The History of Popcorn: Where Do Popcorn Kernels Come From & How Is It Made?

Tina Ruggiero

Popcorn, glorious popcorn. 

Whether you’re diving into a bucket of popcorn at the movie theater, or you’re tucking into a bag of microwave popcorn at home, there is no better snack than freshly popped corn.

If you’re anything like us, you’ve spent a fair amount of time enjoying this delicious snack… but have you ever considered where popcorn comes from, which types of corn can be used to make popcorn, or how it is made?

If you’ve got questions about the history of popcorn, we’re here to answer them. In this article, we’ll be sharing the history of popcorn, how it’s made, and how it is prepared for popping.

Ready? Get your popcorn prepared, and let’s explore the history of when popcorn was invented and where it comes from.

Where Exactly Does Popcorn Come From?

The Midwest may be known for its dedication to sports teams, unbeatable landscapes, and for being home to almost all of the states beginning with “I” (we’re looking at you Illinois, Indiana, and Iowa). But, did you know that the Midwestern United States is also home to the “Corn Belt of the United States”?

That’s right! We have the Midwest to thank for bringing us glorious kernels of popcorn. The Corn Belt of the United States covers several Midwestern states including Kentucky, Indiana, Iowa, Illinois, and Nebraska. These states have dominated corn production in the U.S. since the 1850s — that’s a whole lotta corn!

So, the next time someone asks you “where does popcorn come from?”, you can confidently tell them that the Midwest is where most of today’s popcorn is grown. However, popcorn has grown all over the world.

While the Midwestern Corn Belt may have been farming corn since the mid-1800s, the first known popcorn dates back to 1948 in New Mexico where small heads of corn were found in a dry cave known as the “bat cave”. The type of corn that was found in New Mexico is the same plant we use to produce popcorn in the Midwest today — the Zea mays everta variation. Apparently, these kernels were so well preserved that they still popped when placed in hot oil. Several popped kernels of popcorn were also discovered in the cave. Those kernels have been carbon-dated and are thought to be approximately 5,600 years old.

Modern Day Popcorn

These days, we are less likely to associate popcorn with bat caves, and far more likely to think of movie theaters, carnivals, concerts, and other fun activities.

Popcorn, as we know it, began growing in popularity during the Great Depression in the 1930s. During this time, popcorn was considered an accessible and affordable snack (that doesn’t compromise on flavor). 

Movie theater popcorn was then introduced during World War II when theaters started putting popcorn machines in their lobbies. As it turned out, selling popcorn was far more profitable than the actual movie tickets themselves! Even to this day, popcorn stands strong as the go-to snack when you’re watching a movie.

The popcorn industry had truly popped and this delicious snack was everywhere. Picking up on the popularity of popcorn, Orville Redenbacher brought the snack to grocery stores in the 1970s and, subsequently, into homes all over the U.S. Many people believe Orville Redenbacher to be the person who invented popcorn. While he may not have invented it, he sure did skyrocket its popularity. Later in the 1980s, Generals Mills started creating microwave popcorn so people everywhere could enjoy the taste of freshly popped popcorn in the comfort of their homes. Since then, the popcorn industry has continued to grow and evolve bringing many different flavors, brands, and even machines for making tasty popcorn at home.

What Kind of Corn is Popcorn Made From?

Corn, also known as maize, is a cereal grain that has become a staple food in modern days. Tens of thousands of different corn plants exist in the world today. The variety of corn that exists today is typically categorized into six main types of corn:

  • Dent corn (or field corn)
  • Flint corn
  • Popcorn
  • Flour corn
  • Sweet corn
  • Pod corn

Other types of corn do exist and, believe it or not, not all types of corn bear popcorn. Neither field corn nor sweet corn, for example, will pop. So, if you want to make popcorn, you will first need to find the right variety of corn to do the job. The sweetcorn stored in your refrigerator or pantry sadly won’t turn into delicious popcorn.

The type of corn used to make popcorn is, you guessed it, popcorn which is a type of flint corn. This variety of maize resembles the traditional corn on the cob. However, the difference between other types of corn and popcorn is that popcorn kernels expand and puff up when heated — turning into the tasty snack we all know and love.

Popcorn kernels grow in rows on a cob making an ear of corn. Each ear of corn is surrounded by a protective husk. One ear of corn contains somewhere between 750 to 1000 individual kernels. 

Fun fact: these kernels grow in symmetrical rows and there is almost always an even number of rows per ear, thanks to the genetics of the corn plant!

Speaking of genetics, let’s take a quick scientific look at the makeup of the popcorn kernel as we familiarize ourselves with this tasty snack.

The popcorn kernel is made up of three components: the pericarp, endosperm, and germ. The pericarp, also known as the hull, is the outermost cover of the kernel. The pericarp is made of cellulose and is usually white or yellow in color. 

Underneath the strong pericarp is the endosperm. The endosperm is the starchy carbohydrate on the inside of the kernel. For popcorn kernels, this endosperm has a high moisture content which generates steam and causes the popcorn to pop. 

Deep within the kernel is the germ, or embryo. The germ is the living part of the popcorn kernel containing essential genetic information, enzymes, vitamins, and minerals. 

Some strains of corn are grown specifically for popcorn including the Zea mays everta variety of flint corn — the very same type of corn that was discovered in a cave in New Mexico in the 1940s. The popcorn plant is favored by farmers for its stronger stalks, offering fewer unpopped kernels, and better grain color. 

The two main types of kernels produced by popcorn plants are pearl popcorn and rice popcorn. Pearl popcorn has a round shape and is usually yellow, while rice popcorn is more elongated and white. While these kernels differ in shape and color, they both hold the same great flavors once the corn pops.

Preparing Popcorn for Popping

Popcorn doesn’t just magically pop on its own. It needs to be prepared for popping. The preparation process for popping popcorn kernels all depends on drying and heating the kernels.

After the corn has been harvested, it is dried in a dehydrator container that is engineered to optimize the moisture content of the kernels for popping. On average, a popcorn kernel needs to maintain a moisture level of 14% to be able to pop.

After the kernels have been dried, they need to be heated. Popcorn pops at roughly 400–600 degrees Fahrenheit (400–600°F). While it is possible for popcorn kernels to pop at a lower temperature, the best popping temperature is between 400–600°F so be sure to turn up the heat when popping corn.

There are a few methods you can use to make your popcorn pop. Most at-home popcorn machines will use an air popping method to heat the kernels. If you don’t have a popcorn popper, you could also microwave popcorn, make popcorn on the stovetop, or use an air fryer. If you want to emulate the nostalgic taste of movie theater popcorn, we recommend using a popcorn machine. Most movie theaters use a popcorn popper that agitates the kernels in a coconut oil blend as they are heated. If you want to recreate the delicious taste of movie theater popcorn, why not try adding a dash of coconut oil to homemade stovetop popcorn?

Find More Ways to Eat This Delicious Snack

Popcorn is a versatile food with a rich history. From the caves of New Mexico to the fields of Nebraska, the history of popcorn sure is colorful. 

While most popcorn today is made in the United States, popcorn is a delicious snack made and enjoyed all over the world. This much-loved snack can be found in most households. We expect it’ll be a favored snack for hundreds of years thanks to its versatility and endless seasoning opportunities.

Whether you’re looking for the tastiest popcorn seasoning ideas, want to know more about choosing the perfect popcorn machine, or simply want a guide to making the best popcorn possible, look no further than the Sweet ‘n’ Savory Life blog. We are passionate about popcorn and snacking. If you’re ever in need of some snacking inspiration (or should we say snack-spiration?), we have plenty of content for you to tuck into.

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