An Ode to Popcorn

When I was a kid, popcorn was a special treat that Mom made on a Saturday night—popped in a pan on the stovetop and paired with a fine glass of Kool-Aid. At my grade school fun fest, the inviting scent of popcorn wafted through the halls leading me to the little brown, slightly grease-spotted paper bags holding the delicious morsels, which were a highlight of the event for me. When my family went to a northern Minnesota resort for a reunion back in the ‘90s, as a treat for guests, the owners of the resort popped popcorn in a special popper over the open flames each night of the week as we gathered around the campfire. There would not have been the same warm, fuzzy memories had they ripped open a bag of potato chips and placed it unceremoniously atop a log. They knew the magic of the corn. And with National Popcorn Day on January 19, it seems the perfect time to celebrate and take a closer look at the beloved snack.

My love of popcorn has followed me like a steady companion throughout the years as a warm and buttery highlight of going out to a movie. When the weather is fine for an outing to Lake Harriet in the summer, I’ll seek out popcorn at Bread & Pickle. I treat myself to the delicious kernels with fairly frequent stops to a little candy shop in the skyway near the office—they even have a frequent shopper punch card, which I take advantage of to enjoy a free bag after purchasing 10. How can you pass that up? And when I ask my young sons if they want popcorn, the response is always an excited, “Yes!”

Why Popcorn at Movies?

Unlike other confections, popcorn sales increased throughout the Depression. A major reason for this increase was the introduction of popcorn into movie theaters and its low cost for both patron and owner, according to The Popcorn Board. One theater owner actually lowered the price of his theater tickets and added a popcorn machine. He soon saw huge profits. The “talking picture” solidified the presence of movie theaters in the U.S. in the late 1920s. Many theater owners refused to sell popcorn in their theaters because they felt it was too messy so industrious vendors set up popcorn poppers or rented storefront space next to theaters and sold popcorn to patrons on their way into the theater. Eventually, theater owners began installing popcorn poppers inside their theaters; those who refused to sell popcorn quickly went out of business.

Healthy Whole Grain

Popcorn is not only part of special moments at sporting events, the circus, and other events. It’s also a great snack for a game-day or award-ceremony get-together—or any day. Plus, it’s better for us than you may realize. We’re supposed to make sure to eat whole grains as part of a healthy diet, so why not make some of those servings popcorn? Yes, all corn, or maize, is a whole grain. But, all corn is not created equal. Popcorn, sweet corn, and field corn are different—popcorn is the only type of corn that pops. And there are no known GMO crops of popcorn in the U.S., according to The Popcorn Board. All popcorn is GMO free, even if it is not labeled as non-GMO.

Beyond being a whole grain option, popcorn is also gluten-free and low in calories; air-popped popcorn has only 31 calories per cup and oil-popped popcorn has only 55 calories per cup. And when lightly buttered, popcorn contains about 133 calories per cup. Popcorn provides energy-producing complex carbohydrates and is a good source of fiber—and three cups of popcorn equals one serving from the grain group.

How Does it Pop?

Each kernel of popcorn contains a small drop of water stored inside a circle of soft starch. When harvested, popcorn is dried so that it contains between 13.5-14 percent moisture, the amount it needs to pop. The soft starch is surrounded by the kernel’s hard outer surface, the hull, which has just the right thickness to allow it to burst open when enough pressure builds inside. As the kernel heats up, the water expands, creates steam, and cooks the starch inside, turning it into a liquid mass. Pressure builds inside and finally reaches a point that breaks the hull open. The contents inflate and spill out, cooling immediately and forming the “popcorn” shape we know. (Want to check out a cool video of a kernel popping? Click here.) Without that bit of moisture popcorn can’t pop, so it’s important to store it in airtight plastic or glass containers to avoid moisture loss, and in a cool place such as a cupboard. Avoid the refrigerator, though: It usually contains little moisture and can dry out kernels.

In addition to the classic salt and butter topping, there are countless options from savory to sweet to flavor your snack. Sprinkle with herbs de Provence, cheese, garlic powder, or seasoning salt to create a lightly flavored savory treat. (But don’t salt popcorn until after it’s popped; pre-salting kernels toughens popcorn.) Sprinkle popcorn with cinnamon sugar, cocoa, or pumpkin spices for a touch of sweet. Combine popcorn with dried fruit and nuts to create your own custom snack mix. For a get-together, set out the ingredients for a popcorn bar so fans of savory or sweet can mix it up to their liking. Also, try another campfire favorite with a twist on s’mores.  

Create Your Own Popcorn Bar

Keep in mind that popcorn kernels expand up to 40 times their original size. So 1 ounce, which is 1/8 cup or 2 tablespoons of un-popped kernels will make 4 cups (1 quart) of popped popcorn. Consider how large of a batch you might like to make, and take it from there.

Freshly popped popcorn to suit the size of your munching bunch

Topping Options:
Popcorn salt and pepper
Assorted herbs and spices
Nuts (pine nuts, peanuts, slivered almonds, pumpkin seeds, etc.)
Cheese crackers
Pretzel sticks
Dried fruit (raisins, cranberries, apricots, etc.)
Grated cheese
Chocolate chips
Cinnamon, brown sugar, nutmeg

Stovetop Popping:
To pop popcorn on a stovetop, cover the bottom of a 3- to 4-quart pan with a thin layer of vegetable oil (don’t use butter—it will burn). Place 3 kernels of popcorn in the pan, cover with a loose lid that allows steam to escape, and heat.  When the kernels pop, pour in enough popcorn to cover the bottom of the pan, one kernel deep, cover the pan and shake to evenly spread the oil. When the popping begins to slow to a few seconds apart, remove the pan from the stovetop. The heated oil will still pop the remaining kernels.

Set out a large bowl of popcorn. Put smaller bowls with various popcorn fixings around the big bowl of popcorn.  Let each person fill a paper bag or other container with popcorn and top or mix with their desired flavorings.


Popcorn S’mores

Makes 20 pieces

1 cup firmly packed light brown sugar
1/2 cup (1 stick) butter or margarine
1/2 cup corn syrup
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
10 cups freshly popped popcorn
1 package (10 1/2 ounce) miniature marshmallows
2 cups mini graham cookies (teddy bears)
1 cup chocolate chips

1. Combine brown sugar, butter, and corn syrup in medium saucepan. Cook over high heat for 5 minutes; remove from heat and stir in baking soda.

2. Combine popcorn and marshmallows in large bowl. Pour sugar mixture over popcorn to coat.

3. Gently stir in graham cookies and chocolate chips. 

4. Spread mixture evenly into greased 15×10-inch pan. Let cool completely. Break into pieces. Store in an airtight container.


Editor’s Note: 

For those who want to go the microwave popcorn route, Smude’s, based in Pierz, Minnesota, is offering two boxes of all-natural popcorn for $8 for any order placed on January 19! 

Mary Subialka is the editor of Real Food and Drinks magazines, covering the flavorful world of food, wine, and spirits. She rarely meets a chicken she doesn’t like, and hopes that her son, who used to eat beets and Indian food as a preschooler, will one day again think of real food as more than something you need to eat before dessert and be inspired by his younger brother, who is now into trying new foods.