Fire & Grain - A Saga of Popcorn & Barbecue

The Story of Barbecue Popcorn

Key Takeaways:

  • BBQ popcorn is a delicious alternative to the classic sweet or salty options
  • Barbecue and popcorn have been linked since cowboy times
  • The first sweet popcorn recipe came from German settlers
  • Originally, popcorn sales were banned in cinemas
  • Popcorn is a perfect alternative to bread for diets and weight loss


Salty or sweet?

This question divides popcorn fans worldwide. But did you know that there are more than just these two classic variations to enjoy freshly popped corn? BBQ popcorn combines the snacking pleasure and addictive potential of popcorn munching with the savory, smoky comfort taste of classic American barbecue.

But popcorn and barbecue – what do they have in common?


Popcorn – a quintessential American snack

We love delicious fresh popcorn, though not nearly as much as our friends in the USA, where each person on average consumes 50 kg per year. And while for many of us, popcorn remains primarily a movie snack, Americans devour most of their popcorn at home on the couch.

In fact, the now beloved cinema popcorn in our country is a later invention of theater owners. Initially, cinemas were reluctant to sell popcorn due to the extra effort. Instead, it was street vendors who set up their stands outside local theaters to sell moviegoers a bag of popcorn before they entered. Over time, theater owners realized the business they were missing out on (and probably resigned themselves to the necessary cleaning) and today, popcorn is an integral part of the movie experience.

However, popcorn has a much longer history beyond the silver screen. Evidence suggests that as early as around 4,700 BC, Native Americans in Peru not only processed one of the earliest forms of agriculturally grown corn into flour but also popped it over an open fire. Archaeologists have even found 1,000-year-old corn kernels in some Peruvian tombs that could still be easily turned into popcorn after all this time. The Aztecs were also familiar with popcorn and used it not only as a food but also strung the white flakes on strings, wearing them as jewelry or even using them as doors and screens, analogous to the modern bead curtains of the 1970s. Popcorn held such high esteem among the Aztecs that it was regularly offered as a sacrifice to their gods – clear evidence that even early Americans shared our modern hype for this delicious snack.

However, there probably wasn't any popcorn at the first Thanksgiving. The Native Americans in Virginia weren't fans, unlike their southern counterparts.

Thankfully, today we can easily make fresh popcorn using great mechanical aids (such as the Whirley Pop Popcorn Popper) instead of relying on pre-packaged products.



Among North American Native Americans, popcorn was made more simply by popping it on sand. A fire was burned on the sand, and then the corn kernels were spread on the hot sand. The residual heat stored in the sand was enough to make the kernels explode.

And this is where our barbecue comes into play.


Barbecue – a Smoky Tradition

What is as quintessentially American as popcorn? Well, barbecue, of course.

But be aware: real American barbecue is quite different from the grilling we do here in Germany. While Americans also enjoy grilling sausages, steaks, and similar small meat portions, this is called “grilling” in the USA and is clearly distinguished from traditional barbecue.

Unlike the quick grilling, barbecue focuses on indirect heat and cooking the meat through smoke rather than flames. Moreover, barbecue traditionally uses large cuts of meat such as brisket, rather than smaller cuts like steaks and such. Since barbecue involves smoke and indirect heat, it's a lengthier process that can take half a day or more before the meat lands on the plate.

The origin of modern barbecue is likely in the West Indies. Here, meat was traditionally preserved through drying and smoking over small, smoke-intensive fires. This technique (or the racks used for it) is traditionally called “Barbacoa”.

European settlers in Virginia likely developed modern barbecue by copying Native American techniques. Over time, they modified the process by adding butter and vinegar to keep the meat juicy during smoking, rather than drying it out for preservation – thus, American barbecue was born.

A whole separate blog could be written just about the different barbecue styles in the USA (maybe more on that in the future?), so let's just say here that barbecues differ greatly in sauces, spices, and meats. North Carolina, with its Caribbean roots, mostly uses vinegar-based sauces (sometimes with tomato paste, sometimes not) and pork. South Carolina also uses pork but opts for mustard-based sauces influenced by recipes from German immigrants. Memphis Barbecue mainly prefers pork, occasionally indulging in brisket, and employs a molasses-based sauce. Kansas City Style uses the same sauce as Memphis but applies it to all sorts of meats, including beef and chicken.

The well-known Texas Barbecue, on the other hand, almost exclusively uses beef (particularly delicious briskets) and leans towards dry rubs instead of sauces, unlike other variations.

For those who want to try their hand at grilling, we have a wide selection of delicious rubs and sauces, such as Stonewall Kitchen's Bourbon Molasses Barbecue Sauce for fantastic Memphis barbecue, available in our shop:



And if you prefer to experiment and create your own sauces based on the fantastic grill styles from America, we offer a variety of authentic ingredients and blends for your very own creations:



BBQ-Popcorn – of Cowboys, Fire & Corn

But what does this have to do with our popcorn?

As mentioned earlier, the Europeans developed barbecue from smoking meat over fire pits, which they learned from the Native Americans. When we recall how the Native Americans made their popcorn, the connections become evident. It might have taken a while (as the Native Americans in Virginia hardly used popcorn, as mentioned), but as settlers moved further south on the continent, they probably observed how the Native Americans used the still warm fireplaces to traditionally and naturally pop corn.

This duality of barbecue and popcorn can also be traced later in American history – for example, with the cowboys. Barbecue, meaning smoking meat over an open fire, was a daily occurrence on the long cattle drives in the nineteenth century. This variation with a strong emphasis on beef and rubs (similar to today's Texas barbecue) even became known as “Cowboy Barbecue.” However, cowboys were also known for their preference for kettle corn, which involves popping corn in a hanging pot over a fire. Here, the settlers adapted the traditions of the Native Americans to their tastes, resulting in the cowboys' popcorn being refined with sugar, based on the practices of German settlers. And when sugar wasn't available, the cowboys simply used the rubs typical for their barbecue – and there you have it, BBQ popcorn.

But you don't need an open fire and the wide prairie for the perfect taste. Get the delicious flavor experience at home with our fantastic Southern BBQ Popcorn Seasoning, or stick to the traditional American taste with the tasty Salt & Vinegar blend.



However, for the perfect flavor experience, it's not just about the right flavor combination, but also about the right kernel. In fact, corn is not all the same, and even though corn is the second most widely grown food crop in the world (only surpassed by rice), only 0.002% of it is popcorn maize.

What sets popcorn maize apart from other types of corn and grains is primarily its hull. It is impermeable to water, which is the key to its explosive nature. Grains contain water that turns into steam under heat. In most grains, this steam escapes through the permeable hull. However, since this cannot happen with popcorn, the steam inside the kernel expands, increasing the pressure inside until it ultimately causes the hull to explode – and there you have popcorn.

However, it's completely normal that not all kernels pop. This can be due to drying out from cold storage or damage to the hull. Nonetheless, in high-quality popcorn, the proportion of such unpopped kernels (often referred to as "old maids" in the U.S.) should not exceed 2% of the heated popcorn quantity.



But what about the right seasoning?

What many people might not know is that popcorn flakes come in two distinct shapes: "snowflakes" (sometimes called "butterflies") and "mushrooms". Mushrooms are almost round on one side, while snowflakes, true to their name, typically have multiple small protrusions. Both shapes are better suited for certain flavorings over the other. The "mushroom" shape adheres better to liquid coatings like caramel or chocolate. The "snowflake", on the other hand, has a rougher surface that holds dry seasonings like powders better.

If you're unsure about these shapes, we suggest popping some popcorn yourself and taking a close look at the results. For this, we recommend our delicious Gourmet Popcorn in various flavors to suit individual tastes:



By the way, who hasn't experienced the annoyance of hard hull fragments while trying to enjoy freshly popped popcorn? Our popcorn varieties are not only delicious but also have an exceptionally thin hull that practically dissolves in your mouth, ensuring an unhindered flavor experience.


Popcorn – the Healthy Snack?

Most of us know popcorn as a sweet treat, so it might sound strange to call popcorn healthy. However, if we set aside additives like sugar, salt, and butter, pure popcorn is surprisingly healthy.

It contains more protein than any other cereal grain and even provides the body with more iron than items like eggs or roast beef. Popcorn is also rich in fiber, which is essential for digestion, and it surpasses other popular snacks like pretzels or potato chips in this regard. Additionally, popcorn contains numerous valuable vitamins and minerals. All of this combined means that popcorn not only aids digestion but also contributes to muscle and bone development. Moreover, plain popcorn is low in calories.

All these features make unadulterated popcorn a perfect snack for diets aimed at weight loss and an excellent grain product for diabetics. For instance, the American Diabetes Association and the American Dietetic Association recommend popcorn consumption instead of bread.

There's even some historical context to this. During the Great Depression in the early twentieth century, popcorn sales surged due to its affordability at 5 to 10 cents per bag – a cost-effective alternative to other staple grains like bread. Also, during World War II, popcorn gained popularity in America as it could be effectively sweetened with relatively little sugar, making it a perfect snack during sugar shortages.

As we can see, natural popcorn has many benefits, but most connoisseurs would agree that for the ultimate popcorn enjoyment, that extra flavor kick (and maybe a hint of butter) is essential. Butter serves as both a flavor carrier and allows salt and other powdered seasonings to adhere to mushroom-shaped flakes, ensuring a consistent flavor experience.

But what's better then? Barbecue? Salty? Or the classic sweet?

For all the indecisive folks, here's a great suggestion for the next football game or movie night:

Three Kinds of Popcorn – easily and quickly made at home.

For sweet popcorn, simply melt butter, let it cool a bit, then mix in powdered sugar. Pour the mixture over the freshly popped flakes and shake everything well (be cautious, it's hot) – add a handful of mini marshmallows and M&Ms (maybe in the colors of your favorite team) and mix them in for extra flavor.



For the salty version, simply season the buttered popcorn with salt instead of powdered sugar and mix in peanuts or mini pretzels instead of marshmallows.

And for delicious barbecue popcorn, we recommend using our Southern BBQ Popcorn Seasoning and adding finely chopped, crispy bacon.



Give it a try and decide for yourself.