Pop Star: Popcorn Farmer Shares His Favorite Popcorn Recipes
Popcorn almost seems like magic. Take a small, hard kernel, heat it up, and suddenly it pops into a fluffy, white flower you can eat. Apparently, that magic has been a fascination for a long time. The oldest ears of popcorn found in the Bat Cave in New Mexico date to about 5,600 years ago. The size of the ears varied from smaller than a penny to about 2 inches long. Surprisingly, they still popped.
Though it didn’t appear in farm information and seed catalogs until 1880, popcorn became one of the few affordable treats during the Depression and World War II. The United States leads the world in the production of popcorn. Most popcorn grows in Nebraska and Indiana, but Illinois, Ohio and Missouri also raise their fair share. The average American eats about 68 quarts of popcorn a year.
Morgan County farmer John Potter grows popcorn as a hobby.
“I just plant it for fun,” says Potter, who raises corn and soybeans for a living. “I order the seeds from a garden catalog and plant it for the family. We used to put it in Mason jars and give it as Christmas gifts. I like to grow the red popcorn – the kernels are red, but it pops white.”
So why does popcorn pop? Native American stories describe spirits that live inside each kernel of popcorn. The spirits feel quiet and content living in the kernels, but become angry when their homes get heated up. The hotter their homes, the angrier they become. The kernels shake and shimmy with their anger until the heat becomes too much. The spirits burst out of their homes and into the air as disgruntled puffs of steam.
OK, if you don’t buy the spirit story, then how about this: Each hard kernel of popcorn has a small amount of water stored inside a sphere of soft starch. As the kernels are heated, the water expands as it turns to vapor. The pressure eventually breaks the hard outer surface as the starch inflates and basically turns the kernel inside out. For this to work well, the kernel has to be relatively small, and the hard outer shell of the kernel must be quite strong to resist the increasing pressure. This explains why popcorn has kernels that are smaller than most field corn.
Most popcorn gets classified into two types: round pearl kernels usually produced on large ears and sharp-pointed rice kernels usually produced on small ears. Pearl-type kernels (what you usually find commercially) produce large, whole hulls when popped. Rice type kernels produce smaller popped corn with a tender consistency and little or no hull (that thing that gets caught in your teeth). Home gardeners especially prize rice types, also available in specialty shops.
Kernel colors vary from the usual white and yellow to red, brown, black, blue and even multicolored. But no matter the color, the key to the pop is water. Popcorn needs to have a moisture content of 13 to 14 percent. If you have popcorn that just doesn’t pop anymore, it has probably gotten too dry. To correct the problem, place unpopped corn in a glass quart jar. Put in 1 tablespoon of water. Seal tightly and shake jar well. One hour later, shake again. During the next four to seven days, shake the jar vigorously two or three times a day. Store in an airtight container or in the freezer to maintain moisture.
Though nothing beats a buttery bowl of popcorn, we offer a few new ideas on how to enjoy this favorite treat: