Popcorn is easily one of the oldest and most recognizable of all snack foods. Known to some of the earliest known civilizations of the New World, the concept of popping corn for a treat is now common around the world. The corn pops because of moisture inside the kernel.
One of the first things to understand about popping corn is that every dried kernel retains a small amount of moisture. This is essential to ensure that the popping process can take place. By applying a heating agent, the moisture expands and forces the interior of the kernel to burst through the hull. At the same time, the combination of heat and moisture cause the fluffy white texture that defines the treat.
Several different methods have been employed in the making of popcorn. Combining the flint corn kernels in a metal container with a small amount of oil is one of the oldest methods. The container would be sealed with a lid, to prevent the popping corn from flying out of the container. By holding the container over an open fire and gently shaking the contents, the temperature gradually rises to the correct level and the kernels begin to pop open.
Along with using an open fire, it is also possible to make use of a range top, and the same principles apply. Oil and dried kernels are placed into a metal pan, covered with a lid, and then gently shaken over the gas flame or the electric eye. In a short period of time, the popcorn begins to pop. Adding a little butter and seasoning makes a great snack.
During the middle of the 20th century, electric corn poppers became very popular. Many of these models involved a base with an electric heating element, and a clear plastic body. Oil and popcorn were placed in the bowl of the heating unit, then covered with the tall clear body. This made it possible to watch as the corn began to pop and fill the body. Once all the kernels were popped, the device was turned off and the plastic body flipped over to act as a bowl for the freshly popped corn.
Hot air poppers came into vogue during the 1970s. The idea behind this device was to produce a steady stream of hot air that would cause the popping action. Because no oil was necessary, the popcorn was considered to be healthier. Salt and other spices could be added after the corn prepared with a hot air popper was poured into a serving bowl.
The advent of the microwave oven changed the way most people enjoy this treat. Today, many people purchase packages of microwave popcorn that can be popped within three to four minutes. Along with low fat versions, it is also possible to purchase bags flavored with a variety of spices and herbs, as well as with a caramel coating.