Preparing Grain Corn for Cooking

Small-scale corn growing doesn’t have to be all about sweet corn. Use homegrown grain corns and make the best, most nutritious flour and corn meal, the old-fashioned way.

| May/June 2015

The transformation of hard corn kernels into edible food follows three distinct pathways. Archeologists believe the most ancient method of preparing corn for eating was by popping. The hard, indigestible grain was made palatable and digestible by exploding the kernels over heat. In the Peruvian Andes, the Inca made partially covered clay vessels for the purpose of popping corn. At its center of origin in Mexico, corn is prepared by steeping it in an alkaline solution, then rinsing it and cooking the kernels until they are soft. The softened grain is consumed whole or ground. Popping and alkaline steeping are centuries-old, distinctly American traditions. In contrast, dry milling of corn with stone or steel has roots in the Indo-European tradition of preparing small grains for bread and gruel by using a millstone.

Preparing popcorn

Popcorn kernels explode best when they have exactly 13.5 percent moisture content by weight. When the kernel moisture strays from the optimum, popping expansion is impaired. Storing corn at 75 percent relative humidity achieves the perfect moisture content. If this precise instruction seems overly technical and leaves you with a sinking feeling that you will never have perfect popcorn, join the crowd.

Among the yellowing bulletins I received from Calendula Books was a reprint of a 1946 article, “Conditioning Popcorn to the Proper Moisture Content for Best Popping,” written by S. T. Dexter. At first I presumed this would have the same information given in every other publication on popcorn with some industrial-scale recommendations.

Dexter’s technique is simple. Prepare a saturated salt solution by adding salt to water until no more salt will dissolve. Place your popcorn in a dry mason jar with a paper towel or cloth wet with the salt solution; the paper or cloth should be soaked but not dripping. Seal the jar, and in a few days the kernels will be reconditioned. If you have a sack of old, stale popcorn, it is worth trying to recondition it with this technique before consigning it to the chicken coop.

When popping the corn, use oil with a high smoking point, such as coconut oil. Use enough oil to cover the base of the pan. Add two or three kernels and put the pan on the stove. When the kernels pop, the oil is hot enough to add about a quarter cup of kernels. Cover the pan and shake it to keep the kernels moving. A spatter screen instead of a lid will allow the moisture in the corn to escape from the pan, producing more tender popcorn. The moisture from popping toughens the flakes, so transfer the popcorn to a bowl or colander as soon as it has popped.

Alkaline steeping of corn

Tortillas and tamales are made from whole kernels of dry grain corn that have been steeped in a hot alkaline solution, left to soak in the solution as it cools, and then washed the next day. The process is called nixtamalization, and the treated kernels are called nixtamal. The nixtamal is ground wet to make masa, the wet flour used to make tamales and tortillas. The masa makes a weak, pastelike dough that, with skilled hands, can be molded into tortillas. These are cooked rapidly on a very hot clay surface called a comal. Whole nixtamal is also cooked until the kernels are tender, at which point it is once again called maíz, or corn. Masa and the whole treated kernels are also available in a dry form.

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