How to Pop Amaranth



It turns out that popping tiny wild amaranth seeds (Amaranthus spp.) is not as simple as throwing them into a pan and treating them like popcorn. The general principle is the same. Without more specific guidelines, however, I can assure you of failure.

The problem is that amaranth seeds are ridiculously small compared to popcorn. Without treating them very carefully, you can take any number of paths of burnt amaranth. And if you've spent hours collecting, stripping, and winnowing the little buggers, that's tantamount to heartbreak.

How to Identify Amaranth 

Often called by the common name, pigweed, amaranth loves disturbed ground at lower-altitudes (Rocky Mountain Region). It has oval leaves, from 1-3 inches in length. The whole plant can grow to be taller than a person, though it usually hits stomach to shoulder-height. The stem, and sometimes the entire plant can turn red to magenta at maturita, though it oftentimes remains green throughout its life cycle. The seed heads are densely custered like a fox tail, and are not easily mistaken for other plants. The seeds of amaranth are very small and have an oily appearance which makes them gleam a little more than most other wild seeds I've observed.

Harvesting Amaranth

To procure amaranth seeds, I believe it is ideal to collect them when the seed heads are 3/4 of the way dried out. However, amaranth seems to cling to its seeds better than other wild edibles once they are completely dried, and I've harvested mid-winter for fun. Since our local species makes a prickly seed head, I like to snip them directly into a large paper bag. I should note that ornamental purple amaranth is edible, and from my experience, has more abundant seeds than our local wild one. If you've got access to a patch you're certain haven't been sprayed, they're a great source of seeds to eat.

Processing Amaranth for Seeds

Because of the prickle-factor, I also tend to wear heavy gloves when stripping the seeds, rubbing the seed heads vigorously between my thumb and forefinger, or between my palms, to coax the seeds out. Once all the seeds have been stripped, I pour them and all their surrounding chaff into a pie plate and winnow. You can use the wind, your strong lungs, or a box fan plugged in outside (my favorite method!) to winnow any wild seeds. The process uses moving air to blow away all the lightweight plant bits that aren't seed. Since the seeds are heavier, they fall back to the pie plate. With a little effort, you'll end up with a clean dish full of glossy amaranth seeds. I find them to be beautiful. Be careful where you winnow. A few seeds are likely to escape during the process, and they will have a good chance of sprouting next year. If that happened to me, I'd wait until they were a few inches tall, then eat the tender young plant.

Once you have a clean batch of seeds, they are ready to eat. In the past, I've used them much like poppy seeds in baking. They can also be cooked with oatmeal, quinoa, or a batch of rice. Feeling really ambitious? You could grind amaranth seeds into flour. In theory, you could also sprout them, though I've had no success doing so. By a long shot, my favorite way to eat amaranth is popped. Those oily seeds that are nearly rock-hard when raw become light and crunchy when popped.

Popping Amaranth Seeds

The most important piece of equipment when popping amaranth is a heavy-bottomed pot with a lid. It is also helpful to have a brush, either silicone or natural-bristled (nothing that can melt!), though you could probably get away with using a heat-proof spatula.

Heat your pot thoroughly over medium. It's better to start out with the burner set a little too low than it is to start out too hot and try to cool it back down after burning several batches of amaranth. The important thing here is to let the pot heat up for a good long time, maybe 4-5 minutes. If you splash a bit of water into the pan, and it sizzles, rather than shooting around like balls, the pot isn't hot enough. You don't need oil to pop amaranth.

Here's the part that's going to be frustrating. You're going to have to work in very small batches. The amaranth pops better that way. Additionally, since the risk of burning the seeds is so high, you don't want to burn an entire batch. Nobody wants to see you cry after that happens. So, you'll be working with about 1/2 to 1 teaspoon at a time. Don't be tempted to put your amaranth into the pot before it is fully heated. It is guaranteed to burn. If your first few batches don't pop right away, wait until they do, for it will tell you how to adjust the heat, then throw them away. You will be able to smell right away if a batch has burned. If in doubt, though, taste some. Do not keep any batch that has burnt.

Once your pan is hot enough, sprinkle in a small amount of amaranth. Immediately cover the pot, and start vigorously shaking it back and forth. Continue to shake the pot the entire time. After just a few seconds, you should hear the amaranth start to pop. After 10-15 seconds, there will be a whole flurry of it. Keep it over the heat, shaking still, until you hear the popping start to taper off. Immediately remove the pan from the heat, and pour the popped amaranth into a bowl. This is where you'll use your brush to make certain every last bit has been swept from the bottom of the pot. Any little bit left behind will burn, and will add a burnt taste to your whole batch.

Keep working in small batches until you've got enough popped amaranth. Yes, it's a process. But no batch takes longer than 20-30 seconds. Amaranth pops to 3-4 times it's original size.

Popped amaranth is pretty good on its own. You can use it with your cereal, or as an addition to granola. I've tried it as a coating for fried fish and thought it delightful. You can sprinkle it on just about anything, though it gets soggy on any food that is more wet than oily.

I most enjoy eating popped amaranth as a candy similar to Mexican alegria or Indian ladoo. It reminds me of caramel popcorn. I use Carolyn Niethammer's recipe for alegria from The Tumbleweed Gourmet, with the amount of popped amaranth reduced from 1 cup down to 3/4. The popped amaranth candy is only lightly sweet. You can taste amaranth and an undertone of honey. They're crunchy and good, though they may have you running for a toothbrush afterward to eliminate your amaranth-studded smile.

Popped Amaranth Candy


1 Tbsp. butter
2 tsp. molasses
4 tsp. honey
3/4 c. popped amaranth

1. In a small pan, melt the butter over low heat, then add both the honey and molasses.

2. Bring the heat up to medium-high and let the syrup bubble vigorously. You are looking for it to change consistency from being very runny to being much more viscous. It's easy to observe the change in consistency by scooping up a spoonful and watching how the syrup pours off the spoon. For such a small amount of syrup, this usually takes me about 3 minutes. Watch it careful, as it can burn.

3. Remove the syrup from the heat, and stir in all of the popped amaranth until it looks like wet sand.

4. Pour the amaranth candy onto a greased plate. Be careful not to burn yourself on the hot syrup. As soon as the candy is cool enough to touch, you can start to compact it. This works best with lightly greased hands. You can either form it into a brick, and cut it into pieces after it's cooled, or roll the amaranth candy into balls. Forming balls takes a delicate touch and is a bit of a challenge, though the finished product looks quiet pleasing.

Comments

  1. Thank you so much for figuring this out and posting it, Butter. I'm super excited to collect more amaranth seeds to have on hand for this candy, which Gregg absolutely adores. In fact he has been fighting me for it. Nicely done. One of the things I like about your work is how practical it is, in that you actually figure out how to make things work well before sharing them.

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  2. This sounds delicious. Perfect for a Thanksgiving dessert spread!

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  3. I cam across some amaranth in seed but wasn't sure it was ready to harvest. It was red amaranth at the community college garden and some of the seeds were still red but some were brown. Should I wait until they're all brown?

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  4. I actually was successful sprouting the amaranth, but now I wonder if it can be popped. Anyone know about this?

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