Some late nights in the lab, that vending machine chocolate bar just can’t fill the snack hole that only a truly grueling experiment can induce. You need something hot, salty and preferably dripping with fat.
It’s no surprise, then, that microwave popcorn is the scientist’s best friend. It ticks all the boxes: flat-pack construction for easy storage, non-perishable at room temp, cooks in only five minutes and – unlike sweets – doesn’t hit your stomach too hard when it’s running on empty. During graduate school, microwave popcorn undoubtedly kept me from certain starvation. Its only downside, as far as I can see, is its tendency to radiate a mouth-watering aroma all over the institute in a matter of seconds such that, by the time it’s finished popping, you might have acquired a few hopeful onlookers (typically malnourished PhD students). I find that an apologetic smile and a “Sorry, I haven’t eaten for twelve hours and this is my dinner” is enough to disband the hyenas.
I’ve been popping microwave corn for about 25 years now, probably on hundreds of different machines. I’ve popped them in cheap set-ups in the common rooms of university accommodations, in Soviet era contraptions passed from student to student in group houses, in all the various flats I’ve lived and institutes where I’ve worked in several countries. And I’ve tried all the major brands of corn. Despite the wide variation of conditions, the general recipe has remained surprisingly constant: put the bag inside, set the microwave on ‘high’ for five minutes, and press ‘start’. Sometimes between about 3.5 to 5 minutes, depending on the machine, the pops will slow to about a second apart, and then you know you’ve reached the point of diminishing returns: all of the kernels haven’t popped, but if you leave it longer, the popped corn will start to dry out and scorch. Usually you’re left with about 20 to 30 unpopped kernels after an average session.
When we moved into my new house last year, we ordered a very swanky Panasonic microwave/oven combo from John Lewis. It was easily the nicest and most expensive microwave I’ve ever had access to. We’d had it a few days and I’d used it for a few basic operations – reheating coffee, defrosting meat and the like. Nothing fancy, but everything seemed to work fine.
And then, I tried to pop some corn. The corn didn’t even start popping until after 4 minutes, and after the bell dinged at 5, only about a quarter of the kernels had popped. The bag was very hot, though. Perplexed, I put the bag back in for another 5 minutes and ended up with about 50% yield. I wrote it off as a fluke, but a few days later, I chose a bag from a new box and set the timer for ten minutes. The dynamics were similar, as was the result. The corn was a brand I’d been using for the past few years on two very different microwaves, so I knew it wasn’t likely to be the product. But the oven seemed otherwise fine, and I’d feel ridiculous taking it back for an exchange on the basis of “suboptimal popcorn performance” – the complaint was just too niche. So in true British fashion I decided to live with it.
And then one day, a few months later, I produced a perfect bag of corn after five minutes.
What had changed? I remembered that a few minutes before I’d made the corn, I’d heated up some hot water in a mug for a minute or two. Could it be that the microwave somehow had to be pre-heated or primed for optimal corn performance?
Dear reader, I did the experiment the following evening. And it seemed to work: half a mug of water for two minutes on high was enough to prime the oven to pop a bag of corn to about 80-90% of its usual yield after about 6 minutes. Not perfect, but definitely getting there.
The funny thing is, it doesn’t always work, and it fails more often than it succeeds. I think there are two important variables: exactly how much water you have in the mug, and how long after the mug run finishes before you introduce the bag of popcorn. My downfall up until now has been improper documentation, so these impressions are only anecdotal. But from now on, I’m determined to do things scientifically: to use the same mug and systematically vary amounts of water heated for the exact same amount of time; and to systematically vary the time between mug heating and bag introduction. I already know that straightaway is too quick, and five minutes is too long. So I’m hopeful to have the formula nailed over the next month or so.
In the meantime, if anyone out there can diagnose what’s wrong with my addled Panasonic based on the meager data to hand, I’d love to hear all of your theories.