Popcorn. With more varieties than you can shake a stalk at, this snack is fun to grow, beautiful to observe, and delicious to eat.
Heirloom popcorn comes in a wide variety of colors.
A few months ago, the Weidman household suffered a paralyzing crisis. Our hot-air popcorn popper burned out, the victim of a short, heavy life of delivering popcorn on demand.
We spent a few weeks flirting with microwave popcorn, until the pungent fake-butter flavors, questionable additives, and burnt kernels drove us to buy a new air popper. As you might have guessed, we like popcorn—a lot. It’s our Dancing with the Stars/Movie Night go-to snack. We typically pop up and polish off two gallons of the fluffy, crunchy snack once or twice a week, buttered and salted of course. Even the dogs get in on the act, anxiously waiting to have their own little bowls filled with popcorn.
We’re not alone, either. According to the Popcorn Board, America crunched its way through 16 billion quarts of popped popcorn in 2012. If you removed all 100,000 seats of the Rose Bowl stadium and maybe changed the name to the American Popcorn Bowl, you could fill it to heaping four times over with that much popcorn! More than two-thirds of that volume went to home consumption, with the remaining 30 percent going to movie theaters, sports arenas (like the Rose Bowl, no doubt!) and other venues.
Origin of Popcorn
Popcorn goes back a long way, and could be the most ancient of snack foods. Consider this: The four oldest varieties of maize still growing in Mexico (its most likely birthplace) just happen to be popcorns. Spaniards exploring 16th century Central and South America observed Native Americans using popcorn in their ceremonies and regular diet time and time again. Some Native American cultures produced special pottery for popping popcorn, while others just skewered ears or oiled them and laid them beside a fire to pop. The first Thanksgiving’s menu is said to have included several bags of pre-popped corn, courtesy of Quadequina, Massasoit’s brother.
Laura Ingalls Wilder, famous for her Little House books, recorded her future husband’s 9-year-old musings on popcorn in Farmer Boy, including how he liked to combine it with milk because he believed these were the only two things in the world that can share the exact same space. Oh, by the way, this does work. You really can add an entire mug of popped corn into a full mug of milk one kernel at a time, and never spill a drop!
If, like little Almanzo Wilder, you've ever taken a moment to examine popped popcorn, you may have noticed two distinct kinds of shapes. Some varieties produce compact spherical flakes, called “mushroom” flakes in the industry, while others produce winged flakes called “butterfly” or “snowflake” flakes. Butterfly varieties tend to be larger and more tender than mushroom, and are typically used for home popping and movie house popcorn. Mushroom flakes are denser and more likely to stand up to processing, making them ideal for caramel corn and other confections.
The best homemade popcorn copmes from homegrown kernels. You can choose from a spread of different varieties of popcorn, many of which are heirlooms, like Strawberry, Dakota Black, Pennsylvania Dutch Butter Flavor and Indian Fingers. As an added bonus, many heirlooms are also very ornamental and colorful.
Certain older heirloom varieties of popcorn possess the interesting ability to resist pollination with non-popcorn varieties. This trait makes saving seed from these popcorns possible, even simple in the home garden. You can test a given variety by growing a few test rows side-by-side with a differently colored variety of field or sweet corn, then checking the ears of popcorn for color contamination at harvest. If you have no crossing, use that year’s harvest for popping and plan to grow a bigger plot for seed next season. Home popcorn seed savers need to maintain a minimum population of at least a hundred stalks to avoid a shallow gene pool, saving a few kernels from as many different ears as possible each year.
Popcorn grows well in the home garden, preferring the same conditions as sweet corn. Choose a location with full sun and good drainage for your plot. Plant it in square blocks of short rows for best pollination, spaced at least 6 inches apart in the row and 3 feet between rows. Just like sweet corn, popcorn germinates best if you wait until the soil warms before sowing your crop. Thin the stalks to a 12-inch spacing once the stalks have emerged. Keep your popcorn block at least 100 feet from any sweet corn to avoid cross-pollinating and ruining your sweet corn.
Plan on weeding, hoeing or cultivating your corn patch until the stalks can shade the soil beneath them. This prevents new weeds from growing. While you’re at it, “hill” your stalks by hoeing loose soil up around their bases. This helps lend support against strong winds and heavy rain, and also protects their shallow roots.
Like other grasses, popcorn appreciates a few feedings of nitrogen-rich fertilizers, typically at planting, again when the stalks reach your knees, and finally when tassels begin to form. Your popcorn plot will love a side dressing of well-composted horse manure spread between the rows. Just be certain that it has been completely composted, to kill any weed seeds that may be contained in it. Liquid fish emulsion is another excellent organic source of nitrogen and other nutrients. Use a hose-end sprayer attachment on your garden hose to deliver diluted fish emulsion to your corn when it needs a boost of nitrogen. Follow the same procedure as watering with a hose, soaking the ground at the base of the stalks, and avoiding wetting the leaves. Do this early in the morning, so the plants have plenty of time to dry before nightfall.
Unlike sweet corn, popcorn will occupy its bed for the entire season; there’s no succession planting here! Keep this in mind, selecting a variety that will reach maturity in your region. When the stalks have dried down, the husks have turned papery and the kernels are rock hard, usually in mid-October, it’s time to start thinking about harvesting your ears. Gather a few test kernels and try popping them in a kettle. If most of them pop, it’s time to harvest and husk your crop.
Store the ears in shallow boxes or mesh orange or onion bags in a warm dry area with good ventilation for a few weeks to a month, before doing another test pop. If you get a good pop rate, you can go ahead and shell the kernels for long-term storage. Be careful not to crack the shells, as a cracked kernel won’t pop. Store your shelled popcorn in an airtight container in a cool, dry place. Popcorn can store well this way for up to a year, but who can resist popping it up for that long?
Popcorn needs to maintain precise 13 to 14 percent moisture content for optimum popping. Orville Redenbacher claims a target ideal of 13.25 percent, in case you’re curious. Higher moisture makes the popped corn gets tough and chewy. Lower than that, and you get lots of “old maids,” as unpopped kernels are called in the industry. While there are all manner of technical ways to hit that moisture target, there is one very simple method—salt brine. Make a saturated salt solution by dissolving table salt in a small jar of water until no more will dissolve. Sprinkling a few drops of this saturated brine in your popcorn jar should help bring kernel moisture back into the ideal range.
Pop It Up a Notch
If you’re looking for a flavor adventure, try these ramped-up popcorn recipes, whipped up by Matthew Kern. Kern is Sous Chef for C & J Catering (of Harrisburg, Penn.), and studied culinary arts at Johnson & Wales University, graduating in 1999.
“On Sundays during football season we grill out and tailgate at the house,” Kern said. “I found that popcorn was a cheap way to pitch in on the food and use my culinary background to give that little extra that separates ordinary from extraordinary! The recipes are very simple, and you can use any kind of popcorn that you would like. Here are a few that I remember went over very well.”
Garlic Parmesan: Melt 3 tablespoons butter and combine with 1 tablespoon of fresh minced garlic. Sprinkle ¼ cup Parmesan cheese, 1 tablespoon garlic salt and a pinch of oregano over 4 cups popcorn. Drizzle with melted garlic butter and toss. You can also add a small amount of crushed red peppers to zest it up a bit. Mrs.
Dash Garden Vegetable Seasoning is also a nice touch.
Ranch: Toss popcorn with ranch dressing powder mix and 3 tablespoons butter.
Sriracha Parmesan: Toss popcorn in 2 tablespoons Sriracha sauce, ¼ cup Parmesan cheese (fine grade powder) and 2 tablespoons melted butter. (Sriracha is a Thai spicy pepper sauce also referred to as Rooster Sauce.)
French Toast: Toss popcorn in cinnamon sugar, 2 tablespoons melted butter and finish with a fine drizzle of maple syrup.
You couldn’t ask for a better snack food than popcorn. Eating it between meals satisfies your hunger, without spoiling your appetite later. It’s a whole grain snack, supplying complex carbohydrates and dietary fiber, and it’s sugar free. Popcorn is also naturally low in fat and calories. One cup of plain air-popped popcorn has about 30 calories, and popping with oil only adds another 25 calories per cup. Lightly buttering your popcorn takes the calorie count per cup to roughly 130 calories.
The best method of popping corn is the source of some debate. Some folks prefer using a microwave oven, others a kettle on the stovetop. You already know my household likes to use a hot air popper. It all comes down to personal preference.
Popcorn pops easily in a kettle on the stove. Select a large kettle with a loose fitting, vented lid. You can even use a purpose-made popcorn kettle with built-in crank stirring mechanism. Coat the bottom of the kettle with a small amount (2 or 3 tablespoons) of vegetable oil, and heat over medium heat until a single kernel will pop. Stir in ½ cup of popcorn kernels to coat with oil and increase heat to medium high. Be sure to allow the steam to escape while popping, so the popcorn stays tender. Shake the kettle on the stove or crank the stirring mechanism while popping, and remove it from the heat when the popping slows. Pour into a big bowl, flavor and salt it to taste, and dig in!
If you want the simplicity of microwave popcorn, but not all the chemical additives, you can make your own microwave bags. Put ¼ to ½ cup of kernels, or even simpler, a whole ear of popcorn, in a brown paper lunch bag. Fold the top down, and microwave it on high setting for 2 to 3 minutes. When popping slows down to 1 or 2 seconds between pops, stop the microwave so your treat doesn’t scorch. Season it any way you like, and enjoy! A word of caution: Don’t add any oil to the bag of unpopped kernels, or you could start a fire in your microwave!
Air poppers use a fan and heater to create a superheated air jet, popping the kernels and delivering them directly into the waiting popcorn bowl. Stir in some melted butter and salt, or for a lower-calorie option, spray with a pump sprayer filled with your preferred healthy oil, and sprinkle with the seasoning of your choice. No kettles to shake, no bags to burn, no questionable additives to worry about. What could be easier than that?
If you’re a bit more adventurous, try popping over an open campfire. You can pop skewered corn on the cob over a fire like Native Americans. Watch out, some of the kernels will fly! Maybe you want to try “hobo popcorn”? Bundle a ¼ cup of kernels in a large square of foil and tie it onto a long stick before toasting it over the flames. And then there’s the campfire classic, the Jiffy Pop frying pan. Anyone who remembers this foil “science project” will agree there’s something magical about watching that foil balloon as it puffs up with delectably crunchy popcorn over the fire.
Popcorn is America’s first snack food, all natural, and far from junk food. Best yet, you can easily produce your own homegrown snack food. Why not pop up a bowlful for your next movie night? Speaking of which, you’ll have to excuse me. The movie is about to start, and the dogs are begging for their bowls!
Andrew Weidman is a freelance garden writer in Lebanon, Pennsylvania. He is a Penn State Master Gardener and a member of the Back Yard Fruit Growers.
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