Photo: Andreana Bitsis | Styling: Laura Braun

How Does Popcorn Pop? (Plus: Our Favorite Popcorn Recipe)

Around this time of year, corn becomes a ubiquitous decoration, with dried ears bundled and tied up, invoking the rich harvest. Corn is one of those miraculous plants that can be used for a number of purposes, from the kitchen to the car. One of the all-time favorite ways to eat corn, however, is in the form of popcorn: a distinctly American tradition (there’s even a pervading myth that popcorn was served at the first Thanksgiving, though this is not the case) as the culinary snack became popular in the early 1800s. Despite its longevity, popcorn also presents an enduring kitchen science curiosity: how, exactly, does popcorn pop?

The matter of why popcorn pops comes down to basic physics. Inside each kernel of corn is a bit of water. When the kernel is heated, so too is the water, which quickly begins to turn to steam. At some point, the pressure from the steam exceeds what the hard surface of the kernel can take, and the kernel bursts into the familiar fluffy shape we enjoy. What we eat are the starches and proteins from the inside of the kernel, which have been cooked by the steam.

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If you’re looking for a healthy, savory popcorn option, check out our foolproof (vegan!) recipe below that utilizes our favorite warming spices in time for Fall. For those with more of a sweet tooth, try swapping the spices out for a drizzle of dark chocolate, sesame seeds, coconut flakes, and a sprinkle of salt.

Spicy Fall Popcorn

View Recipe

Spicy Fall Popcorn

20 mins
  • 1/2 cup popcorn kernels
  • 1/3 cup coconut oil
  • sea salt
  • chili flakes
  • turmeric
  • cumin

On medium heat, warm a shallow saucepan. When a drop of water sizzles and evaporates, the pot is at optimal heat.


Add a 1/3 cup of coconut oil and let melt (if not already melted), then add a half cup of kernels, and firmly place the lid on the pan.



Lift and vigorously shake the pan so that the popcorn is thoroughly coated in oil, then place the pan back on burner. Shift the lid, so that it is slightly ajar (about a 2 cm gap).



Every four minutes, repeat the previous step, firmly fixing the lid before shaking, and leaving it ajar when you place the pan back on the burner.


Do this until the popcorn has fully popped and there are no more popping sounds.


Remove from heat, let cool, and sprinkle with additional coconut oil (if desired) and spices.

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