What Is Popcorn?
How is Popcorn Grown
Popcorn is grown like sweet corn, or field corn, in a field. The difference is that a different kernel is planted for each variety or corn.
The plants will look similar to field corn, and taller than sweet corn. The difference is in the ear. Rather than a cob of sweet corn or field corn, it is a cob of popcorn.
Popcorn can be grown in Canada, but only in the most southwestern part if Ontario. It requires a long growing season in order to come to full maturity so that it will pop. Popcorn is generally planted before the 24th of May, any time after this you are risking the chance that the popcorn will not mature before the first frost.
Aside from the traditional yellow and white popcorn, it also comes in a variety of other colours. They include blue, red and black.
Before harvesting popcorn the plant must turn brown. The moisture of the ear of popcorn should be below 25 percent or damage to the ear may occur and it becomes more costly to dry the popcorn down to the proper moisture for popping which is between 13 and 14 percent moisture. In late fall (October or November) popcorn is harvested with a combine this is the same process that is used to harvest field corn. With the combine the ear is stripped from the plant and the corn is shelled from the cob in the field and all that remains in the combine is the grains of popcorn.
What makes Popcorn Pop
The folklore of some Native American tribes told of spirits which dwelled within each kernel of popcorn. The spirits were quiet and content to live on their own, but grew angry if their “houses” were heated. The hotter their homes became, the angrier they got. Shaking the kernels until the heat was too much. Finally they would burst out of their homes and into the air as a disgruntled puff of steam. And that was why they believed that popcorn popped when heated
Today we know that popcorn pops because each kernel contains a small amount of water, which is stored in the soft starch in the middle of the kernel. This soft starch is surrounded by the kernel’s hard outer surface (the hull).
As the kernel heats up, the water begins to expand, and pressure builds against the hard starch. Eventually, this hard surface gives way, causing the popcorn to explode. As it explodes, the soft starch inside the popcorn becomes inflated and bursts, turning the kernel inside out. The steam inside the kernel is released, and the popcorn is popped!
- Where Does Your Popcorn Come From?
- Sweet Corn: The Corn We Eat
- Field Corn Is Big Business
- Field Corn Is Usually Also GMO Corn (And You’re Ingesting It)
- Field Corn And High-Fructose Corn Syrup
- How High-Fructose Corn Syrup Got So Big
- How High-Fructose Corn Syrup Is Made
- Corn Subsidies
- Two Other Widely-Grown Corn Species
- Corn Resources
- Sweet corn and field corn, what are the differences?
- Reid’s Yellow Dent Corn Seeds
- Reids Yellow Dent Corn
- Can You Eat Field Corn?
- Raw Materials
- The Manufacturing Process
- Quality Control
- The Future
- Where to Learn More
Where Does Your Popcorn Come From?
The telltale tassels are the giveaway; tassels on sweet corn and field corn stand upright at attention. But popcorn plants are noticeably different – they have floppier tassels.
But since that’s just a superficial variation, in order to get a deeper look at the differences between farming corn and popcorn we asked Iowa farmers Ginger and Bill Grubb about common popcorn stories and misconceptions: like whether, for instance, on a hot day a popcorn field would just start exploding. They laughed and said no.
Tassels on sweet corn and field corn stand upright, but popcorn plants have floppier tassels.
But apparently that has happened – at least sort of. In 2010 in Kentucky, a popcorn farmer’s crop burst through its kernels, which had formed at very high temperatures and then filled with water, causing the rupture.
That said, popcorn typically pops after being dried; the heated kernels retain a modicum of moisture that turns to steam, expanding corn into the pop zone.
Kernels that don’t pop? At least among in-the-know popcorn farmers, they’re called spinsters or old maids. Somewhere in the middle are parchies, the nickname for kernels that as much as triple in size without popping. The Grubb’s add them to their personal mix for a nice crunch.
But how did Bill and Ginger – or does anyone – end up farming popcorn? When the two were married, her father made good on an old promise. If she married a farmer like her father, he agreed, he would set her and her husband up with popcorn to farm. As her suitor – Bill – was a fifth generation farmer growing hay, field corn, and finishing beef cattle, their fate was as good as sealed.
Now Ginger and Bill own and operate Grubb’s Premium Popping Corn in Barnes City, Iowa (Ginger is CEO). They’ve grown “zea mays everta” (the scientific name for popcorn) for themselves “as a treat” for over twenty years, but started marketing locally and over the internet four years ago.
Not only do they sell the stuff, but they confess to enjoying it nightly.
In fact, their first seeds were from the same location Orville Redenbacher got his. That’s ironic, too, because if folks like the Grubbs are giving local, homegrown popcorn back to the masses, its because Orville Redenbacher’s mega-branding took that away in the first place. His business was started in 1969, after the Indiana native and his business partner landed on a new hybrid strain of popcorn which eventually captured a third of the unpopped popcorn market.
These days, though, popcorn might be going back to the likes of the Grubbs. And not only do they sell the stuff, but they confess to enjoying it nightly: a bounty of both typical butterfly (movie-theater style) popcorn and mushroom corn (a larger, fluffy favorite among makers of kettle corn). And the parchies? Those are just for them.
Field corn and sweet corn might have similar roots but are very different crops.
Field corn is considered a commodity crop in the United States and is grown on 97 million acres of farmland (equivalent to the size of the state of California!). More than one hundred and sixty times more field corn is grown in the United States than sweet corn.
Sweet Corn: The Corn We Eat
Sweet corn is not even factored into commercial corn statistics. Sweet corn is grown on a bit more than 600,000 acres in the U.S., which is the size of not quite three quarters of Long Island, N.Y.. Four hundred thousand of those sweet corn acres are devoted to corn that will be either canned or frozen. A bit more than 260,000 acres is devoted to fresh sweet corn.(1) Sweet corn is America’s third most loved vegetable and each American consumes almost nine pounds of fresh corn per year; include in that figure canned and frozen sweet corn and the figure is 24 pounds of sweet corn per person. Potatoes are a far distant first at 134 pounds, second is lettuce at 30 pounds per year, tomatoes are a close fourth at 22 pounds per year.(2)
Where is Iowa and Nebraska??? All the corn in the cornfields you see out in the Midwest is being used to feed cars and animals (who would prefer to eat grass) and to make high fructose corn syrup. Chart: biofortified.org
Field Corn Is Big Business
Field corn is also known as yellow dent corn, as the kernels become indented with maturity. Although growing on fertile land the size of California, field corn is indigestible to humans without processing. But due to subsidies from the federal government which encourage more is better, industry has found a multitude of other uses for this water hungry, highly fertilized, shallow-rooted annual. The majority of field corn (40 percent) is used for ethanol, and 37 percent is used to rapidly fatten up grass-loving livestock. So, seventy six percent of the field corn grown in the United States is used for cars and grain-fed meat. 11 percent is used to make processed corn products, i.e. corn syrup, corn flour, and corn starch.
Field Corn Is Usually Also GMO Corn (And You’re Ingesting It)
Nearly ninety two percent of the field corn planted in the U.S. is genetically modified, in contrast to sweet corn, of which about 10 percent was genetically modified in 2011. Although Syngenta’s Bt ‘Attribute’ seed has been on the market for over 10 years, it is not widely used, as it is only sold to commercial growers who sign a stewardship agreement and also plant a minimum of 20 acres. But in 2012 another company came into the sweet corn market, Monsanto. Monsanto introduced its first GM sweet corn seed called ‘Performance’ with three GM traits; Roundup Ready herbicide tolerant and two insect resistant traits (corn-borer and rootworm).(5) It was rumoured Monsanto was ready to produce enough seed to cover 250,000 acres with its GM sweet corn in 2012 but the company has not divulged how much it has sold or how much was planted.(6) The 2013 figures are also not available. Wal-Mart has agreed to sell Monsanto’s corn, but Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s and General Mills have pledged not to sell or use it. Be sure to ask your local farmer what corn he has planted.
Yellow dent or field corn is also made into cornmeal, corn flakes, hominy, grits, corn starch, corn sugar, corn syrup, corn oil, corn-oil meal, gluten feed and meal, whiskey and alcohol. You can be fairly certain you are consuming GMO when consuming any of the above, unless you seek out organic options.
Field Corn And High-Fructose Corn Syrup
A product never sold directly to the consumer, and one you will never have the option to purchase as organic, but which is contained in possibly 80 percent of processed foods, is high fructose corn syrup. The United States has the highest consumption of high-fructose corn syrup at 42 pounds per person, per year.(7) But the good news is consumption is going down. In 2011 each American consumed 131 calories worth of corn sweeteners a day, down 16 percent from 2007.(8) Total shipments of HFCS for 2011 came to more than 19 billion pounds.(9)
How High-Fructose Corn Syrup Got So Big
America’s corn syrup addiction (new study claims it’s addictive) started due to a confluence of government maneuvers. In the 1973 Farm Bill, the U.S. Department of Agriculture began a new system of direct payments (subsidies) to corn farmers, helping encourage ever-bigger outputs (and huge corn surpluses). In 1977, imported sugar tariffs and production quotas of domestic sugar were imposed which significantly increased the cost of table sugar in the U.S. As sugar prices rose, manufacturers looked for cheaper options. Since government subsidies were keeping corn prices low, the solution was close at hand. HFCS was rapidly introduced into many processed foods and soft drinks from the mid-1970s on.
How High-Fructose Corn Syrup Is Made
HFCS is a highly processed industrialized ingredient. HFCS ends up with a different chemical structure than simple corn syrup. The process starts with field corn which is put in a wet mill where the kernels are separated from the gooey starch within. Enzymes (a-amylase & glucoamylase) are added to first break down the corn starch into individual glucose molecules, which results in corn syrup, essentially 100% glucose. For HFCS the glucose is then transformed into fructose by passing the glucose through a column that is loaded with Glucose Isomerase (a genetically modified catalyst). This converts the glucose to a mixture of about 42% fructose and 50–52% glucose. Numerous filtration, ion-exchange, heating and evaporation steps and liquid chromatography are also part of the overall process.(11)
The most common forms of HFCS contain either 42 percent or 55 percent fructose. HFCS 42 is mainly used in processed foods, cereals, baked goods, lunch meats and some beverages. HFCS 55 is used primarily in soft drinks. Many believe HFCS is not processed by our bodies the same way simple sugars are and site that obesity and diabetes rates have soared since HFCS entered the food supply. It is also notable that countries with the highest consumption rates of HFCS also have the highest rates of obesity and diabetes.(7)
U.S. corn subsidies totaled $113.9 billion dollars between 1995 and 2019. And last year due to drought, federally supported corn crop insurance could pay out a record $20 billion or more, even though 2012 provided a higher quality overall crop.
Corn prices have increased from an average of $2.00 per bushel over the 2004-2005 period to $6.50-$8.25 per bushel in 2012. Early 2013 is seeing prices in the 5 dollar range. Editor note: As of 2019, corn prices are down to $3.86 a bushel. Chart: politicalcalculations.blogspot
Maybe ethanol is not the worst thing in the world, but it hurts to know big oil companies are purchasing and reselling a product that the U.S. government subsidizes. (And those ethanol subsidies are on top of the $8 billion annual subsidies for oil.) It also hurts to know that all this monoculture corn farming is creating a huge nitrogen influx into our waterways that kills fish. And it hurts to know our livestock is being force fed an unnatural diet of corn that makes them ill and dependant on antibiotics. Yet our farmers are not to blame, our system is.
The U.S. subsidizes corn, soy, wheat, cotton and rice. That has encouraged farms to grow monocultures on land that stretches further than the eye can see. Small farms were bought up and now Big Ag receives a large percentage of those subsidies. Farms that grow fruit, vegetables and beans do not recieve subsidies.
Even though, we seem to have a crisis on our hands, the U.S. government, corn lobbyists, trade associations and the Big Six (Monsanto, BASF, Bayer, Dow, DuPont and Syngenta) keep oiling the machine that was started in the mid-70s…a machine that needs to be reassessed. Instead of promoting clean energy, sustainable farming methods, healthy crops, and healthy (antibiotic-free) livestock, we keep feeding an unnatural system that becomes more dangerous with each passing year.
Our federal dollars are being used to keep the American populace unhealthy and fat. We are subsidizing pollution, environmental degradation and obesity, all of which have long term health costs that will make these federal corn subsidies look like pocket change.
Two Other Widely-Grown Corn Species
According to Dee Dee Flynn, Executive Director of the Popcorn Board, popcorn is a specialty corn that is not genetically modified, non-organic is still grown with pesticides, etc., but not gmo seed. Americans each consume 52 quarts of popped popcorn per year. Hear it yourself: newstalkflorida.com
Flint corn or Indian corn is often used ornamentally but can also be ground into flour, and is often used as hominy.
Corn with color (deep yellow, red, blue) is far superior nutritionally than new hybrid, white super-sweets which have much more sugar, than nutrients. See: Breeding the Nutrition Out of Our Food By Jo Robinson.
Sweet corn and field corn, what are the differences?
Driving along Michigan’s byways and back roads, you will see many fields of what’s commonly known as field corn growing. In late-July or early-August, there is an abundance of local sweet corn at farmers markets, farm stands and local stores. What is the difference between these two types of corn? The sweet corn that we enjoy at our summer picnics is similar, but is selected for different traits than field corn. Field corn is used to create a number of other food products including corn meal, corn chips and livestock feeds as well as a host of non-food products including ethanol and polymers that are used to create plastics and fabric.
In 2011, Michigan produced more than 89.3 million pounds of sweet corn for the vegetable market. According to the Corn Marketing Program of Michigan, in 2012, Michigan farmers produced 317.9 million bushels of corn for grain – the 11th largest harvest by state in the United States. Both kinds of corn are valuable in different ways but each is harvested at different times to maximize their value.
Sweet corn does not grow as tall as field corn and has leaves that are thinner. In Michigan, sweet corn is harvested in July through October when the silk at the top of the green ear turns brown. After harvesting, the sugars in corn begin to convert into starches which affects flavor. The fresher the corn, the more sweet it will taste. For more information about how to preserve corn, consult the Sweet Corn fact sheet from Michigan Fresh, a publication of Michigan State University Extension.
Corn that is grown for grain has taller stalks with larger thicker leaves than sweet corn. Field corn, also sometimes called “cow corn,” stays in the fields until the ears dry because corn is very high in moisture and must be dry to be processed. That is why farmers leave stalks in the field until they are golden brown in the fall. Once corn is dry in the field, it is harvested using a combine harvester. This machine will collect the whole corn plant – stalk, cob and all – and remove the kernels of corn from the cob leaving the rest in the field to provide fertilizer to the field, feed for animals or ground cover. The kernels are then sold to grain elevators and become part of the global commodity food system or a product for a non-food user of corn. Some of that corn is saved to provide seed for the next season’s corn crop.
Reid’s Yellow Dent Corn Seeds
Sowing: Prepare the soil with compost or other organic matter. One week after frost or when the soil consistently reaches 60 degrees F, plant the corn 1″ deep and 8-12″ apart. Planting blocks of four short rows ensures good pollination. Germination should take place in 5-6 days. For companion planting benefits, plant corn with cucumbers, peas, or pole beans; plants that like shade also do well with corn. Avoid planting tomatoes near corn.
Growing: After the corn emerges, keep it moist and carefully remove weeds; since corn cannot fight against weeds, mulch may be beneficial. Additional organic matter or compost helps growth, since corn is a heavy feeder. Keep in mind that corn has shallow roots which can easily become damaged by hoeing. Watch out for pests, as corn attracts many problematic insects and animals.
Harvesting: Leaving the corn on its stalks to completely dry in the field gives the best results; when they are ready to harvest, the stalk and the ears will be completely brown with no green coloring at all. However, since continued rainy weather and humidity compromise the quality of the ears, it may be necessary to continue drying them inside. Choose a dry location with moderate heat, but out of direct sunlight; hang the stalks upside down, or lay them out flat.
Seed Saving: Since corn cross-pollinates quite easily with other varieties, seed plants will need to be separated from other pollinating varieties of corn by about 1,000 feet or otherwise prevented from pollinating each other. Allow the seed corn to dry completely on the stalk, until the husk and the stalk have turned brown. If rainy weather comes, cut off the stalks and lay them out in a dry, well ventilated location. Test for dryness by hitting the kernels with a hammer; if they shatter, they are ready for storage. Remove the kernels by running your hands over the cobs; winnow out the chaff. Store seeds in a cool, dry place.
Reids Yellow Dent Corn
Reids Yellow Dent Corn is an Open-pollinated, heirloom with maturity of 110 days. One of the most popular open pollinated yellow varieties grown in the country! Prolific producing field corn. 10-14’H plants produce 9-10″L x 7-8″ ears with 16-22 closely spaced rows. Deep yellow kernels on small dark red cobs. Reids Yellow Dent Corn is adapted to virtually every state. Good silage producer. Used in making flour, meal and feed. Approximately 250 seeds per ounce or 4,000 seeds per pound.
Companions: Bean, cucumber, melon, parsley, pea, potato, pumpkin, squash. Allies: Odorless marigold and white geranium deter Japanese beetles. Pigweed raises nutrients from the subsoil to where the corn can reach them. Enemies: Tomatoes and corn are attacked by the same worm.
CORN: Disease Resistance and Tolerance Key
ComR – Common Rust
MDMR – Maize Dwarf Mosaic Rust
NCLB – Northern Corn Leaf Blight
R – Rust
SCLB – Southern Corn Leaf Blight
SW – Stewart’s Wilt
Each seed packet contains approximately 250 seeds. Available from SeedGro, an American brand offering only the best natural, non-GMO, open-pollinated, hybrid, and heirloom untreated seeds.
Can You Eat Field Corn?
What is Field Corn?
If you have ever come across sprawling fields of tall green corn stalks, you have most likely seen a crop of field corn. Unlike sweet corn, field corn is typically grown on a large scale and you use it in a completely different way than sweet corn or popcorn.
Eating Field Corn
Whether you know it or not, you likely eat field corn every single day. Some of the things you eat made from field corn include:
- Corn syrup
- Processed cereals
Additionally, you can also see field corn in things like corn oil and ethanol which is a common gasoline additive.
Many farmers also grow field corn as fodder for livestock, using the ears for feed and the leaves and stalk as silage.
Fresh Field Corn
You can also eat field corn just like you eat sweet corn, boiled or roasted and slathered with butter and salt. Although roasting ears are not sweet and are sometimes less tender, some people actually prefer the flavor of field corn.
Since the planting and care of field corn plants is the same process as growing sweet corn, you can plant both kinds and enjoy an extended harvest.
Harvesting Field Corn
If you are growing field corn to pick and eat right off the cob, there is a narrow window of harvest in which it tastes the best. If you pay close attention to your corn, you will see the silk start to turn brown. Two or three days after that, the field corn is perfect for eating.
If you leave the ears on the stalk too long, the corn will be tough and flavorless. However, you can still leave the ears on the stem to mature entirely and use it for corn flour or to feed your animals.
Popcorn is a favorite snack around here. We love to have popcorn and movie nights especially in the winter. Have you ever wondered what the difference is between popcorn and field corn? National Popcorn Day is January 19th and what better way to celebrate than with a lists of some of my favorite popcorn recipes and some fun facts about popcorn?;)
Did you know that corn is classified by it’s kernel type? In the U.S. the three most popular types of corn are: dent corn, sweet corn, which we enjoy in the summertime at backyard BBQs, and popcorn.
Dent corn is most commonly referred to as field corn.
Dent corn is almost always yellow in the U.S., but it can be white as well. This corn is harvested when it is dry. As the corn dries, the centers of the kernels collapse and form a dent, which is how it gets it’s name. The majority of field corn is used for animal feed. It is also used for ethanol to fuel cars and is used to make plastics, adhesives, corn cereal, starches, corn oil, and corn syrup.
Popcorn is one of the oldest types of corn.
Popcorn’s growing conditions are similar to field corn, while the kernels look very different. Popcorn kernels are small and pointed like rice or can be round. It is used for freshly popped popcorn and other popcorn recipes.
Marybeth from My Fearless Kitchen recently wrote a post that talks about the different varieties of popcorn. I didn’t realize there were so many!
Some fun facts about popcorn:
- The oldest ears of popcorn ever found came from Mexico and are over 4000 years old.
- One kernel pops with such force that it can be catapulted three feet into the air!
- When televisions started to make an appearance in homes, popcorn sales hit an all-time low because people weren’t attending movie theaters, shortly thereafter microwaves were invented so the beloved treat could be easily enjoyed at home.
- The unpopped kernels at the bottom of the bag are called old maids.
- Popcorn is a whole grain and is only 31-35 calories per cup depending on how it is popped.
- Popping popcorn is the number one use for microwaves.
- Popcorn’s scientific name is Zea Mays Everta and is the only corn that will pop.
- A kernel will pop when it reaches a temperature of about 347 degrees Fahrenheit.
- Indiana ranks second in the nation in popcorn production. Nebraska is number one.
- According to the Guiness Book of World Records, the world’s largest popcorn ball was created at the Indiana State Fair in 2013 and weighed 6,510 pounds and was 8 feet in diameter.
Now for the good stuff!!!
My friend Liz makes the best caramel corn! Just looking at this picture makes my mouth water.
This Ooey-Gooey Popcorn from Miss Leah at Beyer Beware is a definite crowd pleaser!
My kids love making this simple popcorn in a bag. It tastes just like stove top popcorn, but with less mess which is a for sure mom-win!
Jeanette over at Fencerow to Fencerow, shares a recipe for caramel popcorn in a pan! Love how easy and delicious this recipe looks as well.
Have fun cooking up these delicious popcorn recipes!
This post was sponsored by The Glass Barn, but all opinions are my own.
Before about 1912, less than 19,000 acres (7,700 hectares) of farmland were dedicated to growing popcorn, but the electric popcorn machine and the microwave increased the demand for “prairie gold.” Today, annual consumption of popcorn in America exceeds 1 billion lb (0.45 billion kg) or 71 quarts (67 liters) per person per year. The states of Indiana, Iowa, Illinois, and Ohio lead the field. Of the volume grown in the United States, 10% is used for seed and sold outside the United States; 30% is sold at ball games, movies, fairs, and circuses; and 60% is consumed in the home.
Corn may have begun its long evolution as a kind of grass. In the Americas, corn varieties, including popcorn, were cultivated by the Aztecs and Mayans in Central America and Mexico and by the Incas in South America. The Aztecs decorated their Gods of Rain and Maize with strings of popcorn. North American Indians also strung the popped kernels on grass strings and used them for decorations and personal adornment. Archaeologists have found popped corn in dwelling caves in New Mexico, and the corn is estimated to be 5,600 years old. Scientists’ best guesses for the age of popcorn and the place where it originated are 8,000 years and in Mexico. Curiously, popcorn was also common in parts of India, China, and Sumatra before the discovery of the Americas, but the paths and methods of its migration are unknown, as is the reason for its existence in these areas but not others. Part of the answer may be the hardiness of this type of corn over others or the change in climate conditions around the world over thousands of years.
Popcorn officially crossed into Western culture at the first Thanksgiving celebration. Popular legend has it that Quadequina, brother of the Indian chief Massosoit, brought a deerskin bag full of popped corn to that harvest celebration. The Indians’ methods for popping corn varied from tribe to tribe. They probably discovered how to pop popcorn by accident because the hard kernel doesn’t give any hint of the potential treat inside. The earliest poppers of corn may have thrown it into the fire and eaten the kernels when they popped and flew out of the flames. Our only historical evidence of early but more sophisticated popping methods is from the Incas whose ruins contain specially shaped clay pots with kernels of popped corn still inside them. The Incas apparently heated sand and placed it in these pots, then placed the corn on the sand. The pot was covered, and heat from the sand popped the kernels. The heavier sand stayed at the bottom of the pot, and the popped kernels rose above it where they could be reached.
Over 700 types of popcorn were being grown in the Americas by the time Columbus discovered these continents. French explorers in 1612 saw the Iroquois people popping corn in clay pots; and the Winnebago Indians who lived near the Great Lakes simply drove sticks into the cobs and held the cobs near the fire. Popcorn soup was a favorite method of using the grain among the Iroquois, and the Indians of Central America even made popcorn beer. Early explorers observed ornamental necklaces, bouquets, and headdresses made of popcorn.
In early America, popcorn became a ritual part of many festivities including quilting bees and barn raisings. In cabins and homesteads, corn could be popped in the fire-place, seasoned with grease or butter, and shared by the family. Popped kernels were used as teeth in Halloween pumpkins and strung in long ropes to festoon Christmas trees. Popcorn was the accompaniment to banjo playing, singing, and the telling of ghost stories and folktales. In the 1700s, the first puffed cereal was created by pouring milk and sugar over popped corn; this breakfast dish was popular from Boston south to the Carolinas.
Popcorn was grown in family gardens or farms or bought from neighbors who grew more than they needed until about 1890 when it started to become recognized as a legitimate cash crop. The first automatic popcorn popper was a steam-powered machine invented by Charlie Cretors in 1885; before Cretors’ invention, street vendors popped corn in wire baskets over open fires. By about 1890, the glass-sided popcorn machine with its gasoline burner became a popular feature of the circus, carnival, sideshow, local fair, and small town streets where popcorn vendors would sell bags of popcorn as dusk fell. The packaging of popcorn for use at home began in about 1914.
In 1893, Fred and Louis Rueckheim used the Chicago World’s Fair to kick off their blend of popcorn, peanuts, and molasses. These German brothers made their name in America by manufacturing Cracker Jack, as this mixture came to be called, in a small kitchen and then at the World’s Fair. In order to claim a prize, the consumer could mail in a coupon found in every box of Cracker Jack. After the Fair and until World War II, prizes were actually packed in the boxes, although this practice stopped during the War because the prizes were made in Japan. After the War, a bonus prize returned to every box.
When moving pictures became the rage and movie houses opened across the country, the street vendors of popcorn would rent space outside the theaters and sell bags of popcorn to movie ticket buyers. In 1925, Charles T. Manley perfected his electric popcorn machine, and popcorn vendors moved inside the theater where the trapped sounds and smells of popping corn often made more money than the feature film. During the Great Depression in the 1930s, vendors sold popcorn in five-cent bags, and popcorn became one of few affordable luxuries. Meanwhile, back in the theater, the paper bucket replaced the bag as the container for popcorn because the rustling bags made too much noise.
During World War II, popcorn was taken overseas as a treat for American servicemen and was adopted by other countries. In 1945, Percy Spencer applied microwave energy to popcorn and found that it popped; his discovery led to experiments with other foods and development of the microwave oven. Television brought popcorn into the home in the 1950s, when electric popcorn poppers and pre-packed corn for popping were developed and marketed. The 1970s and 1980s witnessed a boom in electric poppers, hot-air poppers, and microwave popcorn as the videotape industry brought movies and the desire for all the customs associated with movie-going into the home.
Selection of the best variety or hybrid of popcorn to be grown and processed for the kind of popcorn to be sold is critical to the raw materials comprising popcorn. In some forms of popcorn, the corn itself is the only raw material. For other methods of marketing popcorn such as microwave popcorn, soybean oil, salt, and flavoring are also needed.
Popcorn varieties and hybrids
There are several commercial classifications of corn. Field corn (also called dent corn or cow corn) is fed to animals. Flour corn is mostly starchy center with a soft hull that allows it to be easily ground into flour. Sweet corn is the kind we eat at the dinner table. Flint corn is usually called Indian corn; its colorful kernels make it highly attractive, and it is used for decoration because it is tough and tasteless. Pod corn is also only used for decoration because each of its kernels has its own separate husk.
Popcorn, also a collection of varieties of Zea mays, is the only corn that pops; it is not dried kernels of sweet corn. There are several
There are several commercial classifications of corn. Field corn (also called dent corn or cow corn) is fed to animals. Sweet corn is the kind we eat at the dinner table. Popcorn, also a collection of varieties of Zea mays, is the only corn that pops; it is not dried kernels of sweet corn. popular varieties of popcorn out of thousands of hybrids. White hull-less and yellow hull-less are the varieties sold most commonly and packaged in microwave bags. Rice popcorn is a variety with kernels that are pointed at both ends, and pearl popcorn produces round, compact kernels. Tiny red ears that are shaped like strawberries produce red kernels and are called strawberry popcorn. Black popcorn has black grains but pops as white kernels, and rainbow or calico corn has white, yellow, red, and blue kernels. Popcorn is also classified by the characteristics of its popped kernels, with the largest kernels called “Dynamite” and “Snow Puff.”
The business of developing new hybrids and cultivating known, productive hybrids is key to the creation of popcorn. A hybrid is made by fertilizing one kind of popcorn plant with the pollen from another kind. The result is a seed that has characteristics of both plants.
A major popcorn producer like Orville Redenbacher Popping Corn Company employs a team of scientists to pollinate its hybrid corn by hand. The kernels that are grown are used as seed to grow the popcorn that will be harvested and sold. As many as 30,000 new hybrids per year are created to try to improve the popcorn product. Producers also work with universities to develop ideal hybrids; millions of dollars are invested annually in this research.
Smaller growers like Snappy Popcorn rely on hybrids that are best suited to their location, climate, and type of product. When the hybrid is well matched to geography, it produces a greater yield. Hybrids are also chosen based on resistance to disease and damage from insects, stalk strength, how easily they grow, and how easily they can be pulled out of the ground. Types of kernels are important, so hybrids are chosen specifically to produce carmel corn, microwave popcorn,
As a final step in the manufacturing process, quality-control inspectors observe the kernels as they move along a conveyor belt and suck out poor-quality kernels with a vacuum hose. and movie theater popcorn. Movie theaters are interested in selling the greatest volume for the smallest investment, so high-expansion kernels are chosen for this market.
Part of the “design” of popcorn is the method used to pop it. The dry method consists of putting the unpopped grain in a basket or wire cage, agitating it over a heat source like the campfire or coal stove, allowing the corn to pop, and seasoning it with butter and salt. In the wet-pop method, corn is placed in a container with a solid bottom. Oil is added (either before the corn or poured on top), and the oil helps to distribute the heat and cause more even and complete popping. Commercial popping machines use the wet-pop method, and coconut oil is used for its aroma and lightness. Microwave popcorn also uses the wet-pop method, although the moisture is present in a solidified form of oil, flavoring, and salt that melts when the microwaving process begins.
- 1 Popcorn grows best in rich soil. It is planted in checkrows, rows that intersect at right (90-degree) angles, so that it can be harvested by machine. Hybrid forms of popcorn have been perfected to produce the most grains per ear of corn, flavorful kernels, the correct internal moisture to insure that most of the corn pops, and other market-friendly characteristics. When the ears are ripe, the corn is harvested with either a picker that removes the ears and leaves the stalks temporarily or with a combine that crushes the corn stalks, mechanically removes the ears, and husks the corn. Combines tend to do more damage to the ears of corn. The ears are collected in the field in bins or boxes and moved into steel cribs using mechanical elevators or conveyors.
- 2 The ears are dried in cribs that are narrow and have open slots to minimize the time needed to dry them. A crib can be up to three stories high, as long as a city block, and with a capacity of up to 4 million lb (1.8 million kg) of corn. The ears are stored for eight to 12 months to allow them to dry, or in an alternative method, hot air is forced up into the cribs through holes in the bottoms of them to reduce the natural drying time. While in the cribs, the corn is carefully tended until the kernels reach a moisture content of 12.5-13.5% moisture, which is ideal for popping characteristics.
In the factory
- 3 The dried ears of popcorn are then transferred by conveyor belt to the factory and a machine called a scalper. The scalper strips the kernels from the cobs. Simultaneously, a cleaner and de-stoner sort out the shuckings and any dirt or particles by passing it through a series of screens to separate the kernels. They are cleaned and polished in another machine equipped with metal brushes that remove the chaff (sometimes called bee’s wings). A gravity separator is then used to separate good kernels from bad; the kernels that have matured properly are lighter in weight, so the bad kernels drop through the bottom of the separator and are recycled for use as seed. The kernels near the two ends of the cob also tend to be either too small or too large to pop properly, and the gravity separator removes them as well.
- 4 Finally, in the portion of the factory called the fanning mill, fans blow dust and other fine material off the kernels, and the kernels are treated with a natural, inert fumigant to eliminate insects. Most manufacturers avoid pesticides altogether during the winter months when bugs are less common, and all must comply with government regulations regarding their use. Now completely processed, the popcorn kernels travel toward storage bins on a conveyor belt; quality-control personnel watch the passing flow and vacuum up bad kernels that may have escaped the previous sortings.
- 5 Types of popcorn with no other additives go directly to holding bins to await packaging. For microwave popcorn, measured amounts of salt, soybean oil, flavoring, and popcorn are pumped or dropped into the microwave bags. The bags are not vacuum-sealed, but they are air tight to prevent moisture in the air from affecting the contents.
- 6 In the packaging area, popcorn is conveyed from the holding bins to packing machines where it is placed in bags and then boxed for storage or shipment. Usually, the factory will bag a particular type of quantity, say 5 lb (2.27 kg) bags, until it has met its orders plus some for storage. Then the packing line is changed to accommodate different bags and quantities of popcorn.
Quality control practices are essential in the field and factory. The process of pollinating the ears of corn correctly is essential to the production of any popcorn at all. In the factory, the cleaning processes are carefully monitored, and the series of screens and other devices are chosen to remove all stray materials and unwanted kernels. Even magnets are used to pull out bits of metal that may have been introduced by the farm machinery or storage bins. Finally, a team of quality-control inspectors simply observes the kernels as they move along a conveyor belt and removes poor-quality kernels with a vacuum hose.
Cobs, husks, and stalks are sold for use as feed for cattle and other animals, so very little waste remains from popcorn cultivation and processing.
Popcorn’s future was assured in the 1980s when its nutritional benefits were widely publicized. Weight Watchers recommends popcorn as a snack for the weight-conscious, the American Dental Association endorses this sugar-free snack, and the American Cancer Society recognizes the benefits of the high fiber content of popcorn in possibly preventing several types of cancer. Popcorn’s nutritional value is so high that doctors recommend it—even with oil—over many other snack foods.
Microwave packaging has also allowed popcorn manufacturers to enhance their product with flavorings that keep well and produce a range of good tastes when cooked. The competition to create the latest taste sensations (or borrow them from other trendy foods) is fierce in the popcorn trade, but this also helps assure the food’s future. American popcorn makers compete among themselves for the best yield and novel flavors, but, increasingly, their competition is coming from growers in Argentina and South Africa.
Where to Learn More
Russel, Solveig Paulson. Peanuts, Popcorn, Ice Cream, Candy and Soda Pop and how they began New York: Abingdon Press, 1970.
Woodside, Dave. What Makes Popcorn Pop? New York: Atheneum, 1980.
“Exploding the Popcorn Myth.” Yankee (February 1993): 27.
Hyatt, Joshua. “Surviving on Chaos.” Inc. (May 1990): 60.
Kummer, Corby. “Hot popcorn: The First Popcorn was Made by Accident. Now There are Better Ways.” The Atlantic (June 1988): 96.
Jolly Time Popcorn Company. http://www.jollytime.com .
The Popcorn Institute. http://www.popcorn.org .
Snappy Popcorn. http://www.netins.net/showcase/snappy/snappy.html .
Wabash Valley Farms. http://www.wabashvalleyfarms.com .
— Gillian S. Holmes