Man scoops out kernels from a jar

Popcorn Kernels: Where Do They Come from & What Type of Corn Are They Made From?

From humble beginnings in the Americas to becoming a mainstream sensation, popcorn kernels have a remarkable history. Learn about the specific type of corn used to make popcorn, the different varieties available, and even how to grow your own popcorn plants.

People have been eating popcorn since the early 16th century. It's a snack with a long history, and one that so many people adore. In fact, some of the oldest ears of popcorn have been around for 4,000 years.

Popcorn is inexpensive, easy to make, and tastes absolutely delicious. It is even pretty healthy. But have you ever thought about where those popcorn kernels come from? Where does the specific type of corn grow and how does it magically appear in our kitchen pantry, ready to eat? 

In this article, we will explore the origin of popcorn and find out exactly where your favorite snack gets its start. Now, off to the cornfield.

Where Do Popcorn Kernels Come From?

Popcorn originated in the Americas. It has a long history within North America, South America and what is now known as Mexico. There is a lot of evidence that shows Native American communities and other indigenous communities throughout the Americas grew and ate popcorn much like we do today. 

Popcorn first became a popular snack food around the 1880s when a man named Charles Cretors invented the popcorn cart. He is also credited with creating the first popcorn machine that was able to pop corn in oil. The popcorn cart and easy-to-use machine made popcorn a much more common snack and catapulted the food into mainstream culture. 

With the growing popularity of popcorn came the need for more popcorn kernels. The popcorn plant can actually grow almost anywhere within the Americas, however, most popcorn is now grown in the United States. Travel to the midwest and you will find fields and fields of popcorn corn. Nebraska, Illinois, Iowa, Kentucky, and Indiana are where most of today's popcorn is grown. 

What Type of Corn is Popcorn Made From?

Did you know that popcorn can only be made from a specific type of corn? Many people assume that you can dry out any kind of corn kernels and then pop them in oil. But this is not true. Popcorn is actually made from a specific variety of maize called Zea Mays Everta. While other types of corn like sweet corn or field corn do not actually “pop”, Zea Mays Everta will.

Under this umbrella variety, there are various types of corn as well. Rice popcorn and pearl popcorn are the most common kinds of corn used to make popcorn. They are each a little different and will create a unique snack so let’s learn a little bit more about each.

Rice Popcorn

Rice popcorn is a king of corn with elongated kernels. The long shape of the popcorn helps the kernels get pressurized and pop. Rice popcorn also comes in several colors including red, blue, pink, yellow, and, of course, white.

When rice popcorn kernels pop, they open up to reveal a bright white, fluffy center. The unpopped kernels grow to be about 40 times their original size as they heat and cook. Rice popcorn has a soft, crunchy texture that is delicious with just a touch of salt and butter. Of course, you can add any seasonings you’d like to create your favorite popcorn snack.

Pearl Popcorn

Pearl popcorn kernels are a little bit more round than rice popcorn. The unpopped kernels are a little bit more yellow and they have a yellowish hue even when popped. Pearl popcorn grows to be about 45 times its original size and they are super fluffy and light.

Even though pearl popcorn is light and fluffy, it is also more durable than rice popcorn. It will hold up well under lots of seasonings or butter. This is the type of popcorn most movie theaters use since it can handle lots of toppings without getting soggy.

Growing Your Own Popcorn Plants

Imagine a field of popcorn in your own backyard — you would have endless snacks. However, popcorn plants can be tricky to grow at home. It can be done with the right climate and the right gardening methods, but it will take a little effort. 

Popcorn seeds need to be planted about six inches apart in several short rows. Each row should be about 36 inches apart. You want the corn to be close together to ensure proper pollination. You also need to plant several in order for the corn to become pollinated. One small popcorn plant will not produce anything on its own. 

Once your seeds have been planted, be sure to fertilize them throughout the growing season. The popcorn is ready to harvest when the husks begin to turn brown around the cob. Each ear of corn should be harvested and then dried for several weeks. Remove the dry kernels from the cob and store them in an airtight container in the refrigerator until you are ready for a snack.

Making Popcorn From Scratch

Popcorn is surprisingly easy to make from scratch. And, homemade, fresh popcorn is the absolute best. Not only does it taste great, but it is also fun to make.

If you are making popcorn on the stovetop, you will need some kind of neutral cooking oil like olive oil, vegetable oil, or coconut oil. Air popper popcorn machines don't require any oil, making it the healthiest way to make popcorn. Once your oil is hot or your air popper is warmed up, you add in the kernels and then wait for the first kernels to start popping. You will know when the popcorn is finished when the sound of the pops slows to be 2-3 seconds apart.

Once the popcorn has popped, let it cool for a few minutes then add your favorite seasoning and enjoy. It is as easy as that. 

Get More Popcorn Tips & Tricks with Popsmith

Popcorn has a rich history and is such a classic, unique snack. Not only can you make your own popcorn at home in just minutes, but you can even try to grow it yourself. If you do plant your own popcorn plants, please tell us all about it. We love talking and learning about popcorn which is why we at Popsmith are always bringing you new articles about popcorn. 

You can find lots of great popcorn recipes, snacking ideas, and educational articles our blog that will make your favorite snack even more exciting. Be sure to check back often to see what we are popping up in the Popsmith kitchen. Happy snacking.

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