BY KURT MICHAEL FRIESE
Would you consider yourself average? If so, then the statisticians who come up with this sort of stuff have determined that you eat about 54 quarts of popcorn every year—that’s 13-1/2 gallons! May sound like a lot, but I have two teenagers and I’d swear I’ve seen them eat that much on our living room floor during just one DVD of Six Feet Under.
Eating lots of popcorn is nothing new. It was a staple for the Aztecs and Incas. An early Spanish account of a ceremony honoring the Aztec god Atlau, who watched over fishermen, reads in part: “They scattered before him parched corn, called momochitl, a kind of corn which bursts when parched and discloses its contents and makes itself look like a very white flower; they said these were hailstones given to the god of water.” Indeed, fossilized remains of popcorn ears were found in a burial ground in a Mexican cave in the 1950s and were carbon dated to 4,000 years ago. So popcorn’s been around a while.
What makes popcorn pop? Very simple physics, actually. The popcorn kernel is made up primarily of starch, in a shell called the enamel, with a tiny bit of moisture locked inside. When moisture is heated, it expands (think water becoming steam), so when the moisture in each little kernel gets to about 450 degrees, the expansion pressure is too much for the enamel to withstand, and POP!
Now, despite appearances, there is no explosion per se. The starches expand into thin, gelatinous bubbles which fuse to each other, just like bubbles in a dish sink (only much tastier).
Popcorn is easy to grow yourself. Just get seed that’s hardy to your zone, and plant according to the package instructions. Weed and water well—it doesn’t like to be stressed – and keep it far from your sweet corn. Cross pollination can harm the quality of your sweet corn.
The good folks at Iowa State University offer this advice for harvest and storage: “Allow the kernels to dry in the field as long as possible. When harvested, the kernels should be hard and the husks completely dry.
“After harvest, remove the husks and place the ears in mesh bags and hang in a warm, dry, well-ventilated location. The ideal moisture content for popcorn is between 13 and 14 percent. Once or twice a week, shell a few kernels and try popping them. When the test kernels are popping well and tasting good, shell and store the rest of the kernels. If the popcorn is chewy or the popped kernels are jagged, it is too wet and needs to continue drying.”
To pop it, I prefer the stovetop method, and those gadgets with the built-in cranks work pretty well to avoid burning and “old maids.” Use an oil that has a very high smoking point and a very light flavor. Corn oil works well, but it’s hard to find non-GMO anymore, so try Asoyia (www.asoyia.com). It’s made in Iowa from non-GMO soybeans.
Kurt Michael Friese is co-owner of the Iowa City restaurant Devotay and is Editor-in-Chief of the magazine Edible Iowa River Valley. Comments may be directed to firstname.lastname@example.org.