How to Find the Best Sweet Corn and Keep It Fresh
Here in the USA during the summer months, sweet corn is busting out all over—all over the meadows and the fields. Farms, local markets, and backyard gardens are overflowing with fresh, husk-wrapped white- and gold-kerneled cobs. Shuck an ear, and look at the kernels in the light. They gleam and glisten like pearls.
Fresh sweet corn kernels are full of sugar. You can take a bite right off the cob in the field and taste the sun-warmed sugar on your tongue. No need to cook it if you don't want to!
Yet, we've all had our share of bland, flat, tasteless corn. What happens between the time the corn is picked and the time it's eaten to make it so disappointing?
Simply put, lack of refrigeration. Prolonged heat after harvesting turns the sugar into tasteless starch, and once that happens, the sweet taste is gone.
Whether you grow your own sweet corn or buy it fresh at a local market or farm stand, here's how to make sure the corn you eat in this wonderful season is fresh and full of sugar.
Run the Corn From the Field to the Pot
Not everyone can dedicate the land needed to support this space-eating crop. One corn plant, which produces only one or two ears of corn, requires nearly a square foot of space.
If you are fortunate to have the space to grow your own corn, then don't pick and shuck it until the water on the stove is boiling!
And be sure to wear running shoes out to the garden: your race for the sugar is against time and temperature, so don't let them anywhere near the finish line.
Find a Local Farmer or Farm Market
Local farmers are becoming scarce, especially in the congested mid-Atlantic and northeast regions of the USA. When you find the right farmer or market, patronize religiously and buy everything they sell (including things you might hate, like eggplants . . . find a way to turn eggplants into ratatouille for your friends).
These small local farming businesses are fighting real estate tax inflation that comes along with commercial development, while they are trying to make their land pay for their daily needs. Do your part to keep these farmers and their green spaces from going by the wayside.
When you come home with fresh sweet corn, put it immediately into the refrigerator. If you go a distance to find corn, bring a cooler full of ice and place the corn in the cooler for the trip home.
Avoid Large-Scale Supermarkets
The corn that comes to the supermarket comes through food distribution paths that may keep the corn in transit for days, some of that time without refrigeration. By the time you get the corn home and cook it, the sugars will most likely have turned to starch. If you want to buy corn from your supermarket, buy it canned, frozen, or dehydrated, not fresh, unless your supermarket features local growers.
A Few Words About Choosing Corn
Ripe, newly picked sweet corn has a fresh green husk and dark brown to black tassels. If you press an ear gently with your thumb, you can feel the soft roundness of the top of each kernel right through the fresh husk. An ear that passes these two tests is worthy of your short list.
Should you strip back the tips of the husks?
Personally, I find it kind of scary to see a crowd of people around a table full of corn, stripping back the tips of the husks. Their focus has the intensity of gamblers throwing quarters into slot machines and willing three sevens to appear. In addition to being scary, this practice is destructive: what happens to the ears that were stripped and then tossed back on the table?
Rather than strip the tips, if you are looking for worms, just ask the farmer how much of a worm infestation to expect. Biological and chemical controls, and the timing of their applications, are a well-developed science—and chances are good that the fresh corn you buy locally is worm-free. If you should find a worm, just remove it and cut off any damage with a sharp knife. In case you are wondering, a worm leaves nothing behind that hurts a human.
Don't pull those husk tips away. Save your shucking for the kitchen.
Summer's Best Grilled Sweet Corn
Corn on the grill is a great family favorite of ours. Not only is it the easiest way to cook corn, it imparts a lightly roasted flavor you can get no other way.
- Start with fresh corn still in the husks.
- Fill a large tub or bucket with cold water and place in the shade.
- Submerge the corn in the water, and leave it there for an hour or so.
- Fire up the grill and get it very hot.
- Place the corn on the grill and close the grill cover.
- Total cooking time is 10 to 12 minutes. Turn the ears four or five times during the grilling.
Monitor the timing carefully. You want the husks to be pale-colored, quite hot, and charred a little here and there. Too much charring, and you will have burned the corn. And keep a spray bottle of water handy for dousing the occasional husk fire.
Guests have a lot of fun shucking their own grilled ears at the table. And you, the chef, will get lots of praise for doing next to nothing!
A word of caution: The corn inside the husk is hotter than you think, so let it cool a little before shucking.