Soon one day we may be making popcorn with infrared popcorn machines

Zoom in / In the future, our kitchen appliances may include an infrared popcorn maker.

There is rarely time to write about every great science story that comes our way. So this year, we’re once again running a special “The Twelve Days of Christmas” series of posts, highlighting one science story that fell through the cracks in 2022, every day from December 25th to January 5th. Today: Researchers figured out how to make delicious-tasting popcorn with infrared cooking.

Most of us rely on air popcorn machines or microwave ovens to make a delicious popcorn snack. But infrared cooking offers another viable alternative, according to a paper published in September in the journal ACS Food Science and Technology.

Popcorn is the only grain in the corn family that pops in response to the application of heat — specifically, temperatures above 180 degrees Celsius, and it has a lot to do with the grain’s structure. Each has a hard outer shell, called the pericarp, within which are located the germ (seed embryo) and the endosperm. The latter contains trapped water (popcorn kernels need to be about 14 percent water) and starch granules.

When the core heats up, the water inside the endosperm turns into superheated steam, which increases the pressure inside the shell. When that pressure gets high enough, the crust ruptures, releasing steam and starch into a foam, which then cools and hardens into the snack we know and love. The sprouted core was 20 to 50 times larger than the original core.

Scanning electron microscopy of popcorn stretched at different stages of puffing via infrared
Zoom in / Scanning electron microscopy of popcorn stretched at different stages of puffing via infrared

M. Chavandi et al., 2021

Last year, Mehdi Shavandi and colleagues at the Iran Research Organization for Science and Technology in Tehran succeeded in a proof-of-principle on their approach to making popcorn using infrared heat. With this method, a heat source such as fire, gas, or energy waves is in direct contact with the food, rather than a heating element such as a frying pan or grill grate. It is often likened to grilling or cooking food over a campfire. Fans argue that this method is fast, highly energy efficient, and environmentally friendly when compared to traditional heating methods.

It has already been used for purposes such as heating, drying, roasting, cooking, baking and even removing microbial contamination, according to the authors. Infrared grills are becoming increasingly popular. But can you use infrared cooking to produce popcorn with all the desirable properties we know and love, and convince us to switch over from our favorite microwave brands? savandi et al. Thought it might be possible.

They placed popcorn kernels — which were harvested in Iran during the 2019-2020 season — in a Pyrex petri dish with a little oil inside a stainless steel chamber, which was equipped with two infrared lights and a power supply. The room turned, holding kernels of corn near the infrared lamps. The popcorn was then popped, with any loose samples removed. The scientists measured the yield and took SEM images of the popcorn to get a better look at the structure. They found that the highest (100 per cent) popping output and volume expansion occurred at 550 watts of infrared power, with samples at a distance of 10 cm from the LEDs.

Schematic diagram of an experimental infrared popcorn popper scale.
Zoom in / Schematic diagram of an experimental infrared popcorn popper scale.

M. Chavandi et al., 2022

But will consumers want that? This latest paper continues this proof-of-principle to take a closer look at how the continuous infrared cooking process affects key attributes of popcorn: color, shape, aroma, taste, and texture (which is affected by how much the popcorn expands), all of which contribute to the popcorn’s sensory pleasure. They used the same prototype infrared popcorn popper as before in their experiments, testing power levels at 600, 700 and 800 watts, and then a sensory panel of taste testers rated the final products on a scale of 1 to 5.

The team found that using 700 watts of power produced the highest yield of whole or semi-popped popcorn. This energy level also produced the highest ratings (4 or higher) by the sensory panel, which determined those batches as having the best color, taste, and consistency. The authors concluded, “This is the first study on the infrared continuous expansion technique for popcorn popping, and the results show that the infrared expansion method is very effective in the popcorn popping process.” So maybe in the near future our kitchen appliances will include an infrared popcorn maker.

DOI: ACS Food Science and Technology, 2022. 10.1021/acsfoodscitech.2c00188 (about DOIs).

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