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TIDBITS® EATS

POPCORN

Popcorn is one of the most popular snack foods. Come along with Tidbits as we chow down!

 A POPULAR SNACK

•  Unpopped popcorn has a very long shelf life. In ancient tombs of Peru, archaeologists found kernels a thousand years old that still popped. An expedition found popped popcorn in a cave in Utah which was still remarkably fresh in spite of being around 2,500 years old. The oldest known popcorn kernels were found in a cave in New Mexico and are believed to be around 5,000 years old.

•  One dig near Mexico City uncovered pollen of the popcorn plant. It was almost identical to modern popcorn pollen, yet it was 80,000 years old, indicating that humans have been enjoying popcorn for thousands of years. Cortez found the Aztecs eating it when he invaded in the early 1500s. Columbus took it back to Spain with him.

•  The British and Europeans used to refer to any small kernel as “corn” such as in Jack London’s 1913 novel “John Barleycorn” named for the drinking song by the same name. Wheat, rye, oats, and barley were all called “corn” and the new corn from the New World was called “Indian corn” before being shortened to just “corn.” The words “corn” and “kernel” spring from the same root word “cyrnel” meaning “seed.”

•  There are six types of corn: pod, sweet, flour, dent, flint, and popcorn. Only popcorn pops.

•  Popcorn has a thicker hull than other kinds of corn, and the hull is not permeable. A popcorn kernel must have a moisture content of about 15% in order to pop. When cooking, the hull is so tight that the water within the kernel cannot escape until it boils into steam. The starchy interior melts into a gelatin. When the pressure gets high enough, the hull bursts and the heat cooks the soft interior. A kernel will pop when it reaches an internal pressure of 135 psi and a temperature of 356°F (180°C). If the water content falls below 15%, the popcorn won’t pop.

•  Popping results are sensitive to the rate at which the kernels are heated. If heated too quickly, the steam reaches high pressures too soon and ruptures the hull before the starch in the center of the kernel can gelatinize, leading to partially popped kernels with hard centers. Heating too slowly leads to entirely unpopped kernels because the tip of the kernel is not entirely moisture-proof. When heated slowly, the steam can leak out of the tip fast enough to keep the pressure from rising high enough to break the hull and cause the pop.

•  Unpopped kernels are known as old maids, and kernels that pop part of the way but don’t fully open are called bridesmaids. Fully popped kernels are called flakes. Quality popcorn should produce 98% flakes with less than 2% being old maids.

•  There is no such thing as “hull-less” popcorn. All popcorn needs a hull in order to pop. Some varieties of popcorn have been bred so the hull shatters into tiny fragments upon popping, making it appear to be hull-less.

•  There are about 1,600 kernels in a cup of popcorn, and a single ounce of kernels (about two tablespoons) expands to produce about a quart of popcorn. Each kernel expands to about 40 to 50 times its original size.

•  Popcorn comes in two basic shapes when it’s popped: snowflake and mushroom. Snowflake popcorn has lots of “wings” giving it a better mouth-feel. Mushroom popcorn has very few wings and is rounded, meaning it holds up better to shipping because there are no wings to break off. Snowflake is used in movie theaters and ballparks because it looks and pops bigger. Theaters buy popcorn by weight but sell it by volume, so the more it expands when it pops, the more money they make. Mushroom popcorn is used for candy confections because it doesn’t crumble.

•  It used to be that any given ear of popcorn would yield various amounts of both snowflake and mushroom shapes, but popcorn growers began a concerted effort of hybridizing. This resulted in strains that reliably produce either snowflake or mushroom popcorn, a goal achieved as recently as 1998. Growing conditions and popping environment also affect the snowflake-to-mushroom ratio.

•  Popcorn vendors on the streets of China and Korea have a unique method of popping corn. Unpopped kernels are poured into a cast-iron pressure cooker that is sealed tight with a heavy-duty lid and then turned over a fire like a rotisserie. When the pressure gauge reaches the right reading, the canister is removed from the fire and a large bag is put over the lid. When the lid is released, all of the popcorn pops at once and is poured into the sack. The same method is used for puffing rice.

•  During the Great Depression, popcorn was inexpensive at 5 cents a bag. The popcorn business thrived and became a source of income for many, including the Redenbacher family, originators of the famous popcorn brand. During World War II, sugar rations diminished candy production, and Americans compensated by eating three times as much popcorn as they had before.

•  Orville Redenbacher was born in Indiana in 1909 and grew up on the family farm. At 12 he began growing popcorn, and made enough money selling it that it paid for his degree in agriculture from Purdue. In 1951 he bought a seed corn factory. Orville never forgot how profitable it was to sell popcorn, so he experimented with hybrids in order to find the perfect type of popcorn. Once he found the perfect strain, Orville went to work popularizing popcorn as a treat for the home, not just for the theater. Orville Reddenbacher’s popcorn went on sale for the first time in 1970. By the mid-1970s, he had captured one-third of the market. By the time he died of a heart attack in 1995, his was the top-selling popcorn in the nation.

•  In the 1880s Charles Cretors owned a candy store in Illinois where his workers made confections in the front window in order to entice customers inside. Charles added a newfangled steam-powered peanut-roasting machine because the scent would also attract customers. However, the peanut roasting machine did not always work well, so Cretors tinkered with it, improving and modifying. By 1893, Cretors had created a machine that could roast 12 pounds of peanuts, 20 pounds of coffee, pop popcorn, and roast chestnuts.

•  He took his invention to Chicago’s Columbian Exposition in 1893 where many people got their first introduction to popcorn. Cretors understood there was more money to be made in selling the popcorn machines than in selling popcorn.

•  Today the Cretor’s Company is still in the Cretor’s family, run by his descendants. Cretor’s is the major supplier of movie theater popcorn machines as well as most of machines that make foot at county fairs: hot dog roasters, cotton candy machines, snow-cone ice shavers, pizza ovens, nacho dispensers, and more.