Popcorn, Planting to Popping
We Love Our Popcorn
For most of us in the US who grew up shopping at supermarkets, going to movie theaters, and visiting carnivals, fairs, and boardwalks, the availability of popcorn is something we simply take for granted. Whether it's plain, buttered, or candy-coated, whether it's air-popped or popped the old-fashioned way in hot oil on the stove top, popcorn is there for the asking for a reasonable price. It always was, and probably always will be.
But what if it weren't? What if microwavable corn disappeared from the grocery store shelves? What if our food distribution system broke down? What if you had to grow, harvest, dry, and store your own popcorn kernels in order to enjoy this timeless, all-American treat?
Where would you begin?
A Few Popping Varieties
Begin with Planting the Right Variety of Corn
Popping corn, a type of flint or Indian corn, has a very hard exterior shell encasing a soft, moist, starchy center. Popcorn varieties can be a feast for the eyes: the kernels range in color from white through yellow to blues, reds, browns, and blacks, often with many colors mixed on one ear.
That sweet summer corn we like to grill, roast, boil, and devour right off the cob is good for just that...eating fresh, on the spot. It has neither the volume of starch on the inside nor the hardness on the outside to permit a proper pop.
Excellent sources for popcorn seed are available through seed catalogs, garden supply and feed sellers, retail stores, and of course, the Internet, as is excellent advice about how to grow popping corn.
Ohio Corn Ready for Harvest
Harvesting and Drying
Popcorn can be harvested any time after the husks plump up completely and start to turn from green to tan or white. Harvest the ears after a spell of dry weather, but before even a hint of frost is in the air.
Take the corn ears still contained in their husks off the plant and cart them off to a protected, well-ventilated area. You can spread the ears out in a single layer on a clean, newspaper-lined floor, or put them in mesh bags and hang them from rafters.
Let your imagination be your guide about how to dry the ears so long as cleanliness, air flow, and protection from rain, frost, freezing, and bugs are accounted for.
Some Very Cool Popcorn Poppers
When Is It Dry Enough to Pop?
Technically, corn pops best when the kernel's internal moisture content is 13 to 14 percent. If you happen to be in the middle of corn country, and have access to a grain elevator operation, you can take an ear in for testing. Absent that convenience, you are on your own!
After a couple of weeks of drying in the husk, the corn is ready to test. Remove the husk from an ear or two and pluck a few kernels off each cob. Take a small handful of kernels and pop them by whatever method you prefer.
If the popped corn is unpleasantly tough or chewy, or the exploded puffs are oddly edged or jagged, the corn is still too wet. Keep up this testing every few days until the popcorn is the way you like it, then husk and de-kernel the corn and store it.
Or Pop the Corn Right on the Cob!
You can popcorn right on the cob in your microwave. If you don't grow grow and dry your own popping corn, or you don't have local access to popping corn still on the cob, try this popping corn for a delicious and fun experience.
OK, How Do I Get the Kernels Off the Ears?
Believe me when I tell you this is not rocket science, although it may seem so if you've never done it or seen it done.
Take the husk off the ear. Use your fingernail or, if you feel funny about that for whatever reason, use a spoon to release one row of kernels from the cob. This process is a little painstaking, but once you've been through a number of ears, it gets a lot easier.
Once the first row of kernels is dislodged from the ear, simply take your thumb and gently nudge the rest of the kernels free. They will come off easily, and you will be amazed at how quickly the kernels can fly.
One of the most beautiful memories of my childhood is gazing at the floor of my grandmother's unused summer kitchen, where popping corn in different stages of being husked and de-kerneled was scattered on newspapers laid on scrubbed floors. In the sunlight coming through the open, screened windows, the individual kernels strewn on the floor for additional drying glowed like rubies, diamonds, and tiger eyes. More jewels still in their rows on the husked cobs gleamed, and the wrapped ears not yet shucked made the perfect subtle contrast to the sparkling kernels.
Storing the Popcorn
Pour the dried kernels into air-tight containers. The containers can be glass jars with tightly fitting lids, or the zip variety of plastic storage bags. Place the containers in a cool, dark place.
I have a wall in the kitchen lined with cabinets that borders the outside porch, and this wall is not well insulated. A cabinet along that wall is the perfect place.
Whatever you do, don't store the kernels in the refrigerator or freezer. This kind of storage will remove the moisture from within the kernel and destroy its "popability".
With the proper care you gave your corn, and a little luck, you should be able to pop your own corn clear into the following summer.
A Kernel of Corn Exploding in Slow Motion
The Magic of Popcorn
Popcorn is a bit magical. It starts as an incredibly hard seed that can easily break a tooth and then, in a stunningly thin slice of a hot instant, transforms into a delectable, enormously chewable, cloud puff of goodness. In that hot instant, steam builds up in the moist center to a pressure sufficient to explode the outer shell. To most of us, this transformation is as mysterious as a caterpillar's metamorphosis into a butterfly.
Late summer is around the corner in the US, and the popping varieties of corn are coming to maturity in the fields. Before long, pale husks will be bursting with plump popcorn kernels ready for harvesting, drying, storing for winter, and popping the old-fashioned way.
And now you know how to do it, all by yourself.
A Special Thanks
Thank you, Karen LaVelle, for your enthusiasm about this subject. Your enthusiasm prompted me to write more about corn. I hate to say this, but I just might have more to say on the subject!