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All About Popcorn

Published March 02, 2015        by Matt

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all about popcorn

Popcorn History, Tips, Recipes and Gift Tins!

Popcorn is a snack staple in the lives of most Americans. People of all ages love popcorn and the statistics show it. In fact, the average American eats over 200 cups of popcorn each and every year!

In this article, I give you a brief history of popcorn and tell you what makes popcorn pop - scientifically speaking. In addition, I've included some of my favorite popcorn recipes as well as my tips for choosing great popcorn gift baskets for friends, family, or corporate clients.

Popcorn History 101

Popcorn has been grown and eaten as a snack in the United States for thousands of years. Archaeologists exploring a Bat Cave in central New Mexico found ears of popcorn that were at least 4,000 years old. It is believed that the popping of corn was first discovered by Native Americans who threw the corn into the fire or hot sand causing it to pop. In addition to eating the popped corn, they and their Aztec Indian counterparts used popped corn to make garlands that the women wore during wedding ceremonies and other celebration dances. Likely the native Americans introduced popcorn to the American colonists who actually ground it up mixing it with milk for breakfast.

The mid-1800s brought the moldboard plow to farmers who were able to use the equipment to plant large areas of maize/corn. Since corn was more readily available, popping corn grew traction and became quite popular as a recreational activity by the 1840s. In the latter part of the 19th century (1870s), popcorn was commonly sold at carnivals and circuses as well as in grocery stores.

With the introduction of the movies or 'talking pictures', popcorn solidified its place in America's movie theaters. Although theater owners initially refused to sell popcorn because it was too messy, many theater patrons brought the popcorn to the theater with them by purchasing it from street vendors on the way in. Of course, theater owners finally caught on and introduced the snack selling it at their own concession counters. This introduction of popcorn to movie theaters enabled the popcorn industry to keep growing even during the great depression of the 1930s. In addition, popcorn was a relatively affordable luxury even for struggling families as they could buy it for just 5 to 10 cents a bag.

Because of the sugar shortage during World War II, candy was not readily available as a snack item. Thanks to the lack of candy for snacks, Americans turned to popcorn to fill their snack needs, eating 3 times as much popcorn as usual. World War II also induced a baking flour shortage which the popcorn industry capitalized on. Bread makers were forced to substitute 25% ground popcorn for their wheat flour.

After many years riding the popcorn popularity wave, the industry actually had a slump in the 1950s when TV was introduced. People stopped going to the theaters in lieu of staying home watching TV. The lack of theater goers created a huge drop in popcorn consumption. Up to that point, people didn't really eat popcorn at home. However Americans missed their popcorn so they started popping it at home and the introduction of the microwave made home popping even easier. So the love affair has continued ever since. These days, popcorn is one of America's most popular and enduring snacks.

Did You Know?

popcorn facts
Image by veggiefrog on Flickr

Some Native American folklore theorized that a spirit living inside each kernel of popcorn was the reason it popped when heated. As the kernels were heated, it was said that the spirit got angry and burst from his home into the air as a puff of steam.

How Does Popcorn Pop?

The Science of Popping

Each kernel of popcorn contains a small drop of water stored inside a circle of soft starch which is surrounded by the kernel's hard outer surface. Unlike most other types of grain, this hard outer surface is impervious to moisture. For the corn to be 'popcorn', it needs to contain at 13.5 to 14% moisture inside the hard outer surface.

As the kernel heats up, the water begins to expand turning it into superheated pressurized steam. The pressure builds against the hard hull until it gives way, causing the popcorn to explode. The hull rupture usually occurs at about 135 psi and a temperature of 180 degrees Celsius.

As it explodes, the soft starch inside the popcorn becomes inflated and bursts into an airy foam, turning the kernel inside out. As the foam cools, the starch and protein polymers set yielding the crispy popcorn puff that we all know and love.

Old Maids or those unpopped kernels of corn that are left at the bottom of popcorn bowls are generally the result of either kernels that don't have the proper moisture content (around 14%) or they have a cracked outer hull which means that the expanding steam can't build enough pressure to cause the kernel to pop.

How To Make Popcorn Balls

Popcorn Fun Factspopcorn bowl

  • The average American (every man, woman and child) consumes 54 quarts of popcorn annually which means that the U.S. eats about 17 million quarts of popcorn each and every year. Americans consume more popcorn than the citizens of any other country in the world.
  • The majority of Americans enjoy their popcorn at home either making it themselves or buying pre-popped bags at places like the grocery store. This accounts for 70% of popcorn consumption. The other 30% of popcorn is consumed outside the home at places like baseball games and movie theaters.
  • Not surprisingly, the U.S. is the largest agricultural grower of popcorn in the world - mostly in Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Michigan, Missouri, Nebraska and Ohio. There are many midwest cities that claim to be the popcorn capital of the world.
  • Fall and winter are the seasons when the most popcorn is consumed. This timing coincides perfectly with the annual popcorn harvest in the Midwest. In fact, October is officially National Popcorn Poppin' Month.
  • According to the Guinness Book of World Records, the world's largest popcorn ball was unveiled in September 2006 in Lake Forest, Illinois. It weighed a whopping 3,423 pounds and measured 8 feet in diameter. The total circumference of the popcorn ball was 24.5 feet. It took employees of a local popcorn tin company 2 days to make the giant-sized snack.
  • Popcorn is one of the healthiest snacks you can eat with only 31 calories per air-popped cup or only 55 calories per oil-popped cup. It contains no sodium and is naturally sugar free and high in fiber. Unless you are on the Atkins diet, popcorn is the ultimate healthy snack.
  • Popcorn is a member of the maize/corn family, but it is the only one of the 6 types that pops. This is because it has a thicker hull than other types of corn. This hull allows pressure to build inside the kernel enabling it to pop.
  • Want to do a fun little experiment the next time you are popping corn? Just stand back and watch because popcorn is said to be able to pop up to 3 feet up in the air.
  • If you wanted to create a line of popped popcorn from LA to NY city, you'd need more than 352,028,160 pieces of popcorn.

Popcorn Poppers

Having a good popcorn popper is essential to making great popcorn. When trying to decide what kind of popper to buy, check places like consumer reports for ratings on how well they pop, how much volume they create, and cost to value analysis. Also be sure to choose one that has undergone scientific laboratory testing. Decide before you buy any electric popper whether you want automatic (has a thermostat which automatically shuts off the popper at the end of a popping cycle) or a non-automatic (must be promptly disconnected manually to prevent burning). I recommend automatic so be sure to check the manual or box for the distinction.

Popcorn Popper History

The earliest popcorn popper was actually the fire and heated sand used by the Native Americans to pop their corn. Once the corn was heated and popped, the fluffy popped corn was sifted from the sand and then pounded into a fine powder that was later mixed with water for eating. It was easy for the Native Americans who were constantly moving to just carry the powder with them and make a meal on the go.

At the Chicago World's Columbian Expo in 1893, Charles Cretors introduced the world's first mobile popcorn machine to the public. The steam powered machine could do multiple tasks including roasting 12 pounds of peanuts, 20 pounds of coffee, popping corn and baking chestnuts. The scent of roasted peanuts and buttery fresh-popped popcorn attracted much attention and the ease at which this machine could be moved ultimately led to sales. Scientific American reported: "This machine... was designed with the idea of moving it about to any location where the operator would be likely to do a good business. The apparatus, which is light and strong, and weighing but 400 or 500 pounds, can be drawn readily by a boy or by a small pony to any picnic ground, fair, political rally, etc., and to many other places where a good business could be done for a day or two."

Between 1900 & 1910, Cretors & Co introduced a large steam powered horse-drawn popcorn wagon. They also began working on the first electric powered popcorn machine and by the 1930s, electric poppers were the norm. Over the years, popcorn machines were constantly evolving with the introduction of automatic opening covers, auto oil pumps, popcorn warmers and more. The only time there was a break in machine production was during world war II when all non-essential manufacturing companies were given war-making tasks. Subsequently, many companies developed small sized poppers for the home maker. For a more detailed outline of the evolution of the popper, please visit Cretor & Co's website.

Percy Spencer accidentally stumbled upon the notion that microwave radio signals could be used to heat and cook food in 1945. His discovery and experiments with popcorn helped lead to the development of the microwave oven. This milestone discovery along with the development of ready to microwave bags of corn created $240 million in annual sales in the 1990's. Now popping popcorn is the #1 use for microwaves in America!

Yummy Popcorn Recipes

When you want to add a little extra punch to your popcorn, try some of these fantastic gourmet popcorn recipes. For even more ideas, visit the website.

Easy Caramel & Walnut Popcorn

  • 1/2 cup butter
  • 1/2 cup brown sugar
  • 3 quarts unsalted popped popcorn
  • 1 cup chopped nuts(e.g., walnuts)

Cream together butter and brown sugar till light and fluffy. In a separate bowl, toss popcorn and walnuts. Add creamed mixture to popcorn and nuts. Combine until coated. Spread on a large baking sheet in a single layer. Bake at 350-degree oven for 10 minutes or until crisp. Makes about 3 quarts.

Kicked Up Cajun Popcorn

  • 2 1/2 quarts popped popcorn
  • 1/4 cup butter, melted
  • 1 teaspoon paprika
  • 1/2 teaspoon onion powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
  • 1 teaspoon lemon pepper

Pour butter over warm popcorn. Combine remaining seasonings and sprinkle over popcorn; toss to mix. Bake in 300-degree Fahrenheit oven for crispy popcorn. Makes about 10 cups of popcorn.

White Chocolate Popcorn Crunch

  • 5 cups popped popcorn
  • 1/2 cup dried sweetened cranberries
  • 1/2 cup sliced almonds
  • 12 ounces white chocolate baking chips, chopped white chocolate or white candy coating
  • 1-2 tablespoons vegetable shortening

Cover a baking pan with foil or wax paper; set aside. Place popcorn, cranberries and almonds in a large bowl; set aside.

Melt the white chocolate in a double boiler over barely simmering water, stirring until smooth OR melt according to package directions. (If chocolate is not smooth after melting, , stir in 1-2 tablespoons shortening until mixture is smooth and loose enough to coat popcorn.)

Pour chocolate mixture over popcorn mixture and stir to coat. Spread onto prepared pan; allow to cool completely. When chocolate is cooled and set, break into chunks for serving. Store in an air-tight container at room temperature.

Try this great variations - White Chocolate Peppermint Popcorn Crunch: Omit cranberries and almonds. Stir in 1 cup crushed hard candy peppermints after chocolate is melted.

Easy Microwave Popcorn Trail Mix

  • 1 bag (3.5 oz) Microwave Popcorn (use Light for Healthier Version)
  • 1 cup dry roasted salted peanuts
  • 1/2 cup raisins
  • 1/2 cup chopped dried apricots
  • 1/3 cup sunflower seeds
  • 1/2 cup firmly packed brown sugar
  • 1/4 cup butter
  • 2 Tbsp honey
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 1/4 tsp baking soda

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease 14" x 10" metal baking pan. Pop popcorn according to package directions (we use Newman's Own Natural Light Microwave) and pour into large glass bowl. Add peanuts, raisins, apricots and sunflower seeds mixing well. Set aside.

In 1 quart glass measuring cup, mix brown sugar, butter, honey and salt. Microwave uncovered on high for 90 seconds. Stir well. Continue microwaving on high 30 seconds. It should be boiling. Continue boiling 90 seconds. Remove from microwave and stir in the baking soda. Pour syrup mixture over popcorn mixture, stirring until mixed. Place mixture into greased pan. Bake 15 minutes, stirring once. Remove from oven to cool and crisp. Store in a tightly covered container.

Peanut Butter Popcorn Balls

  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1/2 cup light corn syrup
  • 3 tablespoons butter or margarine
  • 3 tablespoons peanut butter
  • 8 cups popped popcorn
  • 1 cup candy-coated peanut candy (Reese's Pieces)

Line a baking sheet or work surface with waxed paper and set aside. Stir sugar, corn syrup, butter and peanut butter together in a large saucepan. Bring to a full boil over medium heat. Stir in popcorn until well coated.

Remove pan from heat and stir candy pieces gently into mixture. Allow mixture to cool just enough to allow handling. Using a nice cream scoop or buttered hands, shape mixture into 2-inch balls and place on waxed paper to cool. Wrap each ball in plastic wrap and store in an airtight container. Makes 14 - 18 balls depending on how big you make them.

Popcorn as a Gift

Gourmet popcorn makes a great gift for just about any occasion and best of all, it is appropriate for any age. Kids love popcorn as much as adults so consider sending them one as a birthday or get well gift. Popcorn tins are also appropriate for corporate clients so sending one for the holidays or to say thank you any time of the year is a fantastic idea.

When looking for holiday popcorn tins and gourmet popcorn gifts, be sure to make sure that the popcorn is fresh-popped. Many companies pop it ahead of time so it will sit on shelves for months and months before your recipient receives it. Fresh popcorn tins may cost a bit more, but the popcorn tastes a million times better. So if you want rave reviews, look for a fresh-popped statement or guarantee on the companies product or website prior to purchasing!

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