Popcorn is a classic, popular snack. More often than not, most of us can find a bag of microwave popcorn hiding in a kitchen cabinet or drawer just waiting to be popped to perfection.
But that’s just the thing. Because popcorn is one of those things we always seem to have just lying around, we usually don’t know how long it’s been there.
If the expiry date has rubbed off, that’s probably a bad sign.
You may wonder, does popcorn go bad? Or you might just be so desperate for something to munch during your movie night that you don’t care.
Just because popcorn is usually kept dry doesn’t mean it has a guaranteed long shelf life.
Whether you’re considering overcooking a dusty bag of microwaveable popcorn, popping up some ancient loose kernels, or giving a bowl of already popped popcorn a second chance, we have everything you need to know.
For those of us who snack on popcorn in the evening, knowing if popped popcorn goes bad is a must.
It seems like such a waste to just throw out perfectly good popcorn, but eating a whole bag just for the heck of it also seems a bit excessive.
If you’re thinking of storing leftover popped popcorn, you’re probably curious if popped popcorn goes bad.
The answer to this question is a bit wishy-washy.
When it comes to popped popcorn, either commercially popped in a bag or some you popped yourself, freshness is a more imminent threat than it going ‘bad,’ per se.
Once popcorn has been popped, the freshness clock starts ticking.
The freshness can deteriorate rather quickly, so if you’re not going to eat it all right away, it’s best to go ahead and move it to an air-tight container.
Popped popcorn’s freshness decline also largely depends on how much, if any, salt and/or butter you added to it. If there is minimal salt and/or butter, your popped popcorn will likely last a bit longer.
If you’ve drenched your popped popcorn in butter, however, your fluffs will become moist and eventually soggy within a short time.
This will affect the taste, but too much moisture is also a breeding ground for bacteria, which has the potential to make you sick.
If your popped popcorn is mostly free from powder flavorings and moisture and stored properly soon after being popped, it may be fresh and also safe to eat for a relatively long time, up to two or maybe even three weeks.
Just take one serving at a time and replace the lid—every time. The best way to tell is to taste it, but look at it first: don’t it if it looks or smells moldy, or is dark, discolored, or shrunken/dehydrated looking.
If you’ve ever strung popcorn on thread to decorate for the holidays and tried to eat a piece of it a few weeks (or the following year!) later, you’ll know that stale, flavorless, chewy taste means: One kernel was enough to know it’s not going to be good to eat.
That said, thickly candy-coated popped popcorn often lasts a much longer time, because it keeps out air and humidity (the biggest threat to all types of popcorn) from the fragile popped corn.
Does microwave popcorn go bad?
Of all the popcorn options, microwave popcorn has the shortest shelf life. This is because the packet already contains all the seasonings and flavorings needed.
Thus, it’s technically the ingredients that have been added to the popcorn kernels that limit the shelf life of microwaveable packets of popcorn.
Maintaining the integrity of the packaging is also a concern, as exposure to air can cause the oil, butter, or whatever fat has been added to the popcorn to go rancid after a time. In addition to air, elements like heat, moisture, and light can also wreak havoc on the quality of your microwave popcorn bag.
Of course, there is a “best by” date on the package. But are those dates really the end all be all for food freshness and safety? The answer is: kind of.
Microwave popcorn packets are still safe to consume for up to a couple of months past the date on the package.
However, it is recommended that you do pop and enjoy it prior to or by that date for optimal freshness and best quality.
Do popcorn kernels go bad?
Where’s the best place to keep a package of dry kernels? Where it’s a dark place and not humid, so not in your bathroom and not in the sun room laying in a basket.
Popcorn kernels are the most long-lasting variety of popcorn.
When stored properly, dry popcorn kernels can remain good for years. Just because they are still safe to eat, however, doesn’t mean they will make the best popcorn.
You’ll get better results from fresh popcorn kernels.
Similar to microwave popcorn, loose popcorn kernels are also threatened by heat, light, moisture, and air. If you store unpopped kernels for too long, or if they encounter any of those elements during their storage period, they may lose their ability to pop, which defeats the whole purpose of popcorn.
Proper storage, which is discussed below, is the best way to ensure that your popcorn kernels will last up to two years.
If the packaging for your popcorn kernels has a “use by” or “best by” date, you can usually still use them for six to twelve months after that.
Keep it in a cool place in a sealed bag to maintain the quality of the popcorn.
How to store popcorn kernels
As we’ve mentioned, the shelf life of your favorite snack (right?) depends largely on proper storage.
In order to maximize the long-term potential of your loose popcorn kernels, you can store it a couple different ways.
The most reliable method is to store them in an airtight container.
This could be a sealed jar or canister- anything that locks air and moisture out of your kernels, because it’s so important to keep them in a dry place.
The other option is to bag your popcorn kernels. If you do this, however, you’ll want to at least double bag if not triple bag them, taking care to remove all the air from each bag before sealing it and adding the next one.
The last trick to storing loose popcorn kernels is keeping it relatively cool.
Whatever you’re using to store the kernels, you’ll want to make sure you keep it out of direct sunlight and in an area that doesn’t garner much heat.
As long as these requirements are met, your kernels will stay fresh and pop fluffy for the next two years.
How to store popped popcorn
Popped popcorn can’t promise continued freshness for long, but there are a few tricks that will help you to squeeze out every last hour of your leftover popcorn.
Popped popcorn packages are notorious for losing their freshness quickly, but putting it in an airtight container is a good idea to keep it fresh for longer.
In addition to the airtight container, it’s not recommended that you put your stored popped popcorn in the refrigerator.
Though refrigeration does help some food items to maintain their freshness for longer, popcorn is not one of them.
This is because condensation can occur and moisten the popcorn. Once the popped popcorn becomes moist, the freshness disappears.
Lastly, similar to popcorn kernels, popped popcorn should be kept away from direct light and heat.
Though popped popcorn will not stay fresh for long, these tips will help it last as long as possible.
Nothing has a truly indefinite shelf life, so don’t expect peak quality of popped popcorn after a couple of weeks, even if kept well.
How long does popcorn last?
Now that we know popcorn can, in fact, go bad, it’s time to address the question, “how long does popcorn last?”
The expiration date is also called “Use by” and “best by” dates for popcorn kernels are typically around two years from the date of their production and packaging.
However, you can still use them and expect tasty, fluffy, popcorn for anywhere from six to twelve months past the date on the packaging.
For microwave popcorn, the date on the package falls around 8 months after production and packaging.
For best taste and popping results, it’s advised to eat it no more than three months after that date.
Commercially popped popcorn carries a “use by” date of three months post-production. If it’s never been opened, you can still consume it within two to four weeks past that date.
If it has been opened, your best bet is to eat it within one to two weeks from the time the package was opened. Each type of popcorn plays by different rules.
Have you seen the magic that is JiffyPop? Around since 1959, it’s still the same foil-topped and tin-handle pan of popcorn kernels that is heated on the stovetop.
This is how I remember at-home popcorn, and it was an exciting time, less for the special on TV than it was to watch that silver bubble pop up.
The bottom line
I think most of us are familiar with those giant tin cans of popcorn we’d get at Christmas, sometimes divided into buttery flavor, plain, and caramel corn.
I remember the uncoated, plain kind turning into old popcorn the fastest because they had no “protection” from the air.
And that tin lid was probably off more than it was on, and we’d only get through half of that huge can before it was suddenly chewy and stale popcorn.
For that week between Christmas and New Year, that can was brought out for the big family game nights and kept us going into the wee hours.
Ultimately, the answer to the big question is yes, popcorn can go bad.
Most often, though, popcorn going ‘bad’ is more a matter of stale popcorn having lost its freshness with declining taste than it no longer being safe to eat.
No matter what type of popcorn you’re popping or eating, proper storage and general adherence to the dates on the packaging will help you to enjoy fresher, better tasting popcorn before it goes bad.
Chocolate Chip & Popcorn Cookies
If you’re going nut-free, here's a new kind of crispy crunch in a well-loved, lightly sweet classic cookie.
- 1/2 c butter, softened
- 2 T vegetable shortening (Crisco)
- 1 c brown sugar, packed
- 1 large egg, room temperature
- 1 t vanilla extract
- 1-1/4 c fresh all-purpose flour
- 1/4 t baking soda
- 1/4 t baking powder
- Dash salt
- 2 c popped plain popcorn, cooled and lightly crushed
- 1 c semisweet or dark chocolate chips
- Preheat oven to 350F.
- Add popped popcorn to a large baggie and crush with a rolling pin. Remove any unpopped or burnt kernels.
- Cream brown sugar and butter/shortening until light and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Beat in egg and vanilla. In a separate bowl, stir baking soda, baking powder, flour and salt together with a fork. Gradually add into creamed mixture and beat on low until well blended. Stir in chocolate chips and popcorn. Drop by tablespoons onto a greased cookie sheet about 2 inches apart Bake approximately 11 to 13 minutes or until golden. Do not overbake.
- Remove to a cooling rack and store in an airtight container after completely cool.
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