You can’t pop just any old corn: The decorative flint corn that sometimes shows up in Thanksgiving cornucopias won’t do a thing when steamed. Same goes for sweet corn and the corn grown for animal feed. But certain corn varieties have hulls tough enough to remain intact when heated, at least until the starches contained within liquefy. When the kernel reaches a temperature of about 347 degrees, it bursts open, spilling starch that cools and hardens quicker than the human eye can see.
Learn the backstory
People have been popping corn for thousands of years, but the New World snack didn’t wend its way into American cuisine until the 1840s. Its initial popularity was somewhat inhibited by contemporary popping techniques: Before the first long-handled, box-style poppers were invented, the only way to transform hulls into puffs involved sitting close to a hot fire with a skillet rubbed with lard. The method produced popcorn that was unappetizingly greasy.
But by the turn of the century, vendors were rolling steam-powered popcorn makers through city streets, and parking them at circuses and county fairs. Within a few decades, theater owners reconsidered their opposition to popcorn, which they feared would distract patrons and ruin their carpets, and installed popcorn machines in their lobbies. Today, according to Smithsonian Magazine, 85 percent of theater profits come from concessions, including popcorn.
Recently, though, popcorn has started to transcend its status as a movie-going companion. Microwave popcorn is on a downward slide, but premade popcorns are surging: Industry observers say that’s because popcorn is a neutral canvas for the spicy and complex seasonings that consumers now prefer. Premade popcorns released over the last year include peri peri popcorn, pineapple habanero popcorn and tandoori yogurt popcorn.
Beyond bagged popcorn, marketing company SEODagger says its surveys show popcorn poppers will be a big gift for Christmas this year.
Home cooks may well have discovered what restaurant chefs are rapidly figuring out. First, manufacturers don’t have the monopoly on popcorn seasoning. At The Gin Joint, for example, the appetizer menu includes pad thai popcorn, dusted with palm sugar and chiles. And secondly, popcorn is a healthy and likable way to add texture to a soup or salad; Think of it as an au courant crouton.
And order it here
Drawing Room, 19 Vendue Range, drawingroomrestaurant.com, 843-414-2334 (McClellanville crab and corn bisque, topped with country ham and landrace popped corn, $10)
- Hanna Raskin