The farmer's markets are in full swing again, and it's just great to finally be able to get out and about, mingling with others in the public space! We went to our local market early this morning, in anticipation of fat ears of sweet corn for the next couple of nights! Oh, we've so been looking forward to this!
It never fails, however, that there's always the clueless cadre of sweet corn buyers who feel the need to pull back the husks on fresh corn. I try so hard to just keep my mouth shut, but that never works. I casually (just an 'in passing' chat) gently explain why that isn't necessary, and why it's a crappy thing to do to other shoppers in addition to the seller.
I'm going to help you learn to be a kinder, savvier buyer of fresh corn, and not leave an unusable, unsaleable mess in your wake. It ranks right up there with leaving your shopping cart in the nice, shady, empty parking space next to your car.
As you probably already know, the corn we love today originated in the Americas. Historians believe that corn - which was originally a wild grass called teosinte - was developed by indigenous peoples in Mesoamerica beginning 7,000 to 9,000 years ago. Corn - later known as maize - became a vitally important food crop, and made its way to the northeastern part of America about 1,000 years ago.
There are, of course, many kinds of corn, but they can be grouped into three large categories: Flint corn, Dent corn and Sweet corn. Popcorn is just a type of Flint corn possessing the right properties for popping.
I first encountered Flint corn back in the late 1960's while spending time with Hopi friends who lived in the Supawlavi Village of Second Mesa, on the Hopi Reservation in Arizona. They grew a blue Flint corn which they would grind by hand using a Metate. The resulting corn meal would be used in porridge, a type of thin pancake/crepe, and even breads baked in a traditional wood-fired hearth oven. I was fortunate enough to be included in all theses processes.
Today's sweet corn can be traced back to the Iroquois in the late 18th century. Our current versions can be traced back to the Golden Cross Bantam corn in the 1930's ... which my husband remembers his grandfather growing in northern New Hampshire. This variety is now considered an heirloom corn.
Now that you have a better understanding of corn's history, let's talk about how to buy it.
The image above is how not to buy corn. As I gently explained to a woman this morning, that husk is "nature's perfect package", keeping the kernels plump, sweet and free of whatever is on people's hands. Intact husks help prevent the natural conversion of sugar to starch, and also premature drying.
To pull back that husk is kind of like cracking one egg in the carton to make sure the others are 'good'.
Fresh corn has a very limited window of fresh sweetness. When you buy fresh ears, they should be consumed within about two days. If you pull back that husk, you've shortened that window to a few hours and even minutes - depending on how far the farmer had to drive to bring that field-fresh corn to your market. Do your needless damage at 9 a.m., and the person who couldn't get there until noon has to choose from dried out, starchy ears. Yeah. Thanks a lot.
If you think you can just pull back the husk 'a little bit' and peek to check for plump, intact kernels .... Nope. It's like opening a canned soft drink. You've done your damage. It's open. The 'seal' is broken.
Then, there's the issue of food waste. After a plague of human farmer's market/produce aisle locusts have done their worst, what do you think the farmer/store can do with that ruined inventory? It's lost to the seller and they can tack that loss onto the ultimate price consumer's pay for the good stuff. You don't expect the seller to 'eat' the cost of ears you needlessly ruined, right?
There will also be those who mule-ishly insist that they've got to inspect for worms. Sigh. Really? When's the last time you actually saw a worm in an ear of fresh corn? The fact is that the vast majority of fresh corn that reaches market is just fine. These nit-wits aren't really looking for worms, but rather to satisfy some vague notion of how corn kernels 'should look'. It could be the freshest, sweetest corn on the planet but gawd forbid they should accept a slightly misshapen kernel or a couple missing kernels on the tip. That ruins the flavor every time?
Here's how to really select a decent ear of corn.
Feel it. With your fingers. Gently give a press all around the pointy end. If you feel reasonably even, plump kernels hiding beneath that husk, you've a good ear. Does the ear feel 'heavy' for its size? I select fatter ears over skinny. I don't care how long the ear is. The husk should be bright green and not noticeably dried out - indicating an extended travel/storage time from field to market. The 'silk' coming out of the end of the ear should also look fresh and not brown or slimy.
And, now that we've talked about the importance of leaving the husk intact, you can understand why I never buy the partially husked 'fresh' (yeah, right) corn that's shrink wrapped in the supermarket. I don't need it that bad. If I need corn for a recipe (corn chowder anybody?) I'll head over to the freezer section for a bag of corn kernels, which really are fresher.
How to cook fresh corn
Don't shuck it until it's ready to go into the pot or on the grill. Minutes matter.
Microwave? No. Dry and shriveled. Just don't.
Shucked and on the grill? No. Dry with burnt kernels.
Wrapped in foil and on the grill? If you've just got to grill corn, this works but I don't think it's any better than 'boiled'.
Roasted in the oven? It's 100 degrees outside and you want to turn on the oven?
Instant Pot? Well, it works, sorta kinda, but boiling is so much easier and faster.
Boiling in salted water. YES! This method is the easiest and delivers great flavor. Toss just shucked ears in boiling salted water for no more than 5 minutes. Actually, I err to the side of 3 minutes.
In the husk and on the grill? YES! This is the best way to grill corn. Trim the silks and the very tip back. Grill - turning frequently - for about 15 minutes. With intact husks, the ears will stay juicy and have a smoky flavor.
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