcorn poppers would be to the clear plastic piece that fits over the popper. With the installation of an adjustable gate, you could cover the opening to the chute entirely, ensuring no kernels escaped and retaining the heat inside the popper for longer. As the popping progresses, the gate could be opened by varying levels to allow the protective layer to remain as popped corn passed through the gate.

But I’m probably overthinking this. The spoon will work for now.