Kettle corn sounds like some folksy dish that ought to be served in a small Midwestern farm town.
But these days you need to look no farther than the latest event at the Maryland State Fairgrounds or, if you're not a stickler for authenticity, your grocery-store shelves to find this popcorn treat that's a little salty and a little sweet.
The ingredients are simple enough: popcorn, oil, granulated sugar and salt. Don't confuse it with caramel corn; kettle corn lacks the candy coating and has just a hint of sweetness. Jolly Time, Pop-Secret and Orville Redenbacher's offer microwaveable versions. You can even make it yourself on the stove if you don't mind popcorn kernels flying out of the pot onto the floor.
But to get real kettle corn, it's probably best to trust the experts. There are at last a half dozen kettle-corn vendors who travel to events around the state and many others who sell kettle corn through the Internet.
At the Fells Point Popcorn store, kettle corn occupies the center bin in a display case of popcorn, and owner Shawn Soltesz says kettle corn is one of his most popular sellers.
"I'm surprised at the amount of people buying popcorn," says Soltesz, who purchased the store in June. "A lot of people have seen it at the festivals and come in and ask for it."
Soltesz makes his kettle corn 8 gallons at a time in a stainless-steel machine that has a mechanical arm that stirs the corn as it pops.
Other kettle-corn sellers cook with stainless-steel pots and stir the popcorn with wooden ladles to keep the sugar from burning.
"The hardest thing about kettle corn," says Shannon Edwards, an owner of Catoctin Kettle Corn in Frederick, "is you can't make it in tiny batches."
He makes 4 pounds of kettle corn at a time in his 250-pound kettle. The secret to good kettle corn, he says, is that the oil must be hot enough to melt the sugar and pop the corn, but not so hot that the sugar burns, which tends to be a problem with small amounts.
Beyond that, the kettle-corn maker should select the right kind of popcorn, one that will make big, puffy kernels. Even then, the science is subject to the whims of nature as popcorn, like wine, is affected by temperatures and moisture. If the kernels get too dry, they won't pop or the kernels will be small.
"People want it nice and fluffy," says Edwards, who started his popcorn-and-candy business about three years ago. He sells primarily through the Internet and at roadside stands near Harpers Ferry, W.Va., and Point of Rocks.
Although Edwards is branching out, soon to add chocolate coatings to his popcorn and nuts, the old-fashioned kettle corn remains one of his most popular items. "There are a lot of people who when they start eating it are addicted to it," he says.
Making popcorn in a kettle isn't new, of course. European explorers found Native Americans cooking popcorn in clay pots hundreds of years ago, and early settlers sometimes sweetened their popcorn with molasses.
Now kettle corn is usually made in stainless-steel pots heated over a propane flame. The trend seems to have started a couple of decades ago in the Midwest, where much of the country's popcorn is grown, and spread to Maryland a few years ago.
Carb watchers may disapprove of kettle corn's high carbohydrate count (20 grams to 25 grams per serving), but its sugar and sodium content are not as high as that of other snack foods. Depending on the kind of oil used, calories vary from about 120 to 200 per serving.
There aren't any statistics for how much kettle corn is sold in the United States, although the Popcorn Board reports that Americans consume 59 quarts of popcorn per man, woman and child each year. And last year, Americans purchased a billion dollars worth of popcorn according to Information Resources Inc., a company that monitors retail-food sales.
Kim and Ted Ronnenburg of Reisterstown first encountered kettle corn four or five years ago when visiting San Diego, Calif. They bought a bag at a festival and as they walked through the crowd, encountered folks asking them where they had found it. By the time they had finished their bag in the hotel room, they were thinking that they might have stumbled upon a way to achieve their goal of starting a small family business.
A year later they drove out to Cody, Wyo., picked up their kettle, and were selling kettle corn the next weekend in Ocean City. They have been busy since, supplying kettle corn to events at the Maryland State Fairgrounds, Baltimore Symphony Orchestra concerts at Oregon Ridge and Artscape. They also sell kettle corn over the Internet and at a few stores around town, with prices starting at $2 a bag.
But even after selling kettle corn for three years, Kim Ronnenburg says the family hasn't grown tired of it. "We still eat enough of it," she says.
Making kettle corn at home is a tricky venture. While the ingredients are simple, the challenge is to pop the corn without burning the sugar or being bombarded by fiery kernels shooting from the pot.