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Kettle Corn History & Fun Facts

Some like it hot
Some like it cold
Some like in in the pot
Nine days old!
EVERYONE likes it!

So, exactly who invented Kettle Corn? Good question. One thing for sure, it’s been popped for decades and only grows in popularity! Supposedly, the farmers and cowboys of the old Mid-West used to make their own version of kettle corn. After a day of harvest, they would throw rendered fat into a cast iron pot sitting over the fire. When the fat was hot, they’d throw in some corn kernels and whatever sweetener available, usually honey or molasses. Cooking methods may have changed with the times, but kettle corn still has that same slightly sweet, slightly salty taste we’re all addicted to.

It’s been argued that kettle corn cooking is an art and requires extensive knowledge, “secret” recipes and hours of experience to cook the “perfect” batch of corn. That may be, but the very first batch of corn we cooked in our kettle corn popping machine was absolutely AWESOME! We sat there looking at each other with wide eyes and full mouths…WE made THIS?

Bottom line….. I rarely taste bad kettle corn. The best part of owning your own kettle corn biz is this: you can take the basic recipe we provide you with and go make money! Or, experiment a little, make some modifications and you’ll have your very own “secret” version! Some argue peanut oil is the “only way to go”. However, some people are allergic to peanuts products so you’d need to consider that. We think pure corn oil has the best flavor. One guy told us he uses plain old Canola oil and can’t tell the difference. Others will tell you Mushroom popcorn is the best because it pops into large round kernels (we agree). Some like brown sugar for the caramel flavor it adds. You can buy gourmet powders and make “gourmet kettle corn”. The possibilities are endless. Good luck, and don’t forget to HAVE FUN!

For your enjoyment, some Popcorn Trivia…

What is Popcorn? How is it grown and harvested? How does it pop?

Popcorn, like all six types of corn, is a cereal grain and originates from a wild grass. Its scientific name is zea mays everta, and it is the only type of corn to actually pop.

Popcorn is made up of three main components; endosperm, germ and the pericarp. The endosperm is made up of soft and hard starch granules. The endosperm is always white or yellow in color and is a carbohydrate. The function of the starch is to provide energy for the living part of the kernel, more commonly known as the “germ” or “embryo.” The outer hull of the kernel is the pericarp, which is made of cellulose. The pericarp or hull is usually white or yellow in color, though the range of colors includes red, black and many colors in between.

Popcorn seeds are bred to produce desirable traits such as stalk strength, grain color and successful popping. Plant breeders select popcorn for genetic traits by using inbreeding. Inbreeding is taking the pollen from the tassel (male flower) from a single plant and using that pollen to fertilize the silk (female flower) of that same plant. Inbreeding leads to genetic segregation, whereby the plant breeder is able to identify, select and save the seed of desirable plants. The breeder then takes the seed and inbreeds it again, and continues to select for desirable traits. It takes eight years of inbreeding until the plant selection is stable and is no longer segregating. Finally, two inbreds are crossed together to produce a hybrid, which is then planted as popcorn seed.

Most of the world’s popcorn is grown in the United States corn belt of Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Michigan, Missouri, Nebraska and Ohio. Each spring, farmers use a corn planter to place the popcorn seeds about 1½ inches deep and 6 inches apart in the soil. That’s nearly 28,000 seeds per acre.

Popcorn seed will germinate in about seven days and will emerge from the soil in 10 days. The moisture in the soil dissolves important elements for the plant such as nitrogen, phosphate and potash. The popcorn roots absorb this nutrient rich moisture to “feed” the seed and cause it to germinate. When the sun shines on the new leaves, the green chlorophyll in the leaf contains water, which is combined with the carbon dioxide in the air, creating sugar. The plant uses the sugar to build more leaves and roots, and eventually ears of popcorn. This process is called photosynthesis.

As the popcorn plant grows, the stalk will reach approximately eight feet in height and produce long, green leaves. Popcorn requires 18-24 inches of water during the growing season. As the plant grows, it begins to produce ears of corn, covered with a green husk. Feathery tassels form at the top of the plant and produce pollen, a yellowish powder. The ears form silks or long strands that “catch” pollen as the wind blows. This process is called pollination and allows the ears to produce kernels. Once the ears have kernels, the maturity process continues until the entire plant is dry and brown.

Popcorn is mature when the stalk and leaves are brown and dry, the kernel is hard, and a “black layer,” easily found by scratching away the tip of the kernel, is formed. This layer signals that the kernel is no longer requiring nutrition from the plant. Popcorn is usually harvested when the kernel has moisture content of 16%-20%. It is this moisture within the kernel which allows the popcorn kernel to pop when heated.

Popcorn is usually harvested with a combine. This is a machine which has a “corn head” which strips the ear from the stalk. The ear is then fed into the combine. The combine shells the kernels from the cob and ejects the cob out of the back of the machine. The kernels are then loaded into a truck and transported to a storage bin. These bins have a perforated floor and air is forced through the floor to dry the corn to a 14% moisture level – the ideal level for popping corn. Sometimes the popcorn is harvested on the ear with a corn picker, which picks the corn on the cob without removing the kernels. The corn then dries on the cob and kernels are later removed from the ear.

Once the popcorn has dried to the optimum moisture level of 14%, it is then cleaned to remove small pieces of the cob and other plant parts. Popcorn kernels are moved over a screen, which vibrates to separate the kernels from the other particles. Next, popcorn kernels go through a gravity separator, which eliminates lightweight particles such as small kernels. Once the kernels have been cleaned, they are polished, eliminating any final plant material still clinging to the kernel. The kernels are now ready to be packaged for microwave, bag, jar or bulk distribution.

Popcorn needs heat to pop. Most popcorn will pop when the kernel’s internal temperature reaches 400-460 degrees Fahrenheit. Bound within the endosperm or starch is moisture. When the kernel is heated, the moisture turns to steam. Because the pericarp or hull is hard and flinty, pressure builds up within the kernel. The starch inside the kernel becomes soft like gelatin and the moisture vaporizes until the pressure in the kernel reaches 135 pounds per square inch. The pressure increases until the pericarp or hull ruptures and the gelatinized starch granules puff out. The kernel literally turns inside out. The starch or endosperm is the white part of the popped kernel and the pericarp or hull is the darker, flaky bit at the center of the kernel.

Humans consume popcorn as a versatile and nutritious snack. It’s enjoyed both sweet and savory by fans around the world. One factor, which makes it so popular, is its nutritional value. One cup of air-popped popcorn contains 31 calories, 1 gram of protein, 6 grams of carbohydrate, 1 gram of fiber and just a trace of fat. With suggestions from organizations such as the National Cancer Institute (NCI), the American Dental Association (ADA) and the American Dietetic Association (ADA), there’s no doubt popcorn is a perfectly sensible snack to fit into any meal/fitness plan.

  • Popcorn contains fiber, providing roughage the body needs in the daily diet.
  • Popcorn is low in calories — only 31-55 calories in one cup of unbuttered, and when lightly buttered, one cup still only has 133 calories.
  • Popcorn has no artificial additives or preservatives, and is sugar-free.
  • Popcorn contains energy-producing carbohydrates.
  • Popcorn is ideal for between meal snacking since it satisfies and doesn’t spoil an appetite.
  • Popcorn inspires creativity. While there’s no doubt hot buttered popcorn is pleasing to any palate, popcorn also can be enjoyed when combined with seasonings, spices and other foods like raisins, fruit and cheese providing a nutritious, delicious snack.

Without moisture — 13.5 percent to 14 percent per kernel — popcorn can’t pop. That’s why it’s important to store popcorn correctly. An entire percentage of moisture can be lost if your kernels are left uncovered on a hot day. And though that may not sound like a lot, it adds up. A loss of 3 percent can render popcorn un-poppable. And even a 1 percent drop in moisture will harm the quality of your kernels.

So what’s the best way to store popcorn? Airtight containers — plastic or glass — are your best bet to avoid moisture loss, especially when stored in a cool place like a cupboard. Avoid the refrigerator. Some say the cold storage makes the popcorn taste better, but many refrigerators contain little moisture and can dry out kernels.

Food for thought…

During the Depression, popcorn at 5 or 10 cents a bag was one of the few luxuries down-and-out families could afford. While other businesses failed, the popcorn business thrived. An Oklahoma banker who went broke when his bank failed bought a popcorn machine and started a business in a small store near a theater. After a couple years, his popcorn business made enough money to buy back three of the farms he’d lost.

Americans today consume 17 billion quarts of popped popcorn each year. The average American eats about 58 quarts.