I love popcorn! Each year I buy kettle corn at one or more locations along the Spoon River Drive.
It is a good possibility that the popcorn I purchase was grown and packaged locally. Mason County, Illinois grows a lot of popcorn! In 2012, the USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service's Census of Agriculture ranked Mason County the No. 1 producer of popcorn in the United States with 18,552 acres.
In recent weeks I've followed several farmers as they delivered semi loads of popcorn to the Weaver Popcorn plant in Forest City – also in Mason County. According to the company's website, Weaver Popcorn was established in 1928 and now supplies 30 percent of the world's popcorn to more than 90 countries.
What makes popcorn pop? The answer is water! Popcorn needs to have a moisture content of 13-14 percent. Water is stored in the starch of each kernel. As the kernel cooks, the water inside heats and builds up pressure until it has no more space to grow. As the outer layer gives way, the water further expands, causing the popcorn to explode. As the kernel turns inside out, steam inside the kernel is released and the inner soft starch pops.
You can grow your own popcorn. Similar to growing sweet or Indian corn, you'll need ample garden space in a sunny location. Add seed and water, then watch it grow. Most types mature in about 100 days. Ears are typically harvested before the first frost after their outer husks have turned brown and kernels have hardened. Shuck the ears and let them dry for a few weeks before shelling. Store shelled kernels in airtight containers in a cool cupboard.
Proper storage is key to guarantee the corn maintains enough water to pop. Glass jars are better than plastic bags. If your popcorn gets too dry and doesn't pop properly, try adding moisture to the container. Fill a quart jar three-quarters full of kernels and add one tablespoon of water. Cover and shake the jar until the water is absorbed. Shake it 2 to 3 times a day for about a week and it should be ready for perfect popping.
Lisa Peterson, University of Illinois Extension educator in nutrition and wellness, says "Popcorn is a great nutritious snack, but it is important to remember not to mask the health benefits with high amounts of salt, sugar, and added fat (butter/margarine)." Three cups of popcorn equal one serving of grains! One cup of air-popped popcorn has only 30 calories. Lisa suggests the following tips to get that boost of fiber without the extra calories. Replace salts with herbs. Microwave instead of cooking in oil. Experiment with non-salt seasonings such as parmesan cheese, chili powder, garlic powder, or cinnamon.
Support your local farmer with popcorn purchased from a hometown vendor on this year's Spoon River Scenic Drive. Yum!