When European settlers first arrived in the Americas, the indigenous tribes introduced them to popcorn. These specialized corn crops had been grown and eaten here for thousands of years. Often displaying brightly colored kernels, some popcorn varieties double as ornamental corn, especially in autumn decorations. Popcorn (Zea mays everta) can grow as an annual in any climate that will support sweet corn. And it will pop and taste better than commercial brands, because it is fresh.
Differences from Other Corn
Unlike sugar-enhanced varieties of standard corn, popcorn has low-sugar content. Also low in calories and fat, though high in dietary fiber, homegrown popcorn is so delicious you can skip the butter. Since pollen requirements differ, never plant popcorn near sweet corn or cross-pollination could result in a confusion of characteristics. Fortunately, many garden pests find popcorn less appealing than humans do. Raccoons, possums and various types of worms prefer to munch on sweet corn.
Popcorn kernels range in color from white to gold, red, blue and even black. "Calico" varieties also exist, which have two or more colors on each ear. After popping, all turn white. Popular popcorn varieties include "Black Popcorn," "Gold Hybrid," "Peppy Hybrid," "White Cloud" and "Japanese White Hulless." Maybe the most bizarre of the popcorn cultivars is "Strawberry Popcorn," whose ears closely resemble giant strawberries. Featuring ruby kernels, the cobs only grow to 2 or 3 inches, with a decidedly round shape.
Harvesting and Drying Popcorn
Depending on the variety, popcorn matures in 83 to 102 days. Leave the ears on the plant until the husks have fully dried, approximately two months. If you experience a wet fall, shelled popcorn can be oven-dried. Preheat the oven to 300 degrees Fahrenheit, and put the kernels into a large pan, such as a turkey roaster. After setting the pan in the oven, immediately turn the heat down to the lowest setting. Dry the corn, stirring occasionally, for five hours. Next, turn the oven off completely, and leave the corn to cool overnight. Since any chaff or silks left among the kernels can cause popped corn to scorch, clean the kernels before storing by slowly pouring them from one container to another in front of an electric fan, to blow away the debris. Store sun-dried kernels in a freezer, because insect eggs might be present that could hatch at room temperature. If the kernels were dried in an oven, store in a sealed jar in the refrigerator.
The Science of Popping
Each popcorn kernel contains moisture and oil, along with starch, encased in a tough shell. Adding heat at the right speed and temperature causes the contents, propelled by internal steam, to explode from the hard covering and form a fluffy, white pillow. The best way to ensure that almost all kernels pop is to place them in a covered saucepan on the stove, where a mere teaspoon of oil has been heated to medium high. As the kernels begin to pop, shake the pan vigorously back and forth over the burner, without stopping, until popping ceases. The secret to success, the agitation and rolling motion, distributes the heat evenly around the kernels.