First domesticated in Mexico more than 10,000 years ago, corn (maize) didn’t exist in Europe until it was brought back from the New World in the 1400s. Native Americans showed colonists how to grow the indigenous crop and its popularity spread throughout the world. Today, corn is grown on every continent except Antarctica (they probably would if they could).
The U.S. produces about 1/3 of the world’s corn, with most of it grown in the Corn Belt—Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Michigan, Minnesota, Nebraska, Ohio, South Dakota, and Wisconsin.
Surprisingly, only a small percentage of corn finds its way to grocery stores and farmer’s markets. The majority goes to feed livestock, produce ethanol, and is processed into corn oil, corn syrup, and corn starch.
Endlessly versatile, corn can be found in everything from food products like cereal, chips, and soft drinks to items like crayons, cosmetics, plastics, and even fireworks. Read on for more fun facts and fresh ideas about corn.
Did You Know?
- While it’s usually thought of as a vegetable, corn is actually both a grain and a fruit.
- Corn cobs always have an even number of rows.
- An average ear of corn has 16 rows with 800 kernels.
- An ear of corn has a silk strand for each kernel (no wonder it’s impossible to remove them all!)
- Maize is a Taino word meaning “giver of life” or “sacred mother.”
- Most Mexican food uses maize as a main ingredient: think tacos, tamales, tortillas, tostadas, pozole, and more.
Naturally low in fat, cholesterol, and calories (about 86 per ear), corn makes a healthy addition to any summer meal (before you slather it in butter, that is). Plus, it’s a good source of vitamins A and C, potassium, magnesium, and the always-important fiber.
How to Pick Em’
First off, walk on by any pre-shucked corn. Sure, it’s more convenient, but the husk serves an important purpose: protecting kernels and keeping them moist. Naked ears will never be as tender and sweet.
Examine the corn you’re considering.
- Does it feel hefty and firm? Check!
- Is the husk bright green and hugging the cob tightly? Check!
- Are the silks pale tan or golden brown? Check!
- You’ve got a winner! Repeat as necessary…
Some folks can’t resist peeling back husks to check the plumpness of kernels (or worse—pierce them!). But it’s really not necessary. Gently feel around the silk end with your fingertips to determine whether they’re plump or shriveled. Grocers and other customers will thank you. Not personally, but in their minds.
Be Quick About It
Chances are, you don’t have a cornstalk (or hundreds) in your back yard. So the cobs you buy will be anywhere from a few hours (farmer’s market) to a few days (grocery store) old. Corn starts losing sweetness from the minute it’s picked, so it’s best eaten the day you bring it home.
Storing Corn, if You Must
Leave the husks on, wrap cobs in plastic, and stash in the crisper drawer of your fridge as soon as possible. If you can’t eat corn within a few days, freeze it before it loses freshness. Blanch husked cobs in boiling water for four minutes, plunge into an ice bath, then dry well and stash in a freezer bag. Frozen corn will keep for up to a year—until fresh corn is back in season!
Make sure to choose corn with the tassel attached—you’ll grab onto it as you pull the husk from cob, and it’ll remove most of the silks. Get rid of those pesky left-behind silks with a vegetable brush or a damp paper towel or cloth. You’ll go nuts trying to get every last one, so leave a few strays for eaters to deal with.
3 Ways to Cook Corn on the Cob
What’s our favorite way to cook sweet corn? As little as possible! No matter which method you choose, take care not to heat it too long. Every second of overcooking diminishes the sweet flavor and will toughen kernels like a drill sergeant with new recruits.
Put a pot of water on the stove over high heat and resist the urge to add salt—it keeps kernels from softening. If corn is a little less than fresh, add couple of tablespoons of sugar to sweeten it up, then cover pot. While you’re waiting for the water to boil, husk your cobs. Carefully add cobs to boiling water and once it comes to a boil again, they’re done!
If corn is starting to show its age, submerge cobs in a pot of cold water and soak for about 20 minutes before grilling. Trim off tassels, but leave husks on to keep corn from drying out (bonus: this makes it easier to shuck corn and remove those clingy silks). Grill corn, turning every 5 minutes or so until husks have grill marks on all sides—about 20 minutes.
The quickest, easiest way to cook (and shuck) a few ears of corn? Nuke it! Leave corn in husks and microwave on high for about 1 1/2 to 2 minutes per ear. You could go another minute or so if ears are large, but remember, less is more. Wait about 5 minutes before shucking—the husk may not feel too warm, but the cob will be lava hot (learned this the hard way!).
Top it Off
Peak-of-season corn is perfect as is, but you can bump up the flavor with butter, salt, and maybe a little fresh-ground black pepper. Some folks roll a hot cob over a stick of butter (or vice versa), others attempt to spread it with a knife (nigh impossible!), but we like to melt butter in a ramekin and slather it on the cob with a silicone brush.
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