Popcorn is having a moment. No longer confined to movie theater buckets, the puffed kernels are showing up in gourmet shops, restaurant dishes, desserts and more.
This week, we're devoting our 5 Ideas For ... feature to the popped snack, with suggestions for ways to bolster the plain grain. We'll also show you how to make your own at home, so you can ditch for good the nasty trans fats still lurking in some microwavable popcorn bags.
It's easy to see the allure of the versatile corn. There's that unique texture, its ability to be made savory or sweet in a pinch, and the fact that it can be quite healthy (air-popped popcorn has about 40 calories per cup and is loaded with fiber) and quite sinful (caramel corn, anyone?).
But mostly, it's just plain fun to make and eat, the onomatopoeia appeal of its pop, pop, popping giving way to that mouthwateringly distinct smell and oodles of white puffs.
Popcorn descends from a kind of maize — one of the first kinds cultivated in Central America — that has small, starchy kernels with hard shells. This hard outer wall helps pressure build inside the kernels when heated; the shell explodes when too much pressure builds up, revealing the white popcorn. A snack and a magic trick all in one.
The American snack food we recognize today has been around since the early 1800s, led by Charles Cretor's first steam-powered popcornmaker, which made the snack mobile and ideal for serving to patrons at entertainment events like the circus. By 1848, the word "popcorn" was included in the Dictionary of Americanisms. The one entertainment venue that initially balked at serving the snack? Movie theaters.