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Popcorn is More Than Just a Delicious Nutritious Snack

Frugal Parenting (featured column)
by Rachel Keller

Popcorn is rich in fiber, potassium, vitamins B1 and B2, and energy-providing carbohydrates, and yet it contains no artificial additives or preservatives while being low in calories. Millions enjoy making and eating this economical food, but do you know its history?

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Popcorn has been around for thousands of years. The oldest ears of popcorn were discovered in a bat cave in New Mexico, and they are over 5,500 years old!

Years ago, people would throw corn on sizzling hot stones over a campfire. As it popped, it shot off in various directions. The game was to catch the popcorn, and the reward was eating it. Some Indian tribes speared the cob with a long stick and held it near the fire. The kernels popped and stayed attached to the cob. The Iroquois popped their popcorn in pottery with heated sand. A favorite way to enjoy popcorn among the Iroquois Indians was popcorn soup, while the Indians of Central America made popcorn beer.

Popcorn was a welcome dish at the first Thanksgiving dinner in Plymouth, Massachusetts. In fact, the Indians often took popcorn to the meetings with colonists as a goodwill gesture. The colonists loved popcorn so much they served it with sugar and cream for breakfast–the first puffed cereal.

During the Great Depression when many businesses failed, popcorn thrived because it was one of the few luxuries families could afford. And throughout World War II, when sugar was scare, popcorn was an enjoyed treat.

Today the average American eats well over 50 quarts yearly, and Americans consume over one billion pounds of popcorn annually, or seventeen and a half billion quarts.! And no wonder! Popcorn is inexpensive, easy to make, and a delicious healthy snack.

You can save more money by buying plain popcorn–especially in bulk. Recently, our family spent less than $10 on 50 pounds of popcorn. Now, that's a lot of popcorn, but I also buy oat groats and Prairie Gold wheat in 50 pound increments.

If you buy in bulk, you need some air tight containers and a few bay leaves to prevent bugs from ruining the grains. Do not store popcorn in the refrigerator or freezer or in an open container as moisture can be lost making the popcorn unpoppable. (I got several airtight containers free from Wal-Mart's bakery, but any grocery store bakery will have these containers. They usually throw out extras. Wash the container thoroughly and dry well.)

We've never had problems with bugs or with popcorn getting too old. Popcorn can last for years if stored correctly. Preservation methods of the Peruvian Indians were so advanced that grains of popcorn over 1,000 years old still pops.

Hot-air poppers are inexpensive and are great for preparing a quick, low-calorie food. We bought our hot air popper at a yard sale many years ago for one dollar–a terrific investment. Our favorite way to make popcorn, however, is on top of the stove.

Stove-Top Popcorn

To make popcorn on the stove, you need a 3- to 4-quart pan with a lid. (We use a sauté pan with a glass lid so we can watch the popping action.) Place some oil on the bottom–about a 1/3 cup for each cup of popcorn. (We never measure, but just pour some into the pan.) We usually place a little popcorn seasoning in the oil, but you're supposed to season after popping to prevent the popcorn from getting tough. (We've never had any problems with our seasoning in the oil, but you may wish to add salt-free spices such as garlic powder or cayenne pepper.)

Place at least enough popcorn to cover the bottom of the pan, one kernel deep. Heat the oil to 400 - 460 degrees Fahrenheit (If the oil smokes, it is too hot). Test the oil on a couple of kernels. When they pop, add the rest of the popcorn, cover the pan and shake to evenly spread the oil. When the popping begins to slow, remove the pan from the stove-top. The heated oil will still pop the remaining kernels. (We never test the temperature of the oil, but place all the popcorn in the pan before heating. We do stir to coat the popcorn and usually pop about 3/4 cup with a batch.) This is so delicious!

Homemade Microwave Popcorn

Store-bought microwave popcorn is loaded with unnecessary calories and additives, and it costs much more per serving than plain old popcorn. (Microwave popcorn sales amount to approximately $250 billion yearly.) If you prefer the convenience of microwave popcorn, make your own for much less.

You need a paper lunch bag. Put some popcorn in the bottom. (When I tried it I put in approximately half a cup.) Fold the top of the bag over a couple of times (about half inch deep folds). Use the standard popcorn setting for your microwave. When the popcorn is finished, season as desired. You can spray with butter flavored cooking spray and sprinkle seasonings on top or eat it plain.

Caramel Popcorn Balls

Did you know that popcorn balls were among the most popular confections in the late 1800s and early 1900s? They are still enjoyed today. The Internet offers many tasty recipes although most of them use corn syrup. Since my children and I wanted to make caramel popcorn and we don't use corn syrup, we had to come up with a viable alternative. We chose marshmallows (Yes, marshmallows do contain corn syrup.) However, you can make your own "corn syrup" by boiling one cup water and one cup granulated sugar and then cooling.

We enjoyed the popcorn balls so much that we made a couple batches. The second batch was made with honey (since we're trying to eliminate all processed sugars). The caramel popcorn made with brown sugar was harder, darker, and tasted more like caramel popcorn. The honey ones were softer, but would make a great snack in a bowl rather than rolling into popcorn balls. Peanuts are optional, but add a great crunch, making the popcorn taste more like "Cracker Jacks."

The third recipe contains only butter and marshmallows and is very easy to do. You can press it into a 9x13 pan, into heart-shaped pans (or other seasonal shapes) or roll into balls. Consider adding a variety of optional ingredients such as peanuts, slivered almonds, mixed nuts, dried cranberries, M&Ms, chocolate chips, etc. The last recipe is a healthier alternative.

Caramel Popcorn Balls with Marshmallows

You can make this recipe on top of the stove or in the microwave. If you use a spoon to stir the mixture, spray some nonstick spray on the spoon to keep the mixture from sticking to your utensil. We found it easier to mix with our hands and roll into balls. It helps if you wet your hands first.

6 T. butter
1/4 cup brown sugar
1 tsp. vanilla
8 large marshmallows
6 cup popped popcorn
1/4 cup peanuts (optional)

Melt butter, vanilla, sugar, and marshmallows. Stir until smooth. Pour over popcorn and mix. Add peanuts if desired. Serve in a dish or roll into balls and wrap in various colored plastic wrap for gift giving.

Caramel Popcorn with Honey

4 T. butter
1/4 cup honey
8 large marshmallows
6 cup popped popcorn
1/4 cup peanuts (optional)

Melt butter, honey and marshmallows. Stir until smooth. Pour over popcorn and mix. Add peanuts if desired. Serve in a dish or roll into balls and wrap in various colored plastic wrap for gift giving.

Marshmallow Popcorn

10 cups popped popcorn
3 tablespoons butter
1 (10-ounce) package regular marshmallows

In a large saucepan melt butter over low heat. Add marshmallows and stir until completely melted. Remove from heat. (You can melt the butter and marshmallows in the microwave instead of the stove.) Stir until smooth, and then stir in popped popcorn, half at a time. Press mixture into greased 9x13 pan. If making balls or pressing into molds, cool until easy to handle (10 to 15 minutes). You can add food coloring to the melted marshmallow mixture for holiday snacks.

Healthier Caramel Popcorn

3/4 cup maple syrup
1-3 T. butter
2 T. Sucanat (optional)–Natural sweetener
1/4 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. baking soda
1/4 tsp. vanilla
1/2 cup nuts (optional, adds fat)
8 - 12 cups popped popcorn

Combine syrup, butter, Sucanat, and salt in saucepan until butter is melted. Boil without stirring 3 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in baking soda and vanilla. (Add nuts if using). Pour over popcorn. Mix well. Place on 2 large cook sheets. Bake for 15 minutes in a preheated 300 degree oven. After cooling, break into pieces. This freezes well.

Popcorn Decorations and Crafts

Popcorn is great for eating, but you can also use it for decoration. In 1492, Christopher Columbus, observed West Indian natives wearing popcorn corsages as well as using popped corn to decorate ceremonial headdresses. Other early explorers observed ornamental necklaces, bouquets, and headdresses made of popcorn.

Popcorn makes wonderful Christmas tree garlands or fireplace decorations. Recently, we participated in the Jewish Feast of Tabernacles with some Jewish friends. Our children enjoyed making popcorn strings to help decorate the outdoor booth or tabernacle.

Popcorn Mailing/ Bird Snacks

If you're mailing a package for Christmas or any other time, pop some plain popcorn (no oil, butter, or salt) to use for packaging items rather than styrofoam bubbles. Whoever receives the package can throw out the popcorn for the birds. (Birds love popcorn kernels and popped popcorn–just don't give them store-bought microwave popcorn.)

Popcorn is fun for all ages to enjoy. Please monitor young children, however, as it can be a choking hazard. The next time you feel hungry for a snack, pop some popcorn rather than gobbling down those potato chips or other junk food. While you're munching on that popcorn, enjoy some popcorn trivia.

Popcorn Trivia

* An old 19th century method of cooking popcorn was to pour kernels of corn into a kettle full of lard. When the corn popped after heating it was skimmed off the top as it surfaced!

* The first cookbook to mention popcorn was published in 1846.

* One of the largest popcorn balls ever made used 2000 pounds of popcorn and was 12 feet in diameter. This enormous ball was constructed in 1996.

* Did you know that January 19 is National Popcorn Day?

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Copyright © 2007, 2016 by Rachel Keller. All rights reserved.

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