Popcorn Isn’t Just Popcorn
By Lois Hoffman
Who doesn’t love popcorn? Well, I know a couple folks. There just has to be something wrong with anyone who doesn’t like this light, fluffy salty treat for the taste buds.
For us connoisseurs of America’s favorite snack food by volume, we know that popcorn is a lot more complicated than just one snack. After all, you can add most any flavoring to it ranging from cheese, chocolate, spices and caramel to name a few. There are also many different varieties of popcorn to choose from, something that will suit everyone’s palette.
To help distinguish which kind is most suitable to your taste, there is a little popcorn 101 information that needs to be clarified. What few people know is that all corn is a human invention. It cannot exist naturally in the world. Instead, it must be planted and protected by humans. It is believed that popcorn was developed in central Mexico at least 7000 years ago from a grass called teosinte.
Many folks who are unfamiliar with traditional corn farming methods believe that popcorn can come from the large fields of corn that they see. Not so. There are actually three types of corn. Dent corn, so named for the dent that forms on top of the kernel as it dries, is commonly known as field corn. Sweet corn is higher in sugar than dent corn. There are over 300 varieties of sweet corn plants which are harvested in their immature stage and eaten as a sweet summer treat.
Then there’s popcorn. This is a special type of corn that has a dense, moisture-resistant shell or hull. This strong hull allows pressure to build up inside the kernel when heated until the whole kernel explodes (hopefully!). Even though other whole grains like amaranth and sorghum can also pop, popcorn is what we all know and love.
There are basically just two kinds of popcorn; butterfly and mushroom. The main difference between these two is the shape of the kernel. Butterfly, also called snowflake, is best known for theatre popcorn and homestyle popped popcorn products that are usually eaten with just salt and butter.
The mushroom type is perfect for confection-coated applications like caramel corn. Its sturdy, baseball shape stands up to the processes of candy coating because it has more surface area. It also takes flavors very well, stays fresh and crisp longer than its butterfly cousin, and is less prone to crushing.
Popcorn gets even more complicated. In each of these kinds, there is a wide range of quality, flavor, color and size variations. In each of these variations, there is also white and yellow varieties. White popcorn is a bit smaller than yellow and has a neutral, pure popcorn flavor. It is excellent for flavorings and seasonings. Some types of white are Lady Finger, Baby White, Sweet Baby Blue, Tender White and more.
Yellow popcorn is a little bolder. It pops up with a yellow tint and looks more buttery which is why it is favored more at movie theatres. It also has a more distinctive flavor. Yellow types include Baby Yellow, Big and Yellow, Extra Large Caramel as well as others.
Many people prefer the hulless variety even though, technically, this is not a variety but rather a characteristic. All popcorn has a hull which is the outer layer of the popcorn kernel. Usually, the norm is that the smaller the kernel of corn, the fewer hulls it will have and the thinner they will be. Baby White, Lady Finger, Midnight Blue, Vintage Red and Tender White are all “hulless” varieties. Bigger popcorn varieties that have the fewest hulls are Big and Yellow, Extra Large Caramel, Sweet Baby Blue and White Meadows, which are grown in Canada.
Why the Pop?
Regardless of the kind of popcorn you choose, the science behind why it “pops” is the same for all varieties. Early Native Americans believed that a spirit lived inside each kernel and when heated, the spirit became angry, burst out and fled into the air as a disgruntled puff of steam.
Now, for the scientific explanation. Popcorn pops because its hull has just the right thickness to allow it to burst open. Each kernel has a small drop of water stored inside its circle of soft starch. Popcorn needs between 13.5 and 14 percent moisture to pop the soft starch that is surrounded by the kernel’s hard outer surface.
As the kernel heats up, water begins to expand and at 212*F. the water turns to steam and changes the starch inside each kernel into a superheated gelatinous substance. The kernel keeps heating to 347*F. when the pressure inside the grain will reach 135 pounds per square inch before bursting the hull open.
As it explodes, steam in the kernel is released and the soft starch becomes inflated and spills out, cooling immediately and forming into the shape we love. A single kernel can swell to up to 50 times its original size.
As the first bit of starch emerges, it forms a “leg” of sorts which catapults the kernel like a gymnast as the rest of the starch spills out. This is why it “jumps” as it cools. Kernels can pop as high as three feet into the air. Wow, all of this happens inside my beloved Whirley Pop popper!
With only 35 calories per cup of oil popped corn, no wonder we are in love with this snack. America eats 14 billion quarts of popcorn each year. That is 43 quarts for each man, woman and child. The world’s largest popcorn ball was created in 2013 at the Indiana State Fair. With the help of Pop Weaver, Snax in Pax and the Indiana Family of Farmers it weighed in at 6510 pounds and was 8 foot in diameter.
So, popcorn fanatics like myself, don’t give up until you find the variety that is right for you. We all have different tastes and, when it comes to popcorn, there is something out there for everyone.
Tony and Jeanine Plushnik, dear friends of ours, have been on a mission with us as of late. We are in search of the perfect popcorn. So far, Tiny Tender is ranking right up there, but this mission may be never ending as new varieties pop up all the time. Who knows, we may even have to do a little experimenting and grow our own perfect kernels. That’s just about right.
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