From buying and storing to cooking times and feeding a crowd, we tackle the myths and tricks for the best corn on the cob.
As if the gifts of summer weren’t enough, the warm weather happens to also present the ultimate offering of Mother Nature: Corn on the cob. Since we’re not in the general practice of making sacrifices to the gods and goddesses of maize, the least we can do is treat summer’s best crop with all the respect we can muster and make the most of its deliciousness, right? So with that in mind, we begin our journey to perfect corn by addressing common questions about how best to get those sweet kernels from farm to mouth.
1. How do you choose the best ears from the bunch?
Sure, you can peel back some of the husk, but that only reveals a small portion of the ear and ruins it for other shoppers, leading to sad lonely corn that nobody wants (AKA food waste). It also hastens drying, which means if it was perfect when you got it, it may become less-so by the time you’re ready to cook it. Food52 has another plan for picking without peeking:
• Look for bright green and tightly wrapped husks. Avoid husks with small brown holes – unless you like worms.
• Feel the kernels through the husk, feeling for plump and plentiful ones; if you can feel holes where kernels should be, consider moving on.
• The tassels that emerge from the top should be brown and sticky to the touch; not dry or black, which indicates advanced age.
2. Is buying pre-shucked corn OK?
Some places sell corn with the husks removed; likewise, some markets and farm stands let you shuck on the spot. Best practice? Leave the husks on until you’re ready to cook; early removal hastens dried-out kernels.
3. Which color is the sweetest?
Trick question! White, bi-color or yellow are visually distinct because of their carotene content, not their sugar. And as it turns out, all corn is pretty much just sweet sweet sweet nowadays. Supermarket corn and a lot of local farm corn relies on newer varieties created for, yes, super sweetness! You may be lucky and have a farm vendor who still grows corn that tastes more like corn than Corn Pops; if you do, pay homage frequently.
4. Is it essential to eat corn the same day it’s picked?
Every corn snob knows that you simply can not wait a day to eat freshly picked corn … but in most cases, that no longer holds true. While about half the sugar of older varieties would convert to starch within 24 hours of picking – resulting in more of a gummy experience than a sweet crunchy one – the sweet newcomers have a lot more life in them. Cooks Illustrated notes that some may lost their sweetness after four days, while others can last a full week.
5. What is the best way to store corn?
Since now that you know you don’t necessarily have to eat your corn the split second you bring it home, how to store it? Produce is particular; some things love the refrigerator, others don’t. Corn, once it’s harvested, loves the cold; in fact, the colder the better, short of freezing. The ol’ sugar-to-starch conversion will happen more slowly in the cold, and the kernels will retain more of their moisture as well. Put the unhusked ears in a damp paper bag, and then in a plastic shopping bag (if you have one) and store in a nice cold spot in the fridge.
Bonus: The best way to eat corn
6. What’s the easiest way to shuck?
The cooks at Cook’s Illustrated swear by the microwave method: Cut off the stalk end just above the first row of kernels. Put 3 or 4 ears on a plate and microwave for 30 to 60 seconds – the cob should be warmed but the kernels not cooked. Hold the ears by the uncut end and squeeze and shake, the clean ear should slip right out.
Meanwhile, for those of us without microwaves or who prefer the meditative qualities of food prep, there’s no small amount of satisfaction with the crack and the rip and the slight stickiness and the sweet raw smell of corn when sitting around husking by hand.
7. How do I remove kernels from the cob?
Many people recommend cutting the cob in half first and setting the flat end on a cutting board and simply carving off the kernels. Alas, you will likely have the "sprinkler of shooting corn kernels all over the counter" phenomenon. I prefer using a big bowl, placing one end on the bottom and holding the whole ear at a slight angle, and carefully stripping the kernels off with a knife – watching them all fall obediently into the bowl.
8. Should I add milk, sugar, or salt to the cooking water?
The thick skin of corn prohibits the kernels from absorbing flavors when cooking, which means added ingredients will do nothing to enhance the flavor. I know that people are very attached to the way they cook their corn, so if you don’t believe me, try a few different methods and then do a blind taste test.
9. How is corn milk made?
Although it might sound rather hipster-foodie, corn milk is simply the juice and pulp left in a raw cob once the kernels have been removed. It gives a bit of corny oomph to corn soups and chowders and polenta, et cetera. Once you have stipped the cob of its corn, hold the naked ear over a bowl and firmly scrape, going up and down the length of the ear, with a butter knife.
10. How long should I boil corn?
The answer may be not to boil it all! Again I defer to Cook’s Illustrated here: "Bringing the water to a boil, shutting off the heat just before adding the corn, and then covering the pot ensures that the corn’s temperature will rise to between 150 and 170 degrees – the sweet spot where its starches have gelatinized but little of its pectin has broken down. The result: perfectly sweet, snappy kernels every time."
They recommend letting the corn stand in the heated water for 10 to 30 minutes. The thought of it soaking for so long leaves me a little shaken, but I trust their kitchen wherewithal. I actually like it raw or just barely cooked; I’ve been known to shuck ears and place them directly on the open flame of my stovetop and rotate them for just a minute – they pop a bit, but they warm up and take on a good little char. A city apartment dweller’s cheat for grilled corn.
11. Corn is bulky, what’s the best way to cook for a crowd?
Grilling a large amount of corn is pretty easy, but if you want boiled corn this trick could be your secret weapon. Put shucked corn in an ice chest, cover with boiling water, close the lid and let it sit for 30 minutes. It cooks, and can be kept there warm for up to two hours.
That said, I’m not a fan of stewing food in plastic. I’d recommend using a steel cooler or trying this method in another non-plastic vessel that still has good insulating qualities. And last but not least, if you have a large quantity of corn that won’t fit in a colander, use the dish-drying rack.
12. Is corn good for freezing?
Corn is great for freezing! Unlike fragile things like berries, corn is low in water content and has a sturdy cellular structure, making it an ideal candidate for a freeze. Strip the kernels from the cob, lay them out on a baking sheet in a single layer and freeze for an hour, then pack them into your favorite kind of freezer container. (Here’s how to freeze food without plastic.)
13. What can I do with old corn cobs?
What can’t you do?! Actually there is probably a lot you can’t do, but you might be surprised at what an asset a naked ear can be. I always make stock, which then goes in the freezer and is later employed in soups, risotto, polenta, et cetera. Chop the cobs into six to eight pieces, cover with water, add any odds and ends (like herb stems) that you can also use up, boil for 15 minutes, strain and you’re all set.
You can also make jelly – yes, corn cob jelly – which I first discovered at a very local farmers market deep in Pennsylvania one summer. Here’s a recipe.
Use them to clean the grill, and then dry those and use them for fire starters or to smoke meat.
Once dried, they have a great texture and can be used for everything from a scouring brush for stubborn pots to a lint brush for clothes.
And when all else fails, there’s always a corn cob pipe.