Popcorn is an easy snack to make, and when it’s air-popped and lightly seasoned, it’s generally a low-calorie and heart-healthy food. There’s nothing like a bowl of fluffy popcorn. But making popcorn can be frustrating if your popcorn won’t pop or comes out small. 

Some popcorn pops small because of the amount of moisture in the kernel. The less water and oil in the hull, the smaller the popcorn will pop. More moisture will escape from popcorn that has been sitting a long time. Therefore, older popcorn kernels tend to pop smaller.

Can you fix popcorn that perpetually pops small or doesn’t pop at all? Before you throw out old popcorn that’s been sitting in your pantry for a while, keep reading. This article will discuss why some popcorn pops small and how you can fix it.

How Do Popcorn Kernels Pop?

Popcorn kernels pop when heated in oil because the moisture inside can’t escape, causing them to explode, or pop, instead. This reaction occurs most efficiently when kernels are heated rapidly. 

Inside each popcorn kernel is an oil, water, and starch mixture. The outside of the kernel is a tough and sturdy exterior, called a hull. When you heat popcorn, the water in the kernel starts to expand and transform into steam. However, the steam can’t escape through the kernel’s tough shell. As the temperature rises, the oil inside the kernel also heats up, and together with the steam, it turns the starch into gelatin, making the hard exterior more flexible.

Once the temperature reaches 365°F (185°C), the kernel’s internal pressure becomes too much, and the popcorn hull bursts and turns the kernel inside out. The oil, water, and starch mixture inside the kernel quickly turn into foam. When the foam cools, it turns into the fluff known as popcorn, up to 50 times bigger than the first kernel.

Why Won’t All Of My Popcorn Kernels Pop?

All of your popcorn kernels won’t always pop if a kernel’s hull is damaged or it’s moisture levels are off. You may also result in unpopped kernels if the popcorn wasn’t heated fast enough. These unpopped kernels are also known as “Old Maids”.

The Kernel Has A Damaged Hull

As previously stated, popcorn pops when the steam inside the kernel attempts to turn into steam but can’t escape, so the kernel explodes. Sometimes the popcorn’s hull becomes damaged and allows the steam in the popcorn to escape. It won’t pop if this happens, and you’ll have multiple unpopped kernels. 

The Kernel’s Moisture Levels Are Off

Another reason popcorn kernels won’t pop is due to the kernel’s moisture levels. The moisture ratio inside the kernel is essential in getting it to pop. It won’t pop if the popcorn has too much or little moisture inside the seed. The kernels that pop tend to have about 14-15% moisture inside the kernel. In kernels with a higher or lower moisture ratio inside, the seed won’t pop or end up popping small. 

You can test a kernel’s moisture content by using your finger to dent the seed. If the kernel dents easily with your fingernail, it’s too moist. The kernel is too dry if the shell is too hard to make an impression.

You Didn’t Heat The Popcorn Fast Enough

If you heat popcorn too slowly, sometimes it won’t pop because the steam has an opportunity to seep out of the kernel. You’ll want to heat popcorn at medium to high heat, and it’ll only take about 30 seconds to pop once it reaches the proper temperature. Cooking the popcorn too low will result in fewer popped kernels.

How Do I Pop Bigger Popcorn Kernels?

You can pop bigger popcorn by  fixing the kernel’s moisture levels. Moisture levels determine a kernel’s ability to pop and produce large popcorn kernels. Typically, soaking kernels will result in visibly larger and fluffier popcorn.

Fixing Kernels With Too Little Moisture

If you test a kernel with too little moisture, easily restore it in the following steps:

  1. Soak kernels in about an inch (2.54 cm) of water
  2. Let them sit for around 10 minutes
  3. Drain and dry off kernels
  4. Pop as normal

For locally grown popcorn or particularly old popcorn that’s been sitting around for a while, some people recommend soaking the popcorn overnight or for a full day in the following manner: 

  1. Fill your kernels in a jar and leave enough room to add some water. 
  2. Add a teaspoon (4.93 ml) of water to the container.
  3. Cover it with a lid, and shake it to evenly distribute the water among the kernels. 
  4. Let it sit for several hours or overnight.

Your seeds should retain more moisture by the time you return to them. Be sure to drain and dry kernels thoroughly before placing in oil.

Fixing Kernels With Too Much Moisture

If you test your kernels with your fingernail and they dent easily, they have too much moisture. To remedy overly moist popcorn kernels, allow them to dry out by sitting uncovered for a few hours. You’ll want to check on your seeds every few hours to ensure you don’t overdry them. Simply test them with your fingernail again or try to pop a few to see how they turn out.

Does Microwave Popcorn Pop Smaller?

Microwave popcorn does pop smaller if you buy an inexpensive brand that uses lower quality kernels and oils. Microwave popcorn can also pop small if your microwave wattage is incorrect. 

Some popcorn companies use unique plants and premium oil to make their microwave popcorn large and fluffy. However, others use cheaper oils or plants to make their popcorn, resulting in more miniature popcorn when popped in the microwave. Usually, if you want bigger and fluffier popcorn, it’s worth the extra money to get quality kernels.

In addition to this, if the wattage on your microwave is too high, it could be cooking the kernels too fast, resulting in more miniature popcorn. You can change the power level on most microwaves, so check your manual for instructions on adjusting your microwave’s power level. Check your microwave wattage if you find that your popcorn is constantly popping small in the microwave.

Final Thoughts

Popcorn can pop small if the moisture levels inside the kernel are off. Generally, dryer popcorn kernels will result in more small popcorn once popped. You can increase your kernel’s moisture by soaking them in water. For microwave popcorn, you can adjust your microwave’s power settings or invest in popcorn that’s made with premium ingredients, resulting in giant popcorn.

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