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Can Popcorn Go Bad?

Popcorn is a quintessential part of a movie night for many people. But what if you’ve bought a few too many packages of ready-to-eat popcorn? Now, a month or two later, they still sit in storage. Can popcorn go bad?

Or maybe you’ve stocked up on dry kernels that were on sale. And now that you think about it, your supplies will last you at least a year or more. Will those kernels last that long and pop when prepared?

When it comes to buying popcorn, you can buy kernels, popped popcorn, or microwaveable packets. Dry kernels and ready-to-eat popcorn have drastically different shelf lives, and the microwaveable packs are somewhere in between. If you’re not well versed in how they differ, it’s easy to end up with stale or meh tasting popcorn.

Prepared popcorn
Image used under Creative Commons from Global Panorama

This article here is to help you avoid that. But before we get into the nitty-gritty, let’s clarify which type is which.

Dry kernels are un-popped kernels that you need to pop before serving. In most cases, you do it on the stove by adding the kernels into a saucepan with hot oil.

The ready-to-eat popcorn is already popped; all you need to do is to open the package and enjoy.

Last but not least, microwaveable packets are basically dry kernels covered with fat. Since the package has all the ingredients it needs, you only need to warm it up in a microwave.

Knowing that, let’s start by talking about spoiled popcorn.

Big bowl of popcorn
(credit: Charles)

Can Popcorn Go Bad? How To Tell If Popcorn Has Gone Bad?

If you follow proper storage practices, neither type of popcorn will spoil in a way most foods do for a long time. And by long I mean months or even years past the date on the label. However, that doesn’t mean that the popcorn will stay at peak quality forever, far from it.

Popped popcorn gradually becomes stale. Unless there’s moisture involved, it won’t grow mold or anything, but over time the flavor degrades. And at a certain point, you will find that popcorn dry and tasteless, and that’s when you should discard it.

When it comes to microwaveable packets, you see how things turned out after microwaving them. If the popcorn looks gross, smells off (e.g., because the fat has gone rancid), or there’s something wrong with its taste, throw it out. Do the same if there’s anything in the package that isn’t supposed to be there. Who knows what got there before it was sealed.

Bowl of popcorn
Image used under Creative Commons from calamity_sal

Dry kernels keep well for a long time, but eventually they dry out. The moisture inside them is the reason why they pop ([SGP]), so if most of it is gone, they don’t pop.

If less than like 3/4 of the kernels pop, you can try putting some moisture back into the kernels. You do that by adding them and one teaspoon of water per 1 pound of popcorn into a glass jar ([SGP]). Shake that jar a few times a day for three days, and then try making popcorn with those kernels. The results should be noticeably better.

How Long Does Popcorn Last?

When it comes to shelf life, these are quite different for each type.

Popped popcorn has the shortest one, usually 2 ([LP]) to 3 months from production date for an unopened package. The popcorn should be okay for another couple of weeks or so past the best-by date, but sooner or later you will find it stale.

Once you open the package or make popcorn yourself, it should be okay for a week, maybe two weeks. Provided that you always keep it sealed, of course. As usual, to experience the best quality, you should finish the whole package in one sitting.

Microwaveable packets have a shelf life of about 3 to 4 months. The fat in the package won’t retain quality forever, hence the relatively short period. Of course, even if it’s a month or two after the date on the label, it’s still worth preparing that package. Worst case scenario is that something is off and you discard the whole thing. But in many cases, the popped popcorn will be perfectly fine.

When it comes to dry kernels, even though they have an indefinite shelf life ([SGP]), they eventually dry out. They should turn out just fine until the best-by date on the label, and probably for a couple of months past it too. But even if the kernels are old, it makes sense to give them a try. And if only some of them pop, try the re-hydrating trick I described earlier.

Popped popcorn on black surface
(credit: Charles)

How To Store Popcorn?

No matter the type of popcorn you have on hands, the storage guidelines are quite similar.

When it comes to temperature, room temperature (or slightly below) is perfect ([LP]). Don’t refrigerate or freeze popcorn or the kernels. The only exception here is microwaveable packets. If the label says you should refrigerate the package, do it.

Neither dry kernels nor prepared popcorn (or opened commercially popped one) likes air or excess moisture, so keep them in an airtight container ([SGP][LP]) away from sources of heat and sunlight. A cabinet in the pantry or kitchen works perfectly well for that.

In a Nutshell

  • Popcorn in most cases doesn’t go off or spoil. But it doesn’t last forever either. Popped kernels go stale, un-popped ones dry out, and the fat in microwaveable popcorn goes rancid.
  • Unopened ready-to-eat popcorn lasts 2 to 3 months, and between a week or two after opening or making popcorn yourself. Microwaveable packets last a couple of months. Dry kernels usually have a shelf life of a year or two, but can last much longer.
  • Unless the label says otherwise, store all kinds of popcorn at room temperature. Once the package is opened, or popcorn prepared, keep it in an airtight container, away from heat and any moisture.