All About Popcorn


Popcorn is already a very familiar food to almost everyone. A special strain of corn, popcorn has been in existence for thousands of years. In fact, the oldest popcorn found to date was discovered in a bat cave in New Mexico and was 5,600 years old. Popcorn has also been excavated out of tombs in South America and it was so well preserved it still popped. Thousands of years old popped corn, still white and fresh looking has also been found in ancient burial sites. Popcorn kernels from those early times had a tougher hull and were not as round looking as today's popcorn. When the first Europeans made their mark on the Americas, popcorn was grown by most of the Indians living on the continent. Ancient natives wore popcorn in their hair and around their necks and used it in many different rituals honoring their Gods and their dead. When the Europeans arrived, it became a favorite food for them as well. It was found at that first Thanksgiving Day feast in Massachusetts and later in it's popped form was the first ever puffed breakfast cereal. Later, during the latter part of the 19th century, popcorn was very popular in the cities. Vendors pushed their little carts containing gas powered poppers up and down the streets and at fairs and horse races. During the Great Depression, popcorn made another upswing as this 'extra' was one of the few treats people could afford. During W.W.II when sugar was rationed, popcorn made another surge in popularity. The 1950's were not good years for popcorn. But when the 60's came along and North America fell in love with their televisions, popcorn made it's return to popularity which has only increased until the average American now eats a whopping 68 quarts of popcorn per year.

Popcorn is a type of flint corn. It's kernels have a very hard outer shell with a hard starchy inside. It is dried to a moisture level of 13.5% - the optimum moisture content for good popping. Over the years, plant breeders have had their hand in perfecting popcorn until it's popping ability is now up to 99%.

You may have considered popcorn to be junk-food. However, it actually supplies a lot of nutrition and is suggested as a snack by the National Cancer Institute (NCI), the American Dental Association (ADA) and the American Dietetic Association (ADA). Popcorn contains substantial amounts of carbohydrates, fiber, many of the B vitamins, Potassium, Phosphorus, Magnesium, Iron, Zinc, Pantothenic acid, Copper, Manganese, Linoleic acid and all the essential amino acids. And for how inexpensive popcorn is, popcorn will give you very good nutritional bang for the buck in your food storage or every-day eating. It's inexpensive, easy to pop and great fun to eat.

Hints for getting the best popped corn: Don't pop popcorn in butter as the butter will burn before it can get hot enough. Popcorn pops best in temperatures of 400-460 degrees F. If your oil starts to smoke which happens at 500 degrees F, you've got it too hot. Any oil will work. Use enough oil to cover the bottom of the pan. For your health, you should choose a light cooking oil or better yet, skip the oil all together and use an air popper. The movie houses use yellow dyed coconut oil which does a great job of popping the popcorn although there are healthier oils you can use than coconut oil. To see if you have the oil hot enough, drop a couple of kernels into the hot oil. If it's hot enough, they should pop in just a few seconds. If you don't have a popper, any thick bottomed, high walled pan will do. Popcorn can even be easily made in a Dutch oven over a camp fire. When your oil is the right temperature, pour in your popcorn, shaking the pan to cover all the seeds in oil. Do this with the lid on to prevent burns should the hot oil try to splash out of the pan. Using a lid helps the kernels to heat more evenly and keeps the popping corn from flying all over the place. (If you are using a popcorn popper, shaking it isn't necessary because of it's rounded bottom.) As it begins popping, it's important to continue to shake a flat-bottomed pan. This helps any un-popped kernels to settle to the bottom of the pan where they can pop. As soon as you hear the popcorn stop popping, pull the pan off the heat and pour the popcorn into another container. It will burn if you leave it in the hot pan.

What can you do if you've done everything right but your popcorn still doesn't pop very well? As mentioned above, popcorn must have about 13.5 to 14% moisture to pop properly. This is because as the popcorn kernel is heated, the moisture inside the seed is turned to steam creating a huge inner pressure. As this pressure continues past the shell's strength to keep it in, the skin ruptures and the inner starchy layer of the kernel greatly expands and turns itself inside out. If the moisture isn't there, this pressure build-up can't happen. If you find your popcorn has excessive old maids (un-popped kernels) in it, the problem might be that it lacks moisture. Place 3 cups of un-popped popcorn into a quart bottle. Add a tablespoon of water, put the lid on and shake it to get water on all the kernels. If the water puddles in the bottom of the bottle, shake it again every 10 minutes until enough of the water has been absorbed to prevent puddling. Now let it sit for two or three days while the moisture is evenly distributed into the kernels. If it still doesn't pop correctly, repeat this process but add no more than 2 teaspoons of water the second time. Yes, it's also possible to get it so moist it won't pop, so definitely, don't add water a third time. Lastly, you can even take your old maids that didn't pop, rejuvenate them with water using the above process and re-pop them. (With a measurement of three cups un-popped popcorn, 1 tablespoon of water will increase the moisture content 2.5%. A teaspoon of water will increase the moisture level almost 1%. Air dried popcorn will probably never get below a 10% moisture content on it's own, so adding even two tablespoons of water would be pushing it, raising the moisture content to 15% - that is if it started out at a moisture level of 10%.)

Final thoughts: Popcorn doesn't grind nicely into a flour like yellow dent corn but is fairly gritty because of it's hard inner starches. Also, popcorn is such a hard kernel that several of the lower-end grain grinders can be damaged by it. As popcorn costs twice as much as yellow dent corn, it only makes sense to get that type of field corn for your corn meal needs and leave the popcorn for popping.

Popcorn Recipes:

The Prudent Pantry by Alan T. Hagan