Exploring Sweet Corn: The Number 1 Grain in the World
“....pray what more can a reasonable man desire, in peaceful times, in ordinary noons, than a sufficient number of ears of green sweet-corn boiled, with the addition of salt?”
--Henry David Thoreau, 'Walden' (1854)
Once Upon a Time...
...I grew up hating corn. It was one of those unfounded hates, the "I-don't-like-green-vegetables" kind of hate, born of my mother's upbringing on a farm. Mom despised corn, saying it was "pig food," and that was enough for me.
But then one fateful afternoon I attended a friend's backyard barbecue; there were ribs and chicken, baked beans and potato salad, and fresh steamed corn dripping with melted butter. It smelled amazing—sweet, like vanilla frosting on a cupcake, and it was the most beautiful shade of sunshine yellow. I allowed my guard to slip; I picked up an ear and inhaled the intoxicating earthy-sweet aroma. I brought it to my lips and took my first bite. The bright yellow kernels popped, releasing their sugary contents which mingled with the salty butter and...I was transported to a Heavenly place.
Like sex, once you've given in to the allure of corn on the cob, there's no going back.
"Sex is good, but not as good as fresh sweet corn."
When and Where Did It All Begin?
Maize (or sweet corn as it is commonly known) is the number one cereal food in the world. Although rice and wheat are well-known staples in diets throughout the world, corn is at the top of the list. Not only is corn the primary food source in South America and Africa, but it also serves as fodder for livestock around the globe.
Archeologists believe that corn originated in the Tehuacan Valley of Mexico 7,000 years ago. But this corn was not what you find at your local produce stand. The corn that we love began as a wild grass with sparse seeds clinging to a sturdy stalk—a far cry from the plump kernels on sturdy cobs that we enjoy today.
Ancient farmers domesticated those ancient kernels by selective breeding—they carefully chose the seeds from the largest, plumpest, sweetest maize and planted them for the next year's harvest. In time, these plants cross-pollinated and the best characteristics became dominant, resulting in the corn that we know and love.
According to learn.genetics.utah.edu:
Through the study of genetics, we know today that corn's wild ancestor is a grass called teosinte. Teosinte doesn't look much like maize, especially when you compare its kernals to those of corn. But at the DNA level, the two are surprisingly alike. They have the same number of chromosomes and a remarkably similar arrangement of genes. In fact, teosinte can cross-breed with modern maize varieties to form maize-teosinte hybrids that can go on to reproduce naturally.
History Is Interesting, But What's Happening Now?
When I began my research for this article, I queried on "annual corn production by country in 2016." The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that world corn production in the 2016/17 growing season will be 1,028.40 million metric tons. (That's an increase of 7.16 percent from one year ago.)
Here are the numbers for the top 10 producers (in metric tons):
- United States - 346,815,000
- China - 225,000,000
- Brazil - 81,500,000
- European Union (EU) - 57,751,000
- Argentina - 25,600,000
- Mexico - 23,500,000
- Ukraine - 23,000,000
- India - 21,000,ppp
- Canada - 13,600,000
- Russia - 13,500,000
And that is just the top 10!
Corn vs. Other Grains—Let's Compare
The major grains produced throughout the world are barley, corn, millet, oats, rice, rye, and wheat. Of those, the top three are corn, rice, and wheat. And of those three, corn is number one.
In the year 2015 (for those of you who like statistics) the numbers are as follows:
- Corn - 959.72 million tons
- Wheat - 734.8 million tons
- Rice - 470.82 million tons
Do You Want to Grow Your Own Corn?
Corn is an annual plant. That means that it sprouts, grows, matures, and then dies within one year and needs to be replanted yearly. If you want to grow your own corn, these are the growing conditions and guidelines you will need:
- Full sun
- Rich, well-drained soil
- Soil pH 6.0 to 6.5
- Adequate moisture (don't allow to dry out, but also do not allow to be waterlogged).
- A side dressing of nitrogen, when plants are about 18 inches tall, will give your plants a needed boost. Bloodmeal, partially rotted manure, or a liquid fertilizer are all good choices.
- Plant in the northern part of your garden when soil has warmed to 70 to 75 degrees F.
- Sow seeds 3 to 4 inches apart and about 1/2-inch to 1-inch deep in rows 24 to 32 inches apart.
- Thin seedlings to 12 inches apart.
And If You Don't Grow Your Own...
Questions, questions, there are so many questions surrounding how to select the best corn on the cob. Is yellow corn sweeter than white? Do silk tassels matter? Should you peel back the husk to peek at the kernels (and if you do, what are you looking for)?
Here is all you need to know—no myths, superstitions or rumors:
- First, look at the silks. There is one silk for every kernel on the cob (trust me on this). The silks should be green or a pale yellow—not brown.
- Next, look at the bottom of the ear--where the corn was attached to the stalk. It should be pale green like the husk. If it is brown, the ear was picked too many days ago and your corn will not be sweet. Fresh corn has a ratio of 80 percent sugar and 20 percent starch. Within just three days that ratio can shift to 20 percent sugar and 80 percent starch.
- The husks should be green, not pale yellow or (worse) brown. Are there holes in the husk? If so, just walk away. Those are worm holes.
- Should you shuck before you pay the bucks? Please don't. It's a rude thing to do to the merchant and certainly to the next customer who is dealing with your discarded ears of corn. Pulling back the husk tells you nothing that you won't learn from gently peeling back the top of the husk to reveal the tip of the cob of corn. If you see plump kernels there, and the corn has passed the other tests mentioned above, you can be assured that the entire cob is full and worthy of purchase!
- Yellow vs. White? They are all the same and I dare you to do a blind taste test. You won't know the difference.
- And finally, storage. If you don't cook your corn on the same day that you purchase it, store in your refrigerator with the husks and silks on.
Recipes in This Article
- How to cook corn on the cob
- Tex-Mex corn dip
- Cheesy corn pudding
- Homemade creamed corn
- Summer corn chowder
- Mexican street corn salad
How to Cook Corn on the Cob
- Don't remove husks and silks until ready to cook.
- Use a pot large enough to completely submerge the corn. Fill pot with cold (unsalted) water, cover with lid, and bring to a boil over high heat.
- Add husked corn and cover with lid. As soon as the water returns to a boil (3 to 4 minutes), the corn is done. Remove immediately and enjoy.
- Remove husks and silks.
- Tear off a sheet of aluminum foil large enough to completely enclose the corn. Spread softened butter on one side of the foil. Center an ear of corn on the buttered side.
- Wrap up the corn; place on the grill for 10-12 minutes, turning occasionally.
- Preheat oven to 375 degrees F.
- Place ears of corn directly on the oven rack. Don't husk; don't remove silks.
- Roast for 25 minutes; remove from oven. Remove the husks and silks.
Tex-Mex Corn Dip
Let's start with an appetizer. This hot dip is an adaptation of the "Tex-Mex Corn Dip" at the blog Fivehearthome.com and "Hot Corn Dip Recipe" on Tasteofhome.com.
- 4 cups fresh roasted corn (about 5 ears) or 2 cans whole kernel corn, drained
- 1 cup low-fat sour cream
- 1/2 cup low-fat mayonnaise
- 2 cups shredded pepperjack cheese
- 1/2 cup shredded sharp Cheddar cheese
- 1/2 cup minced cilantro
- 1 tablespoon ground cumin
- chopped black olives, tomato, and/or minced green onions for garnish (optional)
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
- Combine all ingredients except black olives, tomato, and green onion.
- Pour into oven-safe baking dish.
- Cover with foil and bake in preheated oven 30 minutes. Uncover and serve with tortilla chips. May garnish with olives, tomato, and green onion.
Next is a corn casserole that I created for our annual Thanksgiving Day feast but you could enjoy it anytime.
Cheesy Corn Pudding
- 1 1/2 cups whole milk
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- dash of freshly ground black pepper
- 1/4 cup grits or polenta (not instant)
- 3/4 cup homemade creamed corn (see below), or used canned
- 3/4 cup sharp Cheddar cheese, shredded
- 2 large eggs, separated
- 1 egg white
- Preheat oven to 375 degrees F.
- Bring milk to a simmer in small saucepan over medium heat. Add salt and pepper.
- Slowly add grits or polenta in a steady stream, stirring constantly to avoid lumps. Reduce heat to low and continue to cook, stirring constantly, until mixture is thickened and no longer gritty, about 25 minutes. Transfer to a large bowl and set aside to cool slightly.
- Puree corn in a food processor. Stir processed corn, cheese and two egg yolks into cooked grits.
- In a large bowl beat the three egg whites until stiff peaks form. Fold beaten whites into grits mixture.
- Pour into medium-sized casserole dish. Bake in preheated oven 30 minutes or until pudding is set and puffed.
Homemade Creamed Corn
- 4 cups fresh corn kernels (2 1/2 pounds frozen corn)
- 3/4 cup whipping cream, divided
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 teaspoon sugar
- 1 tablespoon corn starch
- Put the corn in a pan, add the salt, sugar and one half cup of the cream and bring to a boil.
- Reduce to low.
- Stir cornstarch into remaining 1/4 cup cream; stir into corn mixture and continue to simmer, stirring constantly, until desired thickness is reached.
“Shucked and boiled in water, sweet corn is edible and nutritious; roasted in the husk in the hottest possible oven for forty minutes, shucked at the table, and buttered and salted, nothing else, it is ambrosia. No chef's ingenuity and imagination have ever created a finer dish.”
--Nero Wolfe in 'Murder is Corny' by Rex Stout
Summer Corn Chowder
Jaclyn of CookingClassy has created a creamy, savory corn chowder studded with buttery Yukon gold potatoes and smoky-crisp bacon. What a great place to use your fresh-from-the-garden (or produce stand) corn on the cob.
Mexican Street Corn
Alaska native Sarah loves to eat (vegetarian), travel, and take amazing photographs. Why wouldn't she have a blog named LiveEatLearn.com? Her fresh Mexican street corn salad creation is just about the prettiest thing I have ever seen. And it tastes as good as it looks!
© 2016 Linda Lum