If you really want to be up on pop culture, think globally. Most of us rarely venture beyond buttered popcorn. In other parts of the world, grains other than corn have jumped out of the frying pan and into such interesting culinary territories as toppings for salads, vegetables and yogurt. Corn and other popped grains also add bulk and nutrition to muffins, granola and dessert bars similar to crispy-rice cereal types.
Pop Like a Pro
The key to successfully popping alternative grains is to dry-fry them in small batches. Set a few spoonfuls at a time in an ungreased, uncovered heavy pan that is already hot. Most of the alternative popping grains are much smaller than corn, and pop within about 30 seconds -- but often with a much quieter sound and less dramatic change in appearance than corn. Don't overlook corn entirely; use it popped in ways you hadn't envisioned.
Corn, Of Course
The most commonly used grain for popping in the United States is undoubtedly corn. The variety most often used for popping is a flint corn variety, rather than the sweet or field corn varieties we use as vegetables and livestock feed. Too often underutilized as a healthy whole grain snack, popcorn can replace croutons on soups and salads. Roughly chopped popcorn forms an unusual crust for chicken and fish. Grind popcorn in a food processor to create a flour and oatmeal alternative to include in quick breads and meatloaf.
Amaranth is a fascinating two-in-one crop that offers both spinach-like edible foliage and seeds that are used for grain. Originating in Central and South America, amaranth is often marketed as a gluten-free flour or, in whole form, as a hot cereal. When dried, the small popped grains aren't generally eaten as a snack by themselves like popcorn. Instead, dried amaranth is a main ingredient in candy-like bars bound with honey, or a crunchy dessert or salad topping when mixed with spices and other seeds.
All Types of Quinoa
A crop quite similar to amaranth and grown in the same region, quinoa also has both edible foliage and seeds. Several types of quinoa are suitable for popping, including yellow, black and red varieties. Quinoa seeds may come still covered with natural compounds known as saponins. If the seeds taste bitter or the package indicates to do so, rinse and dry the quinoa seeds before popping to remove the saponin coating. Blot the seeds with paper towels and leave them to air dry on baking sheets before popping. Use popped quinoa as you would popped amaranth.
Originating in Africa, sorghum is grown extensively in the United States. When popped, the gluten-free whole grain is smaller than popcorn, but still suitable for snacking. For an easy popcorn alternative, put about 1/4 cup of dried sorghum in a paper bag. Fold over the opening of the bag and place it fold-side down in the microwave. Heat it on high for two to three minutes. Mix popped sorghum with brewer's yeast, Parmesan cheese, sea salt or savory spices for a healthier alternative to potato chips or preservative-laden bagged popcorn.
Not Just for the Birds
Of the four main types of millet cultivated around the world, finger millet is the type most often used as a popping grain. The gluten-free grain, grown in India, is also known as ragi. Purchase hulled millet, rather than the unhulled variety sold for birdseed. If you find unlabeled hulled millet, look for the kind with small round red grains. Once popped, millet can be eaten as a snack by itself or added to granola. In India, cooks mix popped millet with brown sugar and milk for dessert, or grind it into flour.
- Whole Grains Council: Whole Grains A to Z
- Fine Cooking: Amaranth
- Whole Grains Council: Popped Amaranth Crunch
- Whole Grains Council: Millet and Teff
- Epicurious: Popped Amaranth
- Bob's Red Mill: Popped Sorghum
- Lost Crops of Africa: Grains; F. R. Ruskin
- Cook's Thesaurus: Grains
- Cook's Thesaurus: Other Grains
- Whole Grains Council: Sorghum
- Photo Credit Ryan McVay/Photodisc/Getty Images