Popcorn: The Incredible Exploding Crop

Yes, you can grow this tasty treat.

Fresh batch

A fresh batch of kettle corn cascades from the popper at the Virginia Highlands Festival in Abingdon, Virginia.

Pat & Chuck Blackley

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Americans love popcorn. In fact, we love it so much we consume 16 billion quarts annually. That’s 54 quarts of puffed-up kernels per person every year. With popcorn’s unique ability to support so many flavors, that number is likely to grow. Popcorn can be buttered, salted, sweetened or spiced, and it makes a nice addition to traditional favorites, such as tomato soup. As a whole-grain food, popcorn is a good source of fiber and is relatively low in calories (31-55 calories per cup), if you don’t mind eating it without the butter.

Explosion of history

The archaeological record indicates that the human relationship with popcorn-like corn was alive and well as far back as 5,600 years ago. In Mexico City and on the east coast of Peru, artifacts created by pre-Incan cultures indicate the utilization of popcorn as decoration for ceremonial headdresses, necklaces and other ornaments. When heated, some of those preserved kernels still popped 1,000 years later.

Christopher Columbus in 1492, Hernán Cortés in 1519, and French explorers around the Great Lakes region in 1612 reported that Native Americans used popcorn for a number of purposes, including as a trade good. Legend holds that Native Americans brought popped corn to the English colonists at the first Thanksgiving feast in Plymouth, Massachusetts. Later, colonial women served popcorn with sugar and cream for breakfast.

In 1885, Charles Cretors of Chicago, Illinois, invented the first popcorn machine, which he tested by peddling freshly popped kernels on street corners. Around 1890, popcorn was important enough that farmers began growing it as a market crop. In 1893, F.W. Rueckheim introduced the first caramel corn. His brother, Louis, modified the recipe, and, in 1896, created Cracker Jack popcorn.

During the Depression, popcorn at 5 or 10 cents a bag was one of the few luxuries families could afford. Consequently, while other businesses failed, the popcorn business thrived.

Popcorn consumption declined in the 1950s when television replaced movie theaters. With the introduction of the microwave and marketing to the public at home, popcorn regained its popularity.

What kind of corn is this?

Corn can be found in six different types: popcorn, sweet, dent/field, flint, flour and pod. Although they were once important foodstuffs, colored flint or Indian corn and pod corns are generally used for decoration today. (Gourmet restaurants have helped create a growing interest in fresh-ground Indian corn meal.) Popcorn, sweet corn and dent (the most common type of field corn) all play a significant role in feeding the population; popcorn is the only type that pops.

Popcorn kernels pop because moisture and oil are sealed deep within their starchy endosperm and hull. Heat the kernels sufficiently and the internal moisture turns into pressurized steam, which in turn ruptures the hull, expanding the starches and the proteins of the endosperm into an airy foam. The foam rapidly cools, creating the crispy puff. "Old maids" result when the hull cracks or kernels do not have enough moisture to create the steam needed for expansion.

Popped kernels are technically called flakes, and they come in two basic shapes: "Butterfly" flakes are irregular and have a number of protruding wings, while "mushroom" flakes are more spherical. In the gourmet popcorn world, butterfly flakes have a better mouth feel, with greater tenderness. Mushroom flakes are stronger and are especially desirable in packaged popcorn or confectionery, such as caramel corn. Both types of flakes may be produced from the same ear of corn, but some varieties favor one over the other. The two major factors used to determine popcorn quality are the percentage of kernels that will pop and how much each popped kernel will expand. Consumers associate larger pieces of popcorn with quality, and expansion is a key factor.

Put some pop in the garden

According to Ken Ziegler, retired agronomist and expert popcorn breeder, popcorn can be grown in any area where dent/field corn is raised. Ziegler says hybrid varieties make the best popcorn, but plenty of folks enjoy growing and eating heirloom varieties. Since popcorn often grows slower than field corn, a dry climate with warm days and cool nights is ideal.

You can plant popcorn right at the last frost date (for your area) in spring, or a little earlier if you feel lucky. Plant popcorn seed 2 to 3 inches deep and spaced 6 to 8 inches apart in rows spaced 30 inches apart. Since corn is wind pollinated, it is more effective to plant a block of several short rows rather than one long row.

Popcorn germinates in approximately seven days and emerges from the soil in about 10 days. The stalks can grow about 8 feet high, depending on variety. Popcorn requires 18 to 24 inches of rain during the growing season. The feathery tassels that form at the top of the plant produce a yellowish powder that is the pollen. This pollen fertilizes the developing ears through the silks. Pollination is necessary for developing kernels on the new ears.

Harvest the bounty

Popcorn matures in 80 to 150 days, depending on variety. When the leaves and stalks turn brown, it’s time to test the kernels to see if they’re ready for harvesting. If a fingernail pressed into the kernel does not leave a mark, then the popcorn is ready to be picked. The ideal moisture content should be 14 percent to 15 percent.

After stripping away the husk from the ears, the ears can be spread out in a well-ventilated area. Let the ears air dry until the kernels shell easily. Test a few kernels for pop-ability in hot oil until the right moisture content is reached.

Keep the corn popping

For home use, popcorn should be stored in airtight plastic bags in a cool place like a basement or cupboard. If the kernels are too dry (they won’t pop), fill a one-quart jar three-quarters full of popcorn and add a tablespoon of water. Shake several times until the kernels absorb the water, then store for a week and test. If the kernels are too moist, the resulting popcorn will be chewy.

For storing larger quantities, it is often easiest to keep freshly husked ears in small (rodent proof) wire cribs. You want to be sure that the kernels are sufficiently dry (use the fingernail test or invest in a moisture tester); less than 20 percent moisture content is ideal. If you are considering popcorn on a very large scale, you can store shelled kernels in enclosed bins with forced-air ventilation.

Marketing the excess

Popcorn is marketed three ways: processor-contracted acreage, open-market sales and local sales. Most commercial popcorn is grown as a contracted crop on a per-pound basis. Because processors have very specific requirements, farmers who are considering this as a marketable crop will have to buy their seed from their processor. Processors use market analysis to determine acreage needs. Thus, they are able to stabilize the market based on supply and demand.

Open-market sales are subject to the risk of the fluctuations in the price of popcorn. A grower venturing into this market will need good storage facilities to take advantage of market upswing.

Selling local may require a longer commitment on the part of the grower, but this is perfect for people who plant an acre or less. Success will be based on the ability to grow a consistently high-quality product and access to a farmer’s market or other specialty outlet. Packaging, even for small sales, is also an important consideration.

Good clean fun

Popcorn is associated with fun, food and fitness. What would a movie theater, sporting event, amusement park or a good movie on television be without popcorn? This year, why not devote some garden space to this rewarding crop. You’ll have a lot of fun and save some money in the process. And, since nothing tastes better than homegrown popcorn, why not add a little pop to your garden next year?

Jane A. White cherishes her popcorn experiences at her home in Belleville, Michigan.