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Dear Professor Science, What makes popcorn pop? I HAVE often wondered about how cooking foods transforms them so dramatically, in appearance, texture and taste. Popcorn is one such marvel. Cooking the small hard kernels transforms them to light, fluffy morsels that popcorn experts call flakes.

It's not a new recipe, archaeologists have found containers for popping corn in Peru which date to about 300AD. These people used wild varieties of maize, but since then farmers have bred a variety especially suited to popping, Zea mays everta.

The kernels are like seeds, they contain everything needed for a new plant to grow. The germ (a plant embryo), a starchy endosperm to provide food, and water, all protected by the outer hull. These parts also come in handy when making popcorn.

As we heat the kernels the water inside heats up and turns to steam which starts to expand. It cannot escape as the hull is made of tough cellulose fibres, which do not let water through. The building pressure and rising heat causes the starchy endosperm to become soft and jelly like.

At around 180degC the pressure from the steam becomes so great that the hull can no longer contain it. The kernel bursts and turns itself inside out, the release of pressure causes endosperm to expand like foam. It cools on contact with the air and solidifies to the white puffs we know as popcorn.

This column is kindly provided by the scientists at the Life Science Centre in Newcastle. To find out more about their work, log on to
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Evening Chronicle (Newcastle, England)
Date:Jan 17, 2013
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