Does popcorn popped or unpopped (kernels) go bad? – The quick answer is yes, both popped popcorn and popcorn kernels can and do go bad. That being said, not all shelf-life is the same, depending on the packaging. Read on to find out more!
It’s game night, and you need a tasty and easy snack. You walk to the kitchen, reach into the pantry, and bingo! You find THE quintessential go-to snack: microwave popcorn. But once you take a closer look at the bag, you realize the popcorn has gone past its best-by date. The first thought that pops into your mind is to toss them in the trash and buy a new bag, but then you start to wonder… Do I really need to throw it away? Does popcorn go bad in the first place?
If you don’t have the answers to those questions or aren’t sure how long you can keep different types of popcorn stuffed in the back of your pantry, don’t worry — we’ve got them! This post is for you.
How Long Is Popcorn Typically Good For?
Things are easy when it comes to bags of popcorn kernels as you just need to take a look at their best-by date, which is usually 2 years after their production date — even a little (ahem, many more years) longer. But when it comes to popped popcorn, the rule of thumb is that it can remain edible for about 2 weeks after you pop the kernels. However, the exact amount of time depends on each popcorn type.
Types of Popcorn
The world of popcorn is much broader than one might think — it’s not just limited to the classic dry popcorn kernels. So before we talk about whether or not popcorn can go bad, let’s take an in-depth look at the ones we’ll cover in this post.
Dry Popcorn Kernels
Dry popcorn kernels are just that — dry popcorn kernels! Essentially, they are a type of dried corn kernel that has not been cooked or popped. Nor have they been flavored, salted, or buttered. They just exist all by themselves. You’ll need a popcorn machine to activate the kernels and turn them into actual popcorn.
Microwave Popcorn Packets
Core childhood memory alert: Remember standing in front of the microwave, watching the popcorn packet spin and start to rise? So do we! This kind of popcorn is so easy to pop that even a child can make it because it’s just unpopped popcorn in a sealed microwave-safe paper bag. They come in a variety of flavors, but the quintessential flavor is butter.
Homemade Popped Popcorn
After placing a pot with a handful of popcorn kernels on the stove or turning on the microwave with a popcorn packet inside, what you’re left with is a nice bowl of crunchy, homemade popped popcorn — ready for you to season to your heart’s content. It’s perfect for any occasion, but does this type of popcorn go bad? Keep scrolling to find out!
Store-bought Pre-Popped Popcorn
If you want something more convenient than microwave popcorn packets, here’s your ideal match: pre-popped popcorn. It’s simply popped popcorn — usually flavored — inside a bag, which makes it the ideal purchase for those who don’t want to deal with any kitchen appliance, or for those who want to try specific flavors. Some people even say that store-bought pre-popped popcorn tastes identical to movie theater popcorn, and hey, sometimes that’s true.
Does Popcorn Go Bad?
More than once, we’ve heard a die-hard popcorn lover claim, “popcorn never goes bad,” and while we’d all like that statement to be true, reality tells a different story.
Yes, unlike other food that becomes rotten or moldy over time, popcorn has a longer shelf life because it’s a grain. However, that doesn’t mean you can eat the same bag you bought in your 20s once you hit your golden years. Popcorn can go bad over time, and each type has a different shelf life. Let’s start with the one that almost everyone has in their kitchen cabinet: dry popcorn kernels.
Dry Popcorn Kernels
Good ol’ popcorn kernels can be described in just one word: reliable. They can remain safe to eat for years to come and are very easy to store. But do popcorn kernels go bad over time?
They can go bad from external factors — moisture, bugs, etc —, but it’s unlikely that they will go bad solely from the passage of time. The best-by date printed on the packaging means that the quality will slowly start to decline after that date, not that they will expire and become instantly inedible.
Microwave Popcorn Packets
Microwave popcorn is extremely convenient because of how easy it is to make — just pop it open, pop it in the microwave, and watch that little robot work its popping magic. But… Does microwave popcorn go bad? Let’s just say that convenience sometimes comes with a price.
Unlike dry kernels, microwave popcorn tends to have a shorter shelf life because of the flavorings — a package can last for 2-3 months after its expiration date —, and while we wish it didn’t go bad over time like dry kernels, it does go bad. Why? Because microwave popcorn packets often come flavored with seasonings that go rancid over time, like, you guessed it, butter.
Homemade Popped Popcorn
The freshness level of your homemade popped popcorn will rely on one key factor: flavorings. Yes, popcorn is an excellent base for experimenting with flavorings and having fun in the process, but if you plan to make a large batch to store for later, you’re better off putting those flavorings back in your cupboard.
Liquid flavorings/seasonings like butter have the same effect on homemade popcorn as they do on microwave popcorn — they make it go bad in no time. Our advice? Just add a pinch of salt. That way it will remain edible for up to 2 weeks and only become stale, not unsafe to eat.
Store-bought Pre-Popped Popcorn
Ready-to-eat popcorn you can buy at any store suffers the same fate as any popcorn — the more seasoning, the faster it goes bad. Store-bought pre-popped popcorn can last 2-4 weeks unopened, but while its freshness clock starts ticking faster once you open the bag, it will last longer (1-2 weeks) if it’s unflavored. It may go stale, but at least it won’t go rancid!
How to Tell If Popcorn Is Bad
There are several ways to see if your popcorn is past its prime. You can go by the smell, taste, texture, and popping performance. But let’s start with the most immediate indicator — appearance.
Excessive moisture is freshness’s #1 enemy. Popcorn kernels go bad after absorbing moisture —which will result in mold growth in the form of black or gray spots around the kernel’s hull —, and the same goes for popcorn that’s already popped. If you see an odd change in color, it’s probably mold.
Bugs are also the nemesis of any type of popcorn. If you find tiny invaders throwing a rave on your popcorn, it’s a clear sign that it’s not fit for human consumption anymore.
Nobody wants to deal with yucky flavors, but let’s face it — if you want to be 100% sure whether your popped popcorn has gone bad or not, you can’t go wrong with tasting it. Once you notice any off-flavors or lack of crunchiness, you know it’s time to toss them in the trash bin.
This is the fastest way to test freshness but also the most unpleasant, so you’re better off following one of your other 5 senses.
Want to avoid having to taste stale popcorn? Just check the texture by crushing a piece of popcorn with your fingers. If the addictive crunchiness of the snack disappears and is replaced with a hard and rubbery texture, the kind you know will taste chewy if you take a bite, it means the snack isn’t so tasty anymore.
The sniff test never fails, especially when it comes to microwave popcorn. If a foul smell hits you when you open a packet, don’t pop it, because that means the oil or flavoring has gone bad. And if your already popped popcorn smells funky too, don’t eat it either! It’s for your own good.
When it comes to popcorn kernels, testing their popping performance is the best freshness testing skill. Just heat a small number of kernels, and if they pop, then you’re fine. But if the kernels don’t pop, it’s safe to assume they’ve gone bad. The reason? Excessive dryness.
You see, popcorn “pops” because each kernel contains a small amount of water — about 15% — that releases steam and increases the pressure inside the kernel when subjected to non-neutral temperatures. Therefore, if the popcorn kernels are exposed to cold temperatures, they will dry out and will not have enough moisture inside to pop.
How to Keep Popcorn Fresher, Longer
There is nothing quite like the taste of freshly popped popcorn, but although our first advice is to always eat them as soon as you pop them, we know that sometimes that task can’t be accomplished.
If you made a large batch of popcorn and you’re sure you won’t eat the whole thing, or you bought a bunch of kernels that you won’t pop anytime soon, there are some easy ways to keep them fresh for a long time.
Let The Popped Popcorn Reach Room Temperature
If you’re snacking on a bowl of warm popcorn fresh from the microwave and want to save some for later, wait until it cools to room temperature. If you put warm popcorn in a container and close the lid, eventually, the steam from the popcorn will condense and dampen it, causing it to become stale faster.
Use an Airtight Container
Usually, the main reason why any type of popcorn goes bad is using the wrong container to store them. Storing them in an airtight plastic, glass, or metal container with a tight-fitting lid will minimize their exposure to air, and ensure that they will stay safe and sound for a good amount of time. A Ziploc bag is also good for storing popcorn, but a jar with an airtight lid is a better option.
As for popcorn kernels, the easiest way to store them is in the original bag they came in — if it’s not punctured or damaged — and use a rubber band to seal them tightly.
Store In a Dark, Cool Place
We already know that unpopped popcorn does go bad due to improper storage, but once you have them in a properly sealed container or bag, where should you place them? In a dark space, away from sunlight or direct heat and free of moisture, such as the cupboard. This will prevent the 15% of water contained in each kernel from drying out and stopping it from popping.
The same goes for popcorn that has already been popped. Store them in a dry, cool environment away from the sink or the stove — the areas of the kitchen where the environment is most likely to be unusually humid or hot.
Pro-Tip: While some believe that refrigerating unpopped kernels improves their flavor, the cooler temperature actually damages them. Most people place them inside the fridge because they don’t have room in their cupboard, but the cold environment will dry out the moisture in the kernels and affect their popping performance. A cool, dry cupboard will always be the best option, so try to pack them in there no matter what.
Is It Safe to Eat Expired Microwave Popcorn?
As long as it is stored properly, you can safely eat microwave popcorn up to 3 months past its expiration date. However, although they won’t make you sick if you pop and eat them, we highly suggest that you first make sure that they are in good condition. Just scroll up through this post to “How to Tell If Popcorn Is Bad” and look for signs of spoilage.
What Can You Do With Old Popcorn?
Let’s just say you popped too much popcorn for family movie night, so you store it away in hopes of enjoying it on your own starting tomorrow. Fast forward to 2 weeks — you totally forgot you had old popcorn, and you don’t even want to eat popcorn on your own anymore. Fortunately, in this scenario, you can still find other uses for that fluffy snack in cooking!
For example, if you love truffles as much as we do — we even have a whole post dedicated to those chocolatey treats — then you’ll love making some good ‘n yummy chocolate peanut butter popcorn truffles. You can also make popcorn granola bars, or if you want something simpler, use popcorn as a topping for ice cream. Trust us, it’s tasty.
And what about old unpopped popcorn kernels? Storing them is not an option as they will continue to take up space indefinitely in the pantry, and tossing them in the trash is even less of an option because #zerowaste, so… What can you do with them? Simple: DIY projects!
You can turn the popcorn kernels into beanbags to play cornhole with the little ones at home, craft a fun shaker, or even make a mess-free ice pack. The possibilities are endless.
How Long Does Popcorn Last In a Tin?
Unopened popcorn tins can last up to 2 months if you keep them in a dry, cool place, but once you open them, they can last up to 2 weeks. The same goes if the popcorn did not come in a tin but you popped them first and then placed them in a tin to preserve them — they will last 2 weeks as well.