Thursday, May 22, 2008

The Kinetics of Popcorn

Somewhere out there, there is a man (or a woman), who is a forensic popcorn expert. This person can, based upon all the characteristics of a sample of a batch of popcorn, give you the specific parameters under which it was popped. The colour of the skins, inverted by the small cataclysm that shakes each grain, will give him clues as to the temperature and the method of warming, and the duration for which the batch was heated before its maker decided that the appropriate yield had been achieved.

Perhaps the yield - that is, the fraction of the total number of kernels which were popped - itself will give him clues as to how long the popping phase took, and perhaps even insights into the mind of the popper. Other parameters, like the size heterogeneity of the popcorn, the compressive and tensile strength, the starting and final weight of the kernels, and the percentage of blackened corn in the pot could help to reconstruct the popping method precisely, just by careful observation of the products.

To you it is just popcorn. Only the master can see the pattern.

The knowledge could be used to construct an equation whereby the perfect batch of popcorn, according to the popper's standards, could be produced. At least three different equations would be needed, one for air-popped corn, one for stove-popped corn, and one for microwaveable corn. This last category might be somewhat complex, since each microwaveable package of popcorn is made according to the manufacturer's own process (unless they are really all the same and each brand is fooling us with their claims of superior quality).

By such an equation, which is sure to include many integrals and logarithms just like real life, it would be possible to specify a certain pot size, a certain amount of oil, a certain heating protocol, a certain time, a certain variety of corn (each would probably have a different set of associated coefficients), a certain number or weight of kernels, an open or closed vessel, and a certain ambient atmospheric pressure to produce a batch of popcorn of a desired texture and consistency while maximizing yield. For yield an approximation of 100% could be used, although the validity of such an assumption would have to be studied - otherwise we would have to determine where the slope of the derivative of the yield equalled zero versus multiple variables. It would require a bit more than high school math.

Alternatively, an empirical approach could be employed.

That would be pretty boring, though.

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