Corn on the cob is an all-American summertime tradition. Corn, or Zea mays, is an indigenous North American food developed from native grasses in Mexico thousands of years ago. Today's farmers raise millions of acres of corn to provide feed for livestock, ingredients for processed foods and ethanol for fuel, but the sweetest corn harvest is late-summer corn on the cob eaten fresh from the fields.
"Fresh picked corn will always taste better."
Judy Stevens, Golden Russet Farm
Country wisdom suggests starting the pot of water boiling, running out to pick corn, husking it on the way back inside and dropping it in the pot seconds after picking. Purchasing the freshest possible ears is the next best option.
"When I think of fresh picked corn, the first thing that comes to mind is the incredible flavor," said Judy Stevens, co-owner with her husband, Will, of Golden Russet Farm in Shoreham, Vermont. "Fresh picked corn will taste better no matter what, and when you buy fresh corn you are also supporting a local farm and your local economy."
It's not necessary to pull open the husks to see whether the ear has fully developed. "You can trust your farmer to know when the corn is ripe," Stevens said, "but if you want to check, you can gently squeeze the tip. If it feels rounded, it’s mature."
To ensure the ears have that field-to-pot freshness, "look for the leaves to have a fresh green color and be moist looking," Stevens said. "The corn silk, if it’s been picked that day, it looks nice and moist, not dried out."
Boiling for a few minutes then slathering the warm ears with butter and salt is the traditional method of eating corn on the cob. Take advantage of the abundance of sweet corn by trying other ways to savor this summer treat.
Grilling sweet corn skips the steamy kitchen and added fat and salt, according to the North Carolina State University Cooperative Extension. Peel back corn husks, but leave them attached. Remove corn silk and soak the ears in water for 15 minutes. Drizzle on olive oil and herbs, lemon juice or hot sauce, tie the husks over the corn with string and grill, rotating every few minutes, until the outer husks are browned. Use the same preparation method when camping, and stick the ears, with the husks pulled back over them, into the ashes at the edge of the campfire. Use a long stick or tongs to turn and remove the ears safely.
For an even simpler way to cook sweet corn without heating up the house, pop it in the microwave. Don't husk the ears or remove the corn silk, just place whole ears with the husks in place into the microwave and cook on high for about a minute and a half for each ear. Husk and remove silks while the ears are hot -- watch your fingers -- and serve immediately.
Corn's creamy texture and sugary sweetness bake into a delicious pudding texture without the addition of any sugar or eggs, according to a "Saveur" magazine article by Barbara Elizabeth Stewart. Use a corn cutter or the flat edge of a knife to remove and crush fresh corn kernels from the cob, fill an 8 by 8 baking dish nearly to the rim with the kernels and top with several tablespoons of butter cut into small pieces. Bake in a preheated 400F oven about 40 minutes, until the natural corn sugars form a brown crust on top.
Preserving the Bounty
Corn is abundant and inexpensive during the peak late summer season. Preserve some of its nutritional bounty by freezing summer corn for winter cooking.
Submerge husked ears in boiling water for about five minutes. This kills off any bacteria or destructive enzymes, according to Utah State University Cooperative Extension. After blanching, corn may be frozen whole or cut from the cob.
"I stand each ear up in the center of a tube cake pan and cut the kernels off into the pan," said Joan Cook, president of the Middlebury Vermont Farmers Market and a market farmer who freezes more than 100 quarts of her own fresh corn a year. "The milk that can be very sticky, stays right there in the pan and doesn't get all over. It freezes beautifully."
Scoop the cut corn kernels into plastic zipper-close freezer bags and remove the air before freezing. There is no need to thaw frozen corn before use; run a little warm water over the outside of the bag to loosen the frozen corn, and empty it into your winter soups, stews and casseroles. For use as a plain side vegetable, drop the frozen corn into a small pan of boiling water for just long enough to heat it thoroughly, then strain and serve.
Modern corn on the cob is classified into three types based on the genes that give them their sweet flavor, according to the University of Illinois Extension. Yellow, white and bicolor varieties are available in each of the three genetic types.
Standard sweet corn varieties such as the yellow Jubilee, white Silver Queen, and bicolor Butter and Sugar contain a sugary "SU" gene. Standard SU type corn is not overly sweet and has a strong corn flavor. The sugars of SU corn break down fast, so freshness is critically important to corn's flavor.
Newer hybrids like the yellow Kandy Korn and white Cotton Candy have significantly higher sugar content because of their sugary enhancer or SE gene. SE corn varieties remain tender and creamy, but taste noticeably sweeter than standard types. The sugars in SE corn last a little longer than those in SU corn, but it's still sweeter the fresher it is.
The newest super-sweet corn varieties such as the yellow Early Xtra Sweet, white Treasure, or bicolor Honey N Pearl contain an Sh2 gene that raises the sugar content even higher and makes the sweetness more stable over time, but this gene also reduces the creamy texture and gives each kernel a tough coating. Whether the extra sweetness is worth the trade-off in texture is a matter of personal preference, as there are plenty of standard, enhanced and super-sweet varieties to choose from during corn season.
Nearly 20,000 different varieties of corn have been identified by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, according to the University of Georgia's Maize Project. Expand your corn savvy by trying some of the heirloom, open pollination corn varieties available at farmers markets and natural food stores. Don't expect modern sweet corn's texture and sweetness from heirloom varieties, but enjoy the rich, meaty corn flavor Americans have shared for hundreds of years. Varieties you may find include:
Bloody Butcher. This burgundy-black variety grows on stalks 12 feet tall, and is good for corn on the cob when young and ground into flour when dried.
Oaxacan Green. These beautiful emerald green ears are eaten fresh, ground fresh for masa tamal or dried for cornmeal.
Hopi Blue. Corn chips made from native blue corn meal are available in many supermarkets. The fresh blue ears have a rich tone and chewy texture.
Roy's Calais Flint Corn. Grown by the Native Americans of Vermont, most of this corn is yellow, but when a colonial maiden found the occasional scarlet ear during a husking bee, it meant she was next to get married.
- University of Illinois Extension; Watch Your Garden Grow; Corn
- University of Georgia Maize Project: Genetic Diversity of Maize
- Iowa State University; Origin, History and Uses of Corn; Lance Gibson et al.; January 2002
- North Carolina State University Cooperative Extension: Lend an Ear to Corn Cooking Alternatives This Summer
- Utah State University Cooperative Extension; Preserve the Harvest--Corn; Heidi LeBlanc et al.; March 2010
- Ablestock.com/AbleStock.com/Getty Images