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updated 2/13/2008 10:48:52 PM ET 2008-02-14T03:48:52

Although popcorn has been an American staple since pioneer times, it was not until 1890 that specific strains were grown as a crop for popping versus corn for use on or off the cob as a menu item.

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What started as an affordable luxury at the movies during the Depression evolved into an alternative to sugar-rationed snacks during WW II, and has now become almost a requisite to watching movies at home or snacking in the office. Last year, Americans consumed more than 17 billion quarts of popped popcorn. And what you may not realize is that popcorn is actually a whole grain and one cup of popped corn has as much fiber (1 gram) as 1/2 cup of bran flakes or a large apple eaten with the skin on. It also has more iron than spinach and more protein than any other cereal grain. So if you're craving some popped fun, here are some things to consider:

Try a new (or old) technique for popping
While microwave popcorn is arguably the easiest and most popular, I actually prefer popping mine in a skillet, but proper preparation is essential. When using a skillet, opt for a well-seasoned iron one with a loose-fitting lid. Heat the pan first, and then heat the oil. Test the temperature of the oil by dropping one or two kernels into the pan. If it pops nearly immediately, you’re ready to pour in enough kernels to cover the bottom of the pan. Shake frequently and open the lid slightly to release the steam. The oil (I use olive or grapeseed) pops it faster than a microwave and I find the popcorn to be a bit softer and fluffier.

Go light on the toppings
If you're eating popcorn as a low-calorie snack, be sure to go easy on the butter or oil to top it off. For more flavor, but with low-fat and sweet and savory alternatives, consider duplicating the style of pioneer women (who served popcorn with sugar and cream for breakfast) by adding a light dusting of a sugar and cinnamon mixture. I also like using grated fresh lemon or orange zest; crushed dried herbs like dill, tarragon or cracked pepper, cayenne pepper or chili powder for a little pow, or add a sprinkle of freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano.

What to buy
Buying popcorn in a bag or jar can be daunting. There are few brands on the store shelves, so I find that going to a gourmet store, or the gourmet department in a department store, offers a better selection. Always buy an airtight jar and look for kernels that have a uniform color, no broken pieces and no wrinkling or spotting. And keep in mind that popcorn is a food that doesn’t really reveal itself until popped. Each kernel should pop up into full white “flowers” or “mushrooms” depending on the variety, and taste tender with a light corn taste. Popped corn should show no ridges or withered texture, which indicates the kernels aren't fresh or the packaging is poorly sealed. 

Keep it fresh
There are some who feel the best storage for just about all food is in the fridge, but when it comes to popcorn kernels, I suggest not. Refrigeration can dry out the kernels, so opt for storing popcorn in a cool, dark cupboard away from heat, moisture and light. If you buy popcorn in a plastic bag, even those with resealable strips to lock out air and moisture, I recommend you transfer the kernels to an airtight glass jar or, better yet, a new ceramic or stainless-steel coffee bean canister that is designed to be airtight.

Phil Lempert is food editor of the TODAY show. He welcomes questions and comments, which can be sent to phil.lempert@nbc.com or by using the mail box below. For more about the latest trends on the supermarket shelves, visit Phil’s Web site at SuperMarketGuru.com.

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