Woman and man at a table with dry ears of corn, while families gather around.
Chair Gail Taylor, right, welcomes guests to the 14 exhibits presented by the UC Davis Department of Plant Sciences in the PES courtyard on Picnic Day. One of the favorites is the corn shelling, hosted by Professor Emeritus Jim Hill, next to Taylor and emptying the gunny sack of dry popcorn. (Trina Kleist/UC Davis)

Picnic Day 2023: How to pop popcorn

At Picnic Day, one of the most popular exhibits is the popcorn shelling machine, in front of the Plant and Environmental Sciences building. Visitors grab a few ears of special corn grown just for popping and toss them down a shaft. Two mighty wheels break the kernels off the cobs and spit the cobs out one chute. Down a second chute clatter the kernels, which are scooped into a bag for folks to take home.

Then what??? This next part is even more fun – be sure to include the kids!

Popping popcorn the old-fashioned way

This method gives you delicious results every time. Adapted from Elsie Bauer’s SimplyRecipes.com.


1-2 tablespoons oil

About 1/3 cup popcorn kernels – just enough to barely cover the bottom of the pan. If you have less, that's OK.

Salt to taste


1. Use a heavy skillet with a lid. Cast iron works great, if you have it. Heat it on medium heat, and when the skillet seems warm, toss in 3 or 4 kernels.

2. When the kernels pop, remove them and add the rest of the corn. The kernels should just cover the bottom of the pan. Don’t add too many, or they’ll pop out all over the floor!

3. Remove the skillet from the heat and count 30 seconds, then return the skillet to the heat.

4. While holding the lid, gently shake the skillet back and forth across the heat source. As the kernels start to pop, hold the lid a little askew so steam can escape – this keeps the popcorn from getting tough.

5. When the popping slows to several seconds between pops, remove the skillet from the heat and pour into a large bowl.

You can sprinkle the popcorn with salt, drizzle with melted butter or use other toppings such as seasoned salt, garlic salt, curry powder, chili seasoning, cayenne pepper or grated parmesan cheese.

Thank you, Jim Hill!

For many years, our popcorn shelling exhibit has been hosted by Professor Emeritus Jim Hill, a UC Extension specialist and associate dean for international programs at the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.

We hope you had a great visit during Picnic Day 2023. We look forward to seeing you next year!

Media Resources

To see pictures and watch a video about popping popcorn, go to Elsie Bauer’s page here.

  • Trina Kleist, UC Davis Department of Plant Sciences, tkleist@ucdavis.edu

Primary Category

Secondary Categories