Things are starting to cool down here in Tennessee, and that means two things: we can spend cozy nights indoors, and popping corn is being harvested all around the area. What a perfect marriage! If you’re familiar with the plague of seed oils, you’ve likely stood frustrated in the supermarket snack aisle, skimming the ingredient lists of this excellent movie night treat and finding that not a single one was just made with good old-fashioned butter. We don’t need them. We live in farm country, and we can enjoy delicious, buttered popcorn with our movies in a matter of minutes. Let me tell you how.
What is Popping Corn?
Popping corn is not the same as your everyday sweet corn kernel. There are a variety of types of corn all grown across the country that are made into different types of corn products: dent corn, flour corn, pod corn, flint corn, sweet corn, and popping corn. Popping corn kernels, which are a subvariety of flint corn, have a very strong hull that contains hard starch and 14-20% moisture, which when heated causes the hull to break and the kernel to puff up.
Popping corn can be grown pretty easily at home, as long as it is separate from other corn. Part of the process of testing for when it is harvest ready involves taking a few kernels and attempting to pop them — when they are mostly popping, you can harvest and store all of your ears.
There are some farms in Tennessee that grow their own popping corn kernels, and sell them online or at local markets through November. One such farm is Ike’s Amish Depot and General Store. Ike’s Amish Depot and General Store was founded in 1942, and is now a large tourist attraction near the Amish community of Etheridge, Tennessee. While it’s a great place just to visit for a meal or a look at some unique antiques, they also have a variety of Amish-made goods, including soaps, baked goods, and of course: popcorn.
Growing It: Teachings from the Best of Tennessee
The best and most prolific farmers of quality popcorn in Tennessee are the many Amish and Mennonite communities. I spoke with Marlin Martin, of the Englewood Mennonite community about that process, which he says is “pretty simple.” This popcorn is both enjoyed by the community and sold at the Englewood Farmers Market in Eastern Tennessee. It starts with open-pollinated seed, a genetically diverse variety that allows the plant to develop at its best in a natural setting.
“Here in Tennessee we’ll direct seed,” explains Martin. “We’ll make holes about twelve inches apart. That’s in about the middle of April.” What will grow with them? “There’s one crop that does well with popcorn, or any kind of corn, and that’s pumpkins.” These two are great foods to harvest and prepare through the fall, for a food supply in the colder months. However, before harvesting time comes, there is some work to be done. Mostly, Martin says, you just need to “keep it weed free until harvest,” but “fairly high nitrogen fertilizer or compost,” is standard practice at the family farm. “Compost is my best pick because it stays there and does slow release all season.” Some nitrogen-rich add ons to your compost pile can be coffee grounds, greens, or manure.
Harvest time varies based on the type and colors of popcorn, but generally is from about late August through September. Martin explains how to tell when: “Plants need to be 50-75% brown… the ear is filled out and basically hanging there.” At that point, “pop the ear out.” The next step is drying. “We’re doing it on sheets of metal in the sunlight… for about a week.” Martin cautions that ears should not get rained on, and that they can also be over-dried. After a week, the family shells all of the kernels with their hands, a hand sheller, or a crank sheller. Following that, they employ a process called winnowing, “the same methods used years ago for wheat.” On a breezy day, kernels are poured between buckets, letting the wind take the chaff off. After that “the kernels will be clean and food-grade.”
Final checks on popcorn kernels make sure they are properly dried with the right moisture content inside. “We’ll take a half cup in a popcorn popper,” tells Martin, with the goal of kernels becoming 90% popped. If kernels don’t pop enough, they “might need to dry it further,” which they’ll do on the same metal sheets as before. The trick then is to keep testing (sounds like fun), because at this point “it could overdry, which brings the popping percentage back down.” When that popping percentage is reached, you’ve got the kernels you need.
Making It: The Secret Ingredient
If you’ve ever tried to pop your kernels on the stove with butter, you know that it is a matter of minutes before that fresh, crispy popcorn becomes soggy — or you burn it before it leaves the pot. The trick is in the water content of butter. The reason packaged popcorn companies use oil is because there is absolutely no water in it. Butter can be made the same way through the simple process of making clarified butter, or ghee. This is pure butter fat and it has a much higher smoking point than normal butter, which prevents both burning and sogginess.
Making ghee with any butter is extremely easy: Simply drop at least four ounces of butter in a saucepan over low heat, stirring it a bit until it foams a bit on top. Skimming the white foam off and let it simmer for another five or ten minutes, when brown flecks appear on the bottom of your pan. Strain this in a container through a fine sieve, cheesecloth, or coffee filter and you have the most concentrated form of butter fat, and the secret ingredient to real homemade buttered popcorn. Popcorn made with this butter will last two to four days in an airtight container, and the butter itself will last for up to a year.
Popping It: Your Everyday Popcorn
- 3 tablespoons of clarified butter
- ¾ cup of popcorn kernels
- In a large, lightweight pot on a medium to medium high heat, drop the 3 tablespoons of clarified butter.
- When it is almost melted, add your kernels and spread them by giving the pot a gentle shake.
- Cover the pot tightly, holding it with a dish towel or potholder if necessary. They will begin popping in about a minute.
- About 30 seconds later, give the pot another gentle shake.
- When popping sounds are 3 or more seconds apart, take the pot off of the heat and pour your popcorn into a bowl or container.
For the theater experience, feel free to drizzle even more melted clarified butter and very finely ground salt, tossing it throughout. You can grind any store bought salt into popcorn-ready powder using a mortar and pestle or small food processor. You can give it a yellow color by adding ⅛ teaspoon of turmeric to your clarified butter, if wanted.
Brown Sugar Kettle Corn
- 2 tablespoons of clarified butter
- ¼ cup of popcorn kernels
- 2 tablespoons of brown sugar
- ¼ teaspoon finely ground salt
- In a large, heavy pot, heat your clarified butter on medium heat until it has just melted. Add 3 kernels of popcorn.
- With your stove on medium to medium-high heat, cover the pot and clamp it down tightly.
- When all 3 kernels have popped, add the rest of the kernels and give the pot a gentle shake to coat the bottom of your pot. Then pour the sugar and salt on top, and shake it again.
- Continue shaking the pot gently for 3 seconds, and stopping for 3 seconds, until your popcorn is popping.
- Shake the pot constantly until popping sounds are about one or two seconds apart, then remove it from the heat immediately and pour it into a big bowl or container.
- Let it cool for a few minutes, that is very hot sugar.
Sharp Cheddar Cheese Popcorn
After following the basic popcorn recipe, use some of that for this cheese edition, featuring real sharp cheddar cheese.
- ½ cup popped popcorn
- ¼ cup clarified butter
- ⅛ teaspoon of garlic powder
- ½ teaspoon finely ground salt
- 3 ounces of very finely shredded cheddar cheese
- In a small saucepan over a medium heat, combine clarified butter, garlic powder, and salt. Heat just until it starts to simmer.
- Pour this mixture over your popcorn, and stir it until it is evenly coated.
- Spread your popcorn out on a cookie sheet, and sprinkle your cheddar cheese shreds on top.
- Place that cookie sheet on the center rack of your oven and set it to broil on low, for only two or three minutes, only until the cheese has melted. Keep a close eye on it! There are mere seconds between melted cheese and burnt cheese.
- Pour this into a bowl and mix it up!
For a spicy twist, ¼ of a teaspoon of chili powder can be added in step 1.
Chocolate Peanut Butter Popcorn
This recipe is also a simple addition to the basic popcorn recipe listed above, for my fellow chocolate and peanut butter lovers.
- 16 cups of popped popcorn
- ¾ cup of chocolate chips
- ¼ cup of peanut butter
- 1 teaspoon of salt
- Pour your popcorn onto a baking sheet (or two).
- Melt chocolate chips either in the microwave or a double boiler, stirring every 20 seconds.
- Drizzle the melted chocolate over your popcorn.
- Melt the peanut butter in your microwave, stirring every 20 seconds.
- Drizzle that over your popcorn.
- Sprinkle it all with salt, and let it sit for a minute or two.
- Pour it into a bowl and enjoy!