Thursday, March 19, 2009

Kitchen Experiments: Popping Sorghum

Note: I started this post a few months ago. I was inspired by Andrew Zimmern and the elusive idea of itty bitty popcorn. I just got swept up in stuff I had to get done, uploading the photos became a bother, and there you go. I've finally gotten around to posting it.

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Ever since Andrew Zimmern stuffed his face with freshly-popped sorghum kernels in his Ethiopia installment of Bizarre Foods, I have been eager to try doing this myself. If you've never heard of this: apparently, whole sorghum can pop in much the same way that whole popcorn can. The problem: it's not that easy to find pop sorghum in the US, even in such a centrally located area as Baltimore.

In my internet research, I have found out a few interesting recipes and factoids:
  • Pop sorghum is very popular as a snack in many parts of East Africa and South Asia. In India, it's called jawar (also spelled jowar).
  • You can pop sorghum in a few different ways, both reminiscent to how you pop popcorn. You can either heat about 5 mL (a little less than 1/2 teaspoon) of oil, heated in a covered pot until it's smoking, and then add about 50 g (3 T + 1 tsp) of sorghum seeds until fully popped. Some recipes call for shaking the pot, others don't. The other way to do it is to dump about a cup of sorghum seeds into a hot air popper.
  • Apparently, not all types of whole sorghum work for popping. One scientific article - and my own experimentation - showed that some strains of sorghum don't really pop at all. Or perhaps it's the way mine was packaged.
Experiment: Popping Sorghum
Needed:
  • sorghum, whole
  • covered pot
  • covered pan
  • cooking oil (vegetable or canola)
  • hot air popper
Pre-Experiment: finding whole sorghum
Note that not all "whole sorghum" is "pop sorghum". Also note that most "sorghum" sold in this area is in powdered, flour form. The Natural Market in Timonium carries four score varieties of Shiloh Farms products, but their Sorghum Grain is not one of them. Whole Foods doesn't even know what I'm talking about. The only place I could find it was at - you guessed it - H-Mart. Surprisingly, they had one and only one provider, Choripdong. Theirs is vacuum packed. I don't know if that affects anything or not.

Experiment 1: Popping sorghum in a pan
Zimmern's experience with pop sorghum had him watching Ethiopian women popping it on a large, hot surface, with all the little popped kernels flying up and down as they burst open. My omelette pan, which I bought in a fit of Julia Childish omelette-making hysteria, looked like it would fit the bill. I tried putting a little oil in the pan and once it was hot, pour in about 1/4 cup of whole sorghum.

After shaking it vigorously, I got a bunch of toasted grains of sorghum. Nothing popped.

At all.

Experiment 2a: Popping sorghum in a pot (while still)

My next experiment involved trying to pop the sorghum in a pot much like popcorn used to be popped. This recipe from the ICRISAT (International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics) website is similar to many that explain how to pop sorghum in this fashion:

Pop sorghum
Ingredients:
50g sorghum grain
5ml cooking oil

Method:
  1. Heat the cooking oil in a covered container (pot) until smoking hot.
  2. Add the sorghum grain and leave to pop at low heat until all grain is popped.
Initially, I would have shaken it. But since the recipe specifically calls for you to leave it alone, I did. After following these directions to a tee - twice - the results were just not pretty. And the whole apartment smelled of burnt sorghum for two days.

Experiment 2b: Popping sorghum in a pot (while shaking)

Since leaving it alone didn't work, I resorted to shaking it the next time, covered. I still used the same amounts of oil and sorghum - 50 g (a little under 1/4 cup) of whole sorghum added to 5 mL (not sure how that translates, but I found something with milliliters on it to measure it out) of smoking vegetable oil, then shaken vigorously.

The results were almost as bad. They would have been as bad had I not gotten about three or four kernels of sorghum popped. Success? Not when you consider that there are hundreds of sorghum kernels in one quarter cup.

Experiment 3: Popping sorghum in a hot air popper

My last trick was to try it with a hot air popper. I did remember reading about one blogger, Loztnausten, and her attempt to pop sorghum on her blog Everything Free Eating, which sees how you can eat while eliminating whole food groups (an intriguing concept for a blog). She recommended using more sorghum kernels than popcorn kernels - if the recipe called for 1/2 cup of popcorn, add 3.4 of sorghum, since it's so tiny that you'll need more just to keep it in place. I may have remembered the advice, but not the measurement, as I think I put in at most 1/2 a cup (thinking I had upped it from 1/4).

So, I dumped about a half cup of sorghum into the popper, most of which came flying violently back out at me, spraying all over my countertop. What's worse, almost none of it had popped. But this technique did yield the most popped kernels of all - about twenty or thirty, but again, out of literally hundreds. It also didn't help that I had to keep stopping it to re-add many of the kernels that flew out at me.

Was the experiment necessary?

Imagine my surprise when I stopped by the Punjab grocery by the Waverly Farmers' Market, looking for a different variety of pop sorghum - or jowar, only to find a big-ass bag of already popped jowar!


My jaw dropped, as it seemed that all of my work was for nothing, since this nice big bag of already-popped sorghum was sitting right in front of me. I asked one gentleman who works there where I could find the unpopped variety (Punjab doesn't sell it). He suggested H-Mart ("the place on Route 40"), where I got this seemingly unpoppable Korean variety, and then maybe some other Indian groceries, or even a Latin market. Plus, in the back of my mind I was thinking an Ethiopian or African grocer might have it, so I will have to stop in one of those places to see for myself. So this experiment is already half-way done. Next step: to try other varieties of sorghum, to see if it's just this variety that doesn't pop well, or if I just don't know what the hell I'm doing.

I have no clue when I will get around to that. For now, I'll just eat the already-popped stuff.

UPDATE: February 22, 2013: Want to see my second and more fruitful (er, grainful) attempt at popping sorghum (and amaranth, too)?  Here you go.

32 comments:

Anonymous said...

So is the flavor pretty much like that of popcorn or is it slightly sweet?

John said...

It was exactly like popcorn flavor-wise, only with teeny tiny kernels. But I'd love to see kettle sorghum.

Joe C said...

Your report on popping sorghum was the best I've been able to find on the internet. Here is some of my thoughts: Popped sorghum tastes great more like oats or grain than corn. I don't need to add loads of sugar and salt and butter to make it tasty like with popcorn. The texture is crunchier than the Styrofoam texture of popped corn or popped rice. Yes popped sorghum are tiny but more filling and satisfying. Yes the hot air popper is a must and you have to preheat it for 2 minutes. The key advantage for me is that there are no glass sharp slivers of corn kernal hulls to get jammed under your gums and cost you a visit to the dentist or days of suffering! The other great thing is there is no problem when you crunch down on an unpopped sorghum because they crunch and don't crack your molars like an unpopped popcorn kernal. After suffering with the problems of popcorn for years, I'm hooked on popped sorghum. I do have to prepare the sorghum and bring the moisture level up to get more of them to pop. This is because they have been excessivly dried for storage and not prepared properly for popping. My rehydration method also prevents smoking out the kitchen from burning sorghum hulls. Finally I save the toasty flavored unpopped sorghum and add them to my cooked cereal of wheat, rye and barley for a welcome toasty flavor. I'm trying to get http://www.amishmart.com/ to grow a field of the proper White Popping Sorghum
since they specialize in hulless baby popcorn and know how to dry kernals to the correct level for high percentage popping. In the mean time if anyone knows where to buy White Popping Sorghum, please let us know.

John said...

Thanks, Joe, for your very informative comment! How do you rehydrate the kernels? Maybe I can get some use out of that Chiropdong brand of sorghum by doing that?

Jackson Howa said...

I've read that you can rehydrate sorghum (and other popping grains) by sprinkling a little water over the grains, sealing them up, and allowing the kernels to absorb the water for a while.

Disclaimer: I've never tried it; I've just read that it might work.

Anonymous said...

I also just smoked up the house tring to pop some sorghum. After reading the comments regarding re-hydrating the kernals, my father was an awsome popcorn maker and he always kept the popcorn kernals in the freezer. He said that is what made the kernals explode so big. I am going to give it a try.

Brinna said...

I had to laugh when i read the comments concerning all the experiments. The same things happened to me. Thanks for the suggestions to add moisture to the seeds. I have found where to buy white sorghum. insane-grains.
I will be ordering some soon. I'll let you know what its like. I am deadly allergic to corn so this is a great alternative for me.

Joseph Consoli said...

WOW is Insane Grain popped sorghum delicious!! Thank you Brinna for finding this source! Finally after over a half a year of searching and suffering experimenting with rehydrating and still only getting 30% to pop at best and smoking out the house. Now we can buy prepopped sorghum even in different flavors. I just got my shipment and the quality is superb. WOW what high quality! No burnt flavor, no unpopped sorghum grains, not all dried out, just right! All crunchy goodness, ready to eat and the price is so affordable. Please buy lots from them so they do well and so this safer alternative to popcorn stays available! No gluten and high nutrition and no costly dentist bills from painful popcorn hull slivers jammed between the gums and teet! I love it as breakfast cereal with milk. It's way crunchier and more flavorful than puffed rice as breakfast cereal. Yummy Juwar Dhani ! http://www.insanegrains.com/

John said...

I don't usually post adverts but this one time it seemed appropriate.

Anonymous said...

I too have tried popping whole sorghum and wasn't sure why it wasn't popping. Perhaps you are right, maybe I have the wrong variety. I did get about 1/3 of the batch to pop in an air popper. They were very cute and tasted just like popcorn. I found whole sorghum at Azure Foods. You can find them on the web. They have many other great hard to find items as well.

Anonymous said...

perhaps if you're willing to revisit this experiment, you could try this techinque....

http://www.ehow.com/how_5343220_make-sorghum-popcorn.html

either way, i'll keep a look out for this pre-popped sorghum.... not sure if they sell it where i am. thanks!!

david said...

I'm in the Texas Panhandle. We have been popping sorghum for at least 30 years. We pop it at some of the cattle feedlots down here to add to the cattle feed. That is when I was first introduced to it. Funny how some things are new all over again. I found that popping mine at home in an air popper works best. I like to add a little fine granular sugar and cinnamon to mine.

Aaron Tucker said...

LOL I found this article just after trying several times to pop sorghum. Yes, I did it because Zimmern did it. I tried air popping first, and that just spewed everywhere lol. After cleanup, I tried just a tablespoon of sorghum with a teaspoon of oil since I'd heard you should do it in small quantities for best results. I got about 15% to pop before they started burning, shaking the pot like hell.

I'm going to just cook them all any way that works (going to try that article someone posted from Ehow) and sprinkle BaconSalt on them and eat them whether they're popped or not. They're still tasty!

Then in the morning I'm just going to go order the already-popped stuff from insanegrains. lol. My house stinks of canola oil smoke :)

sore gum said...

i got my sorghum as well as some amaranth (have not even tried to cook that one yet) grains from ebay after seeing this cute popped grain on bizarre foods and thinking about what a neat idea a kettle version of this would be... guess im not nearly the only one who made this cranial connection.. anyway i got them from Barry Farm Foods ebay store (just ebay search sorghum grain) and they seem to be similar to all of the grains that all of you are getting.. i get about 15% to pop before burning them, but i have yet to use an actual air popper or to follow a recipe.. i just got on the internet to find out how to cook them right since i burnt them twice already. i will see how the actual recipe of preheating the oil etc. works, but in the meantime i am kinda torn by all the comments.. i would certainly like to just get some premade punjab market type jowar, but i would like to make some actual KETTLE SORGHUM.. i think it would be a great street fair snack.. so where can i get some good popping grain?

Anonymous said...

I haven't tried it, but Americanspice.com has "popping sorghum". This should be the type you need to get it to pop correctly.

Jessicathelousy said...

So my twin sister is a chef, and we take great delight at going to the farmer's market and buying things that we have no idea what they are, how they taste or how to prepare them. The most recent was sorghum grain from 'Your Dekalb Farmer's Market' in Atlanta GA. Wow! What a brain bender! I like to fancy myself a novice rebel chef with no proper culinary training, gleening whatever knowledge I can from midnight reference calls to my sis or watching the dearly beloved Alton Brown, my personal hero...(I would love to see a Good Eats on sorghum!!).
Anywho, this little guy stumped my well trained twin and my over-inflated and under-deserving ego. Thanks to everyone for writing so extensively on it, I think I've got it. The best method, after trying the oven, microwave and stove, has by far been the hot HOT covered pot. I've gotten up to 65% popped thus far, so now I am trying soaking, then freezing for a couple hours... I'll let you know :)
p.s. the key I've found is a large enough vessel to allow each one to touch the bottom with no bunching to ensure an even pop, then turning the heat way down for less than a minute before removing all together. NO shaking!!

Anonymous said...

All I can say is THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU!!!! I just caught that episode on Dicovery andI was online searching for sorghum so I could end up doing pretty much exactly what you described. I thank you for saving me the smell in my house for two days. Also I have to tell you I'm sorry but I got a good chuckle from your misfortune. Only because I imagined myself in your situation. I also happen to live in a predominantly middle eastern neighborhood so I'm sure a trip to the market on the corner will yield me the same results you had finding some already popped. Again, thank you! :-)

MnDel said...

Hi - this post is regarding popping sorghum....specifically "joe c's" post of April 6, 2009 5:50 PM.

If "joe c" reads this - please respond to a few questions regarding your success with popping sorghum, if you wouldn't mind...

my specific questions are:

1.) what exactly is your rehydration method in order to get sorghum up to the proper moisture content so it will pop?

2.) What brand popcorn popper are you using that works to pop the sorghum?

I have tried all suggestions I could find to pop sorghum and have had no success......including:

-soaking the grain for 5-10 minutes, patting dry,
-using 1/2 cup of grain in popper - they still flew out.
-preheating popper...they still flew out and scorched.
stove top popping....didn't work either. I bought my sorghum grain from Shiloh Farms.

If any one else has had success - please post specifics.....I would love to get this to work!
Thanks!

josh said...

insane grains has stopped taking orders for now! :( so has Popghum (this company was fantastic!). anyone know of any other companies i can order Pre-popped sorghum from? i need my fix!

Anonymous said...

Joe C said...I gave up and just bought seeds and grew all the popping sorghum I could eat last year. I'm getting 90 to 95% to pop only from what I grew myself. It's got to be sealed fresh / FULLY HYDRATED. I freeze it sealed in jars. Rehydrating it never worked for me. I've still got lots from last fall. It also makes great decorations in vases but once it drys the percentage that pops drops to 20%. A word of wisdom, if you do grow it start picking it way before it fully dries tan colored because birds love it even more than we do.
Azure Foods and Barry Farm Foods Sorghum is only good for cooking pudding. Yes I heard that http://www.insanegrains.com/ stopped shipping. Growing your own is the only option right now. My favorite is with Olive oil, garlic powder and dried sweet Italian basil buds. Yummy ! Look back at my other Blogs. I had no choice but to grow it myself.

Anonymous said...

I learned about popped sorghum from drinking genmai-cha. There are these mini-popcorns in it and the ingredients say popped sorghum seeds so I looked it up.

You can see a picture here:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:P1010888.JPG

If you haven't tried it I would suggest it strongly! The brand I get is Yama Moto Yama, whatever the brand make sure you get the loose leaf variety. If you get it in tea-bag form you might end up with a bland knock off.

Sorghumuppagus said...

I've also tried to pop sorghum grain. Emphasis is on "tried", as I only got a few to actually pop. The rest got toasted, so were tasty anyway. I reasoned that the moisture content was probably not right, and from the comments I've read here, it would seem to be the case. Having read something about restoring the moisture level of popcorn kernels, I looked it up and found this: http://www.oldhouseweb.com/gardening/popcorn-moisture.shtml

From that, I surmise that dried sorghum grain (the common sort we can buy for ordinary cooking purposes) would probably take several days at least to soak up enough moisture to enable popping.

As for preheating the oil until it's smoking, that's simply poor advice. Any oil which has started to smoke has been overheated, which rapidly breaks it down, forming free-radicals (that's basically rancid oil). http://www.lakewinds.com/store/Cooking-Oil-Temperatures-and-Proper-Usage-W1147C10528.aspx
http://www.cookingforengineers.com/article/50/Smoke-Points-of-Various-Fats

I will try increasing the moisture content of the grain and post my results, which will probably be about a month from now.

Ari said...

If you go to:
www.MiniPopsInc.com you can order some

Buck said...

Hi,
This comment is regarding your March 19, 2009 post on Popping Sorghum. It was a great post by the way - I really enjoyed all of your tests (I too had the air popper fiasco in my kitchen!)

I thought you'd like to see a video about successfully popping sorghum on the stovetop:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7kewlW8a1RM

Seems you can have good results with the right sorghum and the right technique.

If you're interested you can buy high quality pop sorghum at http://shop.justpoppin.com/Popping-Sorghum_c_47.html

There will always be unpopped grains but as long as you don't burn them, they're nutty and crunchy and taste really good.

This pop sorghum will pop about 70% of the grains. I just save the toasted ones and put them on ice cream and yogurt.

Just Poppin said...

Re MnDel's and JoeC's comments about hydration and rehydration of popping sorghum - you shouldn't HAVE to hydrate or rehydrate. If you are buying top quality popping sorghum in the first place, it should just pop.

You can get premium organic popping sorghum at http://shop.justpoppin.com

There are tons of different varieties of sorghum. And all of them will pop to some degree. But there are only a select few that have been bred for superior popping characteristics. You're just wasting money if you're buying "regular" sorghum and expecting to get it to pop at any decent rate.

Just my 2 cents.

Anonymous said...

www.nutsonline.com They sell popping sorghum. Excellent company too.

klh said...

I teach organic, farming workshops and did so in India. I brought back popping sorghum seed; red and white. I am trying to find some one who sells it here and trying to find a place to buy it. ken Hargesheimer, minifarms@gmail.com

Just Me, Sara said...

I was diagnosed with adult onset food allergies to many foods, including corn. Freshly popped on the stove popcorn is my favorite snack and I haven't had any in so long. I am really excited to learn about this alternative. :-) Thanks to Andrew Zimmern, the Baltimore Snacker, and all the helpful people who posted here for educating me. :-)

Jason Fishman said...

Hey I just wanted to add to the discussion about popped sorghum.
A company called Mini Pops actually sells popped sorghum snacks in 8 different flavors. They are really good! They taste just like popcorn, except they are smaller, crunchier, and more nutritious.

You can order online on their website:
http://www.myminipops.com/

Anonymous said...

About popping sorghum: I've just raised a crop of Tepehuan Popping sorghum. I got the seeds from J.L. Hudson. The plants are attractive and very cornlike. I haven't tried popping the seeds yet but I intend to. The reason I ran across your 'blog was I was looking for instructions for popping these seeds. I haven't found any infomation about whether I have to hull them before I pop them. I was hoping for minimal effort.

naomihealer said...

Thank you for all the wonderful information re: popping sorghum and growing it! Planning to grow it next year with my 3 year old. Love the "minipops" sorghum, so does my son...but looking forward to going through the process of planting to "popcorn" bowl.

Martianne @ Training Happy Hearts said...

I just popped some sorghum that I bought from ocean State Job Lot after reading on the bag that it could be popped. I used a fry pan with a light layer of coconut oil on it and kernels spread out well. Shook. Popped. Hardly any smoking. Quite good. Then, I found this post b/c my kids asked if we could pop more in our air popcorn popper. Not sure I will be trying that after reading what you wrote since the stove top method worked so well for me.