Exploring Sweet Corn: The Number 1 Grain in the World

Updated on February 10, 2019
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Exploring food facts, folklore, and fabulous recipes, one ingredient at a time.


“....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.

Pig food.

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."

--Garrison Keillor

When and Where Did It All Begin?

Maize (or sweet corn as it is commonly known) is the Number 1 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 hub, 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):

  1. United States - 346,815,000
  2. China - 225,000,000
  3. Brazil - 81,500,000
  4. European Union (EU) - 57,751,000
  5. Argentina - 25,600,000
  6. Mexico - 23,500,000
  7. Ukraine - 23,000,000
  8. India - 21,000,ppp
  9. Canada - 13,600,000
  10. 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 1.

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

cornfield | Source

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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!
  5. Yellow vs. White? They are all the same and I dare you to do a blind taste test. You won't know the difference.
  6. 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.

fresh picked corn
fresh picked corn | Source

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.

fresh gilled corn
fresh gilled corn | Source

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)


  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
  2. Combine all ingredients except black olives, tomato, and green onion.
  3. Pour into oven-safe baking dish.
  4. Cover with foil and bake in preheated oven 30 minutes. Uncover and serve with tortilla chips. May garnish with olives, tomato, and green onion.

corn kernels stripped from the cob
corn kernels stripped from the cob | Source

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


  1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees F.
  2. Bring milk to a simmer in small saucepan over medium heat. Add salt and pepper.
  3. 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.
  4. Puree corn in a food processor. Stir processed corn, cheese and two egg yolks into cooked grits.
  5. In a large bowl beat the three egg whites until stiff peaks form. Fold beaten whites into grits mixture.
  6. 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


  1. Put the corn in a pan, add the salt, sugar and one half cup of the cream and bring to a boil.
  2. Reduce to low.
  3. 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!

Questions & Answers

    © 2016 Linda Lum


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      • Carb Diva profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Lum 

        3 years ago from Washington State, USA

        Shyron, I had heard of microwaving the corn and being able to slip the silks and husk off in one fell swoop, but have not tried it myself. Sounds easy, but since I cook for a family, probably not very efficient. Thanks for sharing, and thank you for reading my hub. I'm glad that you enjoyed it.

      • Shyron E Shenko profile image

        Shyron E Shenko 

        3 years ago from Texas

        Diva, this is a wonderful hub, I love corn, but can't eat it off the cob.

        I make it for my husband and the easiest way I know is to micro wave it. Just put the whole ear in for 5 1/2 minutes, it is so tasty it does not even need butter. You cut off the thick end and shake it out and there is no silk and the shuck comes off in one piece.

        Blessings always

      • bravewarrior profile image

        Shauna L Bowling 

        3 years ago from Central Florida

        Diva, I'll have to look in my book to see if my mom gave me the recipe. I'm thinking she did since I love it so much. I'll get back with you on that.

      • Carb Diva profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Lum 

        3 years ago from Washington State, USA

        Bravewarrior - I wonder if your corn pudding (puddin') is anything like the corn dish my next door neighbor used to prepare at Thanksgiving. Like your mom's it did not contain cheese, but had a rich souffle consistency. Unfortunately I cannot ask her--that dear sweet lady is in the end stage of Alzheimers.

        Would you mind sharing your mom's recipe? I would love to add it to my collection.

      • bravewarrior profile image

        Shauna L Bowling 

        3 years ago from Central Florida

        Diva, your articles are always so interesting. I love that you include the history of whatever item you feature.

        One of my favorite dishes is my mom's corn pudding (I call it corn puddin'). I'd request it every Thanksgiving. She didn't put cheese in it and the consistency is more like a souffle. Absolutely yummy!

        As far as corn on the cob, I prefer bi-colored. I do think there is a difference in flavor between yellow and white corn - especially the shoepeg variety. To me, yellow corn is sweeter, which may be why I prefer shoepeg when I buy it frozen. I also eat corn on the cob completely naked (the corn, not me!). The sweet plump kernels are delicious all on their own.

      • Carb Diva profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Lum 

        3 years ago from Washington State, USA

        Rachel - I agree about grilled corn--grilling really seems to caramelize the sugars and develop another layer of flavor. Thanks for stopping by.

      • Rachel L Alba profile image

        Rachel L Alba 

        3 years ago from Every Day Cooking and Baking

        I love corn on the cob. I even love the color of it. I especially love it when there are grill marks on it. Thanks for sharing these delicious looking recipes.

        Blessings to you.

      • Carb Diva profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Lum 

        3 years ago from Washington State, USA

        Oh Bill, you are such a wonderful friend. Thank you for your kind words. And yes, I must get over to the market one last time. I wish they would operate until the end of September.

      • Carb Diva profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Lum 

        3 years ago from Washington State, USA

        Flourish - Thank you so much. Your dad sounds like my kinda guy. Perhaps you could pass the recipes on to him. Thanks for stopping by.

      • billybuc profile image

        Bill Holland 

        3 years ago from Olympia, WA

        Now there's a vegetable I can sink my teeth into. LOL I crack myself up!

        Interesting fact: Bev is the veggie eater in this relationship, but I love cream corn and it makes her sick. Go figure!

        Wonderful history lesson once again from a writer who should have her own syndicated column.

        The truth according to Bill!

        Hope to see you Wednesday....last market of the year!

      • FlourishAnyway profile image


        3 years ago from USA

        Your introduction to this was superbly written (what a writer!), and I love that Garrison Keillor quote. Having grown up in the South, I love sweet corn. My dad is the only resident in an upscale development of 700+ houses who is growing sweet corn in his back yard. The HOA isn't happy but it's technically not forbidden in the bylaws. Besides, he's too old and determined for them to fight so now they just look the other way.

        As a child, my family had exchange students from Belgium and they refused to eat sweet corn for the same reason your mother cited.

      • Carb Diva profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Lum 

        3 years ago from Washington State, USA

        Pick corn and eat it raw--doesn't get any fresher than that! Sounds wonderful. I'm glad that you enjoyed the little history lesson. And I'm glad that I learned to appreciate corn.

      • Ericdierker profile image

        Eric Dierker 

        3 years ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

        Hmm, at 7,000 ft growing up we would just walk into the field and eat it raw. At the coast we would just soak husk and all in the sea water and throw them into the sides of the coals in our fire.

        Just above Sedona the Piutes and settlers formed a co-op of sorts and grew corn together, well into the last century.

        As you can guess - I love corn and my family will love these recipes.

        Thanks for a great history recipe hub.


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