Friday, February 22, 2013

Kitchen Experiments: Popping Sorghum (and Amaranth) Part II

Now that I have a bit more time to do stuff, what with recent blogging projects done (again: PHEW), I thought I would give the sorghum popping experiment from a few years ago one last revisit.  As you (and the various commenters who have visited) may remember, this experiment did not go too well for me: popping it in a still or shaken pot yielded few kernels, and using the hot air popper just caused a big mess of, again, mostly unpopped, slightly toasted sorghum kernels.  I say "slightly" because most were blown out of the hot air popper before I knew what hit me.  (Scratch that: the sorghum hit me.  Literally.)

Based on research I've done lately, including from links provided by several of the commenters in the first post, I've come to a few conclusions about what went wrong:

  • Some folks had suggested adding moisture to the seeds.  Perhaps the seeds I used were kind of low quality and a bit desiccated already.
  • Maybe use a dome popper.  One gentleman from Texas said he and his have been popping it for a few decades, and he uses this method.
  • Another commenter from Georgia notes that of all the things she tried, putting the sorghum in a deep pot with the lid on got her the best results, specifically if you turn down the heat in the last munite way low.
  • Growing your own sorghum might work out well for you.  Check out the many mail-order non-GM seed companies (one list is here, or else just do a Google search).
Thanks to Andrew Zimmern, sorghum popping has become just enough of "a thing" that some companies have begun specifically selling it and posting helpful videos on Youtube.  Just Poppin was a site whose folks posted once or twice, and had some videos that were useful.  Two in particular stood out for me.  In the first one, they use two teaspoons of olive oil in a pot and (I never caught the exact measurement but it looked like) 1/4 cup of sorghum.

For the second one, they show how to dry-pop it.  And as I discovered too late for my other experiments, one key here is to use a vessel that is not dark on the insides.  Yep, as great as cast iron is, this is one time you need to put it away, unless it's one of those enameled ones that is beige or something on the inside.  Mine is not.

With those ideas in mind, I set out to give a proper finish to my sorghum popping experiment.  The goal: to get as much as possible, and to note which conditions led to that.

The sorghum I used in this experiment was a brand new bag of Shiloh Farms Sorghum Grain.  This stuff is not as easy to find as I remembered - even many of the natural food markets were out of stock of this stuff (though they do normally carry it), but I did find it eventually at the Natural Market in Timonium, where I figured their big shelf of whole grains had it nestled in there somewhere.  In fact, they had a few bags of it.

Oh, and this time I took photos.

I had started with a bag that was a few years old, with pretty lackluster results, prompting my search for fresher stuff.  Maybe one or two kernels popped out of an entire 1/4 cup.  There is my first thing I learned: use fresh ones.

I set up a few experiments on my stovetop.  I gathered the following things for this round of experiments:
  • bag fresh sorghum (here: Shiloh Farms brand)
  • olive oil
  • 1/4 measuring cup and teaspoon
  • long wooden spoon
  • cast iron crock pot and deep sided stainless steel pot (this latter one yielded the best results)
Though several people have had success with the dome poppers, I opted not to buy one.  My reason: knowing my luck, it will work for everyone but me, so I will just save the $30 to $40 and not buy a new one after all.  However, if you do decide to try a dome popper, make sure it is one that circulates the sorghum.  The ones that blow from the bottom, from what I have read elsewhere on the internet, don't yield the best results.  Also note: the blow hot air poppers typically blow from the bottom.

Experiment 4a: Popping 1/4 cup sorghum in a crock pot with oil while stirring

For this, I waited until the oil was starting to shimmer.  I had the heat up to middle intensity...

...and dumped in a quarter cup of sorghum.  It may not have been as "shimmering" as I needed, because it didn't start popping for at least 20 seconds.

I might have also used more oil than I needed.  I wonder if maybe I almost "deep-fried" the sorghum, in a sense?

At any rate, I wound up with very few popped kernels of sorghum.

Experiment 4b: Popping 1/4 cup sorghum in a crock pot with no oil while stirring

For the next quarter cup of sorghum, the only difference was a lack of oil.  The results are on the right: substantially more sorghum kernels popped than with the oil.  With that, I decided I would likely have the most luck by leaving out the oil and just dry-popping the sorghum.

Experiment 5a: Popping 1/4 cup sorghum in a stainless steel pot with no oil while stirring

One problem remained: a large number of kernels simply burned instead of popping.  It was then that I re-watched the second video, and noticed that the Just Poppin' folks specifically recommend using a stainless steel pot for popping sorghum without oil.  Apparently the blackness of the cast iron just holds too much heat.

After all these years, you might be surprised that I do not, in fact, own a stainless steel stock pot.  I do now.  Seventeen bucks at Target.

First, heat your pot for a minute or two on medium.  Dumping the sorghum into a cold pot will not help pop your sorghum.  Shake the pot to distribute the sorghum evenly, and turn down the flame to low.

The kernels started popping pretty quickly, and with constant stirring I got lots of sorghum hitting me in the hand.

The result is the bottom plate: over half of the kernels popped, though the ones that didn't really didn't, becoming even more scorched than with the other methods.

Experiment 5b: Popping 1/4 cup sorghum in a stainless steel pot with no oil, lidded with no stirring

I also tried popping sorghum with the lid and no stirring, just maybe occasionally shaking the pot.

With this method, it is again important to make sure everything is evenly distributed.

With the lid on, I got a few kernels and a lot of smoke.

Still, this method gave me results that were better than those in the cast-iron skillet, though I also got a lot of scorched kernels.

Experiment 6: Popping amaranth in a stainless stell pot with no oil, while stirring and not stirring

One final thing I tried was popping amaranth.  I understand that you can do this as well, and whatever the case it is easier to do.  As with the sorghum I found a video for it, courtesy of Oldways and the Whole Grains Council, neither of which I knew existed but both of whose existences do not surprise me.

Not so hard, is it?  It's even kind of adorable.

Apparently, amaranth is easier to find in the Baltimore area than sorghum.  It is particularly easy to find in bulk.  The Natural Market in Towson and MOM's in Timonium carry this in bulk.  I got this one at MOM's.

For the amaranth, make sure you even it all out at the bottom of the pot.  Note: I really am using waaaaaaay too much in this photo.  This is a quarter cup.  But it still started popping immediately.

I got a significant amount of popped amaranth.  It was kind of adorable, almost like "Barbie Popcorn".

I also tried covering the amaranth and not stirring it.  This time I only did an eighth of a cup.  Again this was too much.

And again, lot of tiny, tiny popped amaranth seeds.


So I have finally found that I have had the most success with popping sorghum if I do the following:
  • use small amounts of sorghum (and amaranth for that matter)
  • dry pop it instead of using oil
  • use a light-colored vessel, specifically a stainless steel pot
  • constantly stir it instead of leaving it to pop all on its own
  • heat the pot first, keep it on medium until the kernels get to popping, and then turn down the heat to low.
Now that I've finally found success with popping this stuff, my next goal is to find out what else I can pop.  I've seen videos for rice and wheat on the internet.  This deserves the old college try, doesn't it?


McKayGreenFamily said...

OMgoodness! I wish I had found you post 30 min ago! I just tried several times to pop my sorghum I bought... all with the same success as your first post! Nothing popped. My husband thought maybe they were not "popping" grains.. and too dry inside. Like you can buy popcorn kernels specifically for popping...

Do you think I could re-hydrate the kernals I do have? (Red Sorghum it's called... got it in an Asian grocery store).

Thanks for the second post! You give me hope!

McKayGreenFamily said...

omgoodness! I was JUST trying to make popped sorghum tonight.. with the same success as your first post!... NONE! Wish I had seen your blog BEFORE I wasted 3 attempts! I believe I bought the wrong kind of kernels... red sorghum ones... maybe to old/dry? I will look to order from the company you listed and see if that helps!

Thanks so much from Ottawa Canada!