How to Grow Corn for Popcorn

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PHOTO: THE POPCORN INSTITUTE, ILLINOIS
You can cultivate this beloved snack right in your own backyard.

Sweet corn is terrific when eaten fresh, field corn is good
for feeding livestock, and Indian corn is great for
popping. Indian corn? That’s right. Popcorn was one of
those fabulous foods that the Pilgrims learned about from
the Native Americans, who grew over 700 varieties with
kernels ranging in color from white to golden, red to
black, and all colors in between.

Archaeologists believe popcorn was the first corn ever
enjoyed by humans. Columbus “discovered” it when he landed
on the Caribbean island of San Salvador. Today, you can buy
gourmet popcorn left on the cob, packed in wine bottles, or
packaged for the microwave. As much fun as it is to eat,
popcorn is twice as much fun if you grow it yourself.

Selecting Popcorn Seed
 

Classified as Zea mays, corn is actually a grass.
Sweet corn is botanically known as Zea mays
rugosa. Popcorn is Zea mays praecox and comes in
over 100 different strains varying in flavor, tenderness,
presence, or absence of a hull, shape, and color. Despite
the wide selection and varied kernel colors, all corn is
white once it is popped. (Don’t let the commercial cheese
fool you.)

The two most popular strains are “snowflake” and
“mushroom.” Snowflake pops big and puffy and is the kind
you’ll munch at the movies or pop at home; mushroom pops
small and round and is preferred by commercial makers of
caramel corn because it doesn’t break as easily. You aren’t
likely to find mushroom seeds for growing, but no matter.
Since you wouldn’t process your homegrown corn by machine,
snowflake works fine. It’s also the more tender of the two.

One of the first things that you’ll have to decide when you
grow your own is whether to plant a hybrid or natural,
open-pollinated variety. If you plan to save your own seed
from year to year, choose one of the latter. Popular
open-pollinated varieties are Strawberry (which has small
ears with red kernels), Tom Thumb (a fast-growing dwarf
requiring little space), and Japanese Hulless (which has 4″
ears with kernels that pop quite tender). White Cloud, a
hybrid, produces fewer ears than open-pollinated varieties,
but many feel that it pops better.

Planting 
Corn

Young corn shoots are highly susceptible to frost damage,
so plant seeds after all danger of frost has passed. Select
a sunny spot that’s protected from the wind. Since corn
likes lots of nitrogen, it does well where a legume, such
as beans or peas, were grown the previous year. Seeds
germinate best after the soil has warmed to at least
60°F. Plant kernels ½” deep in spring; during
the heat of summer, plant seeds 2″ deep. Germination occurs
in three to 12 days.

Plant rows 12″ apart. Since good ear development depends on
good pollination, put in four or more adjacent rows. If you
don’t have room for several rows, plant in hills.
Typically, only about 75% of the seeds germinate, so put
two kernels in each hole and space the holes 7″ apart. Thin
later so that the best sprouts are 15″ apart. For hills,
plant six kernels per hill, thinning to three after they
sprout. To avoid damaging roots of adjoining plants, thin
by cutting rather than pulling.

If you plan to save your own seed, isolate popcorn from
other kinds of corn (including other varieties of popcorn)
to avoid cross-pollination. You can isolate varieties by
planting them 500 feet apart or by staggering plantings so
stalks tassel at least two weeks apart. You should know,
too, that your popcorn patch can interfere with someone’s
nearby sweet corn, so plant your corn where it won’t start
neighborhood feuds.

Cultivation of Corn

Since corn doesn’t grow well in competition with weeds,
either keep weeds hoed back (taking care not to damage
tender corn roots) or mulch heavily. If rainfall doesn’t
provide 1″ of water per week, particularly when stalks
begin to tassel, water by flooding the ground rather than
by using overhead sprinklers; you don’t want to wash away
the pollen. Apply compost or other nitrogen fertilizer when
sprouts are 6″ high and again when they reach knee height.

Two enemy pests of corn are corn borers and earworms.
Borers attack stalks, kicking “sawdust” out through small
holes. If you find one at work, destroy it by squeezing the
stalk; otherwise, apply the biological pesticides rotenone
or Bacillus thuringiensis (BT). Earworms typically
attack ear tips when stalks begin to tassel. Deal with them
by sprinkling the tip of each ear with rotenone, BT, or
pyrethrin before silks wither and begin to brown. After
silks turn brown, apply a drop of mineral oil to the top of
each ear.

Unfortunately there are two animals that love popcorn as
much as humans do: crows and raccoons. Crows go after young
sprouts–pulling them up as fast as they peep through
the soil to get at the sweet kernel below. One solution, of
course, is to put a scarecrow on the job. Another is to
mulch your corn patch so that, by the time sprouts poke
through the mulch, the seed kernels will have lost their
sweet appeal. If you plant in hills, a third crow deterrent
is to set up a tepee of three sticks at the center of each
hill.

Raccoons go after corn ears just as they’re starting to
ripen. An electric fence will keep them out. Sprinkling a
little hot pepper on the silk of each ear will slow them
down. Turning a flood light on the corn patch, or piping
radio sounds to it, send the nocturnal raiders scurrying
for a more sensible garden. The Native American practice of
planting pumpkins among corn also discourages masked
bandits–some theorize that raccoons don’t like the
prickly stems, others say the big pumpkin leaves prevent
them from looking around while they’re busy munching fresh
ears. Who cares the reason, so long as it works.

Pollination
 

Typically, one to two ears will grow on each corn stalk,
but they will develop a full set of kernels only if
pollination is complete. Every corn plant has both male and
female flowers. The male flowers are the tassels at the top
of the stalks. The female flowers are the ears. The silk on
the ears must be pollinated by the tassels in order for the
corn kernels to develop. Each pollinated strand of silk
represents one kernel on the cob.

To ensure good pollination, after tassels open to display
their yellow pollen, walk along on a calm morning and shake
stalks to make the tassels release their bounty. If you
prefer a more precise method, shake pollen from several
tassels into a bucket or large paper bag. Transfer the
pollen into an easier-to-handle smaller bag and sprinkle a
little onto each silky ear. Ensure complete pollination by
repeating the process on three different days.

If you plan to save seed to plant next year, but nearby
corn crops interfere with your own seed crop, protect ears
with waxed bags and hand-pollinate them. In his fine book
Saving Seeds (Storey Publishing; 1990), Marc
Rogers recommends this procedure for hand pollination: When
the tassels at the top of the plants develop pollen, cut
one off. Remove the bag from an ear and rub the tassel on
the silk. Continue on to other bagged ears until the tassel
runs low on pollen. Cut another tassel and continue until
all bagged ears have been pollinated.

After the silk turns brown, remove the bags and identify
the hand-pollinated ears by tying pieces of colorful yarn
around them so they won’t accidentally get popped for
eating. Save at least a dozen ears in this manner, so
you’ll have plenty of choice in selecting the best seed to
plant next year. Since corn kernels do not store well, grow
a fresh batch of seed each year.

Harvesting Corn

Leave corn drying on the stalks until the first hard frost
threatens. When frost approaches, or if the weather is too
damp, bring the ears of corn in and dry them under cover by
stripping back the husks and tying a few together in a
bunch. When the weather cooperates, dry ears right on the
stalks and pick them when the husks have partially dried
and turn brown. Kernels are ready for storage when they can
easily be twisted or rubbed from the cob.

Shelling popcorn can be hard on your hands. Most people
grasp a cob and twist the kernels loose. Those same people
complain about all of the blisters they got from doing
this. I find it easier to rub them off with my thumbs,
starting at the large end of the ear. Another trick is to
rub two ears against each other to break kernels loose from
the cobs. No matter which shelling method you prefer, toss
out immature kernels near the tip of the ear.

Popcorn Pow-Wow
 

The Native Americans developed many ingenious ways to pop
corn. One was to skewer an ear on a stick, roast it over an
open fire, and gather up kernels that flew away from the
flames. Another method was to clear away an area of soil
made hot by a fire, then toss on some kernels. A third
method was to heat a clay bowl lined with coarse sand, stir
kernels in when the sand got hot, and eat those that popped
to the surface.

Today corn is popped in an electric popper, in a heavy pan
on the stove, or in the microwave–with or without
oil. Dry-popped corn contains virtually no fat. Popped in
oil, each cup contains about one gram of fat. If you grew
up on corn popped in oil, as I did, dry-popped corn tastes
flat.

Despite all the corn popping appliances I’ve been given
over the years, I still prefer the stove-top method I
learned from my mother. I fondly remember how she used to
pop me a big bag of corn to enjoy at school. The popcorn
was great, but I soon grew tired of being mobbed by
classmates at recess. Mom also popped a batch every week
right before “Maverick” came on TV. One week she was busy
and forgot. When Maverick’s theme song started, the whole
family turned in unison to ask, “Where’s the popcorn?”

To pop corn on the stove, you need a heavy saucepan with a
loose fitting lid that lets steam escape. Heat the saucepan
on a burner and add ¼ cup of oil– preferably
one that’s low in saturated fats, such as corn oil or
sunflower oil. (Don’t add salt to the oil or your corn will
be tough.) Heat the oil to between 400°F and 460°F,
where corn pops best. Oil burns at 500°F. If it smokes,
it’s too hot. Don’t use butter–it will burn for sure.

Test the temperature of the oil by tossing in a few
kernels. The oil is ready when the kernels pop. Pour in
enough kernels to cover the bottom of the pan (if you add
more than one layer, the expanding corn will pop the lid
right off the pan). Two tablespoons of kernels make about
one quart of popcorn. Shake the pan to keep kernels from
burning and to coat each with oil. Your corn is done when
the explosive sounds peak.

Even though I love stove-top popcorn, I think the Native
Americans were onto something by popping it over an open
fire. Fireplace (or campfire) popping makes the tastiest
corn, although it also toasts you and wears out your
popping arm.

You’ll need a long-handled metal basket, available at
old-fashioned hardware stores and modern fireplace
accessory boutiques. Put ¼ to 1/3 cup of kernels
into the basket. Hold the basket over the flame, high
enough so the kernels won’t burn before they pop, and shake
the handle to keep the kernels moving inside the basket.
It’s nice to have a partner who’ll take turns while you
cool off and rest your arm.

If you can’t find a long-handled popper, you can pop corn
over a campfire using heavy aluminum foil. Tear the foil
into 12″ squares, one per serving. On each square, place
one teaspoon of oil and one tablespoon of kernels. Bring
the four corners of each square together at the center and
twist them to form a loosely sealed packet. Leave the
packets on a hot grill until the popping sound slows.

Corn can also be popped, Native American-style, right on
the cob–something like roasting a hot dog. Some
kernels will pop into the flames and be lost, some will pop
away from the fire, and some will stick to the cob. As
charming as it may be to pop corn this way, corn popped on
the cob is usually not as tender as corn popped off the
cob.

Why Popcorn Pops
 

What makes corn pop? Popcorn kernels contain at least 14%
water. Under heat, the water expands into steam, causing
the starchy interior of the kernel to explode. When
moisture in the kernel falls below 12%, you get duds, old
maids, or spinsters–those unopened and partially
opened kernels that rattle your jawbone and crack your
teeth. Good popcorn should yield less than 2% spinsters.
Microwave popcorn is dryer than other corn and usually has
more spinsters than average. To avoid dried-out kernels,
store popcorn in an airtight jar or plastic bag in a cool
place. Avoid storing it in the refrigerator–the dry
air in a refrigerator causes kernels to dry out quickly.

If you get a batch of corn that’s too dry to pop,
rejuvenate it by putting it into a jar and adding a little
water. Screw on the lid and shake the jar occasionally
until all of the water is absorbed. After two or three
days, pop a batch. If you still get too many duds, add a
little more water and try again.

As good as popcorn tastes, the surprising thing is that
it’s also good for you. It consists chiefly of complex
carbohydrates. One cup contains only about 30 calories (add
another 100 if you drizzle butter on it). Among the
infamous food groups, popcorn qualifies as a cereal grain.
Thanks to its hulls, it contains about one gram of dietary
fiber. In fiber content, popcorn rivals bran flakes and
whole-wheat toast– but it’s a whole lot more fun to
eat.

Pop-Happy
 

Since the proof of the popping is in the eating, it’s no
wonder popcorn is so popular. Each of us pops down 60
quarts per year. Are you popping your fair share?

Nacho-Cheese Popcorn

The American Popcorn Association (401 N. Michigan Avenue,
Chicago, IL 60611) distributes imaginative recipes from
Caramel Nut Crunch to Popcorn Peanut Soup. Here’s one of my
favorites:

1/3 cup cooking oil
1/3 cup popping corn
3 to 4 dried chilies
3 tablespoons hot oil
1 clove garlic, quartered
1/3 cup Parmesan cheese
1 teaspoon cumin seed
1 teaspoon paprika
½ teaspoon salt

In a small saucepan over low heat, warm oil, chilies,
garlic, and cumin seed for three minutes; strain. Pop corn
in three tablespoons of seasoned oil. Pour remaining oil
over popped corn and toss to season. Combine Parmesan,
paprika, and salt Toss with popped corn. Yield: 2½
quarts

Herbed Mustard Butter

The Popcorn Lover’s Book (Contemporary Books,
1983) by popcorn mavens Sue Spitler and Nao Hauser,
contains over unique 100 serving ideas. This 90-page book
includes seven different kinds of flavored butter recipes
such as this one:

3 to 4 tablespoons butter
1 teaspoon soy sauce
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
¼ teaspoon lemon juice
¼ teaspoon dried rosemary leaves

Melt butter in a small saucepan; stir in remaining
ingredients. Toss with popped corn. Yield: ¼ cup

Oriental Popcorn Mix

For this recipe, also from The Popcorn Lover’s Book,
Spitler and Hauser recommend popping the corn in sesame oil
to give it a slightly nutty taste that goes well with soy
sauce and 5-spice powder.

6 cups popped corn
3 tablespoons butter/margarine
5 ounces chow meim noodles
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1 cup cashews
½ teaspoon 5-spice powder

In a large bowl, combine popped corn, chow mein noodles,
and cashews. In a small saucepan, melt butter and stir in
soy sauce and 5-spice powder. Toss with corn and noodles.
Yield: 9 cups