While cleaning my pantry I found an old bag of popcorn stuffed way in the back. I checked the expiration date and it had expired months ago. My first thought was to throw it out, but then I started to wonder – does popcorn expire? And if so, can popcorn go bad? So I did some research and here’s what I found.
Yes, popcorn does expire and can go bad, but if stored properly it can be eaten well beyond its best-by or sell-by date. There are also ways to test popcorn to see if it’s still good, and techniques for reviving stale popcorn.
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What’s the Shelf Life of Popcorn? Does Popcorn Expire?
Unpopped Popcorn Kernels
With proper storage, unpopped popcorn kernels can last indefinitely. An unopened, factory-sealed bag of kernels can last many years. An opened bag can last a couple of years if stored in an air-tight container. For best results, you should pop and eat them within 6 months to one year of the sell-by date.
Pro Tip: Test old kernels by popping a small batch. If many kernels don’t pop, then you know the popcorn has dried out and it’s time to start with a fresh bag.
- Popped dry kernels – Once you’ve popped popcorn, it lasts about 1-2 weeks with proper storage.
- Packaged – Unopened, ready-to-eat popcorn lasts about 2-3 months. Opened popcorn lasts about 1-2 weeks. Like a bag of chips, once you’ve opened the bag you need to keep a good seal on it or else it’ll quickly go stale.
- Popcorn tins – Unopened tins last up to 2 months. Opened tins last about 2-3 weeks.
Microwave popcornMicrowave popcorn doesn’t last as long as plain kernels. They’re generally packed with oils and seasonings that can go rancid. For the best quality, use microwave popcorn up to 2-3 months beyond the best-by date. Once popped, it gets stale quicker than regular popcorn, so it’s best to use it within a week of popping.
5 Ways to Tell if Popcorn Has Gone Bad
- Smell – Microwave popcorn is packaged with oils and additives. If it smells off, it’s a sign that the oils have started to go rancid. Rancid foods can lead to digestive issues so it’s best to throw rancid popcorn away.
- Taste – If the popcorn has an unusual taste, throw it out. You might experience tastes like rancid oil, a musty flavor, or little or no flavor.
- Texture – Stale popcorn has a rubbery and tough feel to it. It has a chewy mouthfeel instead of the usual light and fluffy feel. Eating stale popcorn isn’t a safety issue, it’s just unpleasant. Why spoil a great popcorn eating experience with stale popcorn!
- Mold – Popcorn can get moldy when exposed to moisture. If you see any evidence of mold, don’t eat the popcorn.
- Bugs – If you notice bugs in your popcorn, throw it away immediately. Spread some kernels out in your hand and look for bugs or round holes in the kernels. If you see bugs or signs of bugs, throw the popcorn away immediately.
Is it Safe to Eat Expired Popcorn?
The date on your popcorn refers to the quality, not food safety. Manufacturers’ best-by and sell-by dates refer to when they believe the product will be at its freshest.
Here are some of the USDA’s definitions of commonly used food quality dates:
“Sell-By Date: a month/date/year that tells a store how long to display the product for sale. It’s based on when a manufacturer believes food will be freshest.
Use-By Date: a month/date/year by which a manufacturer recommends you consume a product to ensure its peak quality. The label might also say “best if used by” or “best before.”
Expiration (EXP) Date: Egg cartons with the USDA grade shield must display a “pack date,” the date they went in the carton. Some states also require eggs be stamped with an “expiration” date, which is scary-sounding but effectively a sell-by date.”
So, does popcorn expire? Well, based on this information, popcorn doesn’t necessarily expire. It just might not taste as good as it would have when fresh.
Popcorn kernels that are past the best-by date will produce more unpopped kernels but are still safe to eat. Each kernel of popcorn needs between 13.5-14% moisture to pop. Over time, kernels start to dry out. A dried-out kernel is unlikely to pop, and you may end up with a lot of unpopped kernels (called old maids). It also may have a less fluffy texture than fresh. (see my article on why popcorn kernels don’t pop)
Microwave popcorn that’s past the best-by date is safe to eat unless you notice an unpleasant taste or smell. This is due to the oils and flavorings going rancid. If you notice a rancid or off smell, throw it away.
Popped popcorn that’s past the best-by date is safe to eat, however, if it has gone stale, it won’t be very enjoyable.
The Best Way to Store Popcorn to Keep it Fresh
The best way to store popcorn is in an air-tight container in a cool, dry place like your pantry or a cupboard. This will keep the popcorn from drying out and increase the shelf-life.
Keep popcorn away from the stove or other appliances that may produce heat.
Avoid storing popcorn in direct sunlight. This is especially true with gourmet toppings, such as chocolate or caramel. These toppings will melt if they get too warm or are placed in direct sunlight.
Tips for storing popcorn:
Unpopped – A sealed container will help the kernels from drying out. Remember, the kernels need a bit of moisture to be able to pop, so if they dry out they’ll be less likely to pop.
Popped – An air-tight container helps keep its natural moisture in which keeps the popcorn from getting stale. Wait until your popcorn has cooled completely before storing. Otherwise, the container will trap the warm popcorn with its own steam, and the excess moisture will cause it to get stale faster.
Pro Tip: Spread an even layer of popcorn on a baking sheet to help it cool faster.
The Best Airtight Containers to Store Popcorn
Glass mason jars – I love storing my popcorn in these jars. They keep popcorn kernels fresh and make it easy to store in a cupboard or pantry. And the jars come with a label where you can write the best-by date!
Ziploc Slider bags – I also like to use the Ziploc Slider food storage bags. The press-and-seal bags are a good choice as well, but I think the slider is easier to use and to be sure it’s fully sealed. There have been times when I thought the press-and-seal bag was sealed, but I had missed a spot and everything spilled out of it.
Bag clips – I have a bunch of these at home and use them on bags of chips, popcorn, crackers, and even open bags of spinach in the fridge. They’re so easy to use and will help extend the shelf life of your popcorn.
Can you store popcorn in the freezer?
Never store popcorn kernels in the refrigerator or freezer! Storing them in the freezer causes water to escape which dries out the kernels. We know by now that dry kernels won’t pop!
Popped popcorn can be stored in the freezer, but it does need some prep work.
- Cooling – Popped popcorn must be cooled before freezing. Putting warm popcorn in the freezer will create condensation which will affect the quality and texture.
- Storage – After cooling the popcorn, store it in an air-tight, freezer-safe container. Add a layer of plastic wrap between the lid and the popcorn. Then wrap the container in freezer-grade plastic wrap or foil.
How to Revive Stale Popcorn
Popcorn kernels – Fill a 1-quart mason jar about 2/3 full. Add 1-2 tablespoons of water to the jar, seal the lid and shake. Let them soak for a day or two, shaking the jar every so often. Remember, the reason kernels don’t pop is because they’ve dried out, so we need to get some moisture back in them.
Popped popcorn – The best way to refresh stale popcorn is to put it in the oven and warm it up. Spread popcorn out in an even layer on a baking sheet. Place in a 250°F oven for about 5 minutes, until it’s warmed through.
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