Don’t be afraid of that weird-looking corn

August 25, 2023

I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one who has encountered the problem illustrated by the photograph – weird corn on the cob. You’re at the grocery store, roadside stand or farmers market, looking at a mountain of corn on the cob, each ear nestled tightly inside its green husk with a silky tassel dangling from the top.

You know the best hints and tips: Make sure the tassel is just starting to brown, a sign the corn kernels are ripe; make sure the husks aren’t shriveled or dried, a sign the ear has lost moisture; make sure nobody has already pulled down a section of husk to expose the ear inside. Trust the grower that all of the ears will be full of kernels in the advertised color (white, yellow or the mixture known as bicolor).

And, the final rule to solve problems in advance: Always buy at least one more ear than you will need to serve everyone. Why? Because, without fail, one of your chosen ears will look like the specimen at the bottom in the photo. There will be missing kernels, odd-shaped kernels, dented kernels, and random bumps and lumps along the cob. It’s still safe to eat, just not as beautiful as its cousins.

The missing or shriveled-looking kernels don’t signal that an ear of corn is unsafe, only a sign that it was incompletely pollinated while growing in the field. Each kernel on an ear of corn must be fertilized separately, with pollen attaching to the corn silks while the ear is still very tiny. Pollen grains travel down each corn silk until arriving at and fertilizing egg cells that develop into sweet kernels. Once properly and completely pollinated, the kernels will develop uniformly, as in the ear on the right.

After picking out your corn, be sure to place it in the refrigerator as soon as you arrive home. Even if you're going to eat it within the next few hours, keep it cold for the best flavor. Your next challenge is to decide how you’re going to cook it, starting with the most familiar option – boiling. As simple as boiling a shucked ear of corn on the cob may seem, there are several schools of thought about the best way.

Some cooks insist on adding sugar to the water, sometimes along with lemon juice, while others opt for salt (which I find can make the corn mushy). Several Southerners have written food blogs advocating adding milk and an entire stick of butter to the boiling water for corn that’s ready to eat from the pot.

There are any number of recipes for roasting or grilling corn, which give you hundreds of seasoning combinations to choose. I’ve not had success on the barbecue grill; it’s been tough to master the timing to have the corn cooked without charred bits. I like to wrap the husked cobs in aluminum foil after spreading them with garlic butter and adding a sprinkle of chives, then baking them until tender.

Corn casserole is the one recipe I have tried to make with fresh corn instead of using a Jiffy corn bread mix. It never seems to work as well as the “cheating” version, no matter how carefully I have balanced the moisture level to match a can of creamed corn. I think this is a recipe better suited to the fall, when sweet corn is no longer available at the market and you have to rely on canned.

In the meantime, here are two recipes for salads that will use those beautiful (as well as the less lovely) ears of sweet corn.

Corn Salad

3 ears of sweet corn
1 C quartered cherry tomatoes
1 C diced cucumber
1/3 C diced red onion
3 T olive oil
3 T rice wine vinegar
1/2 C crumbled feta cheese
salt & pepper, to taste
fresh dill for garnish

Husk the corn and boil the ears for about 5 minutes. Drain and when cool enough to handle, strip off the kernels with a sharp knife. Place in a serving bowl along with remaining ingredients. Toss to combine; adjust seasonings. Serve garnished with dill. Yield: 4 servings.

Mexican Corn Salad

4 ears of sweet corn
2 T butter
2 minced garlic cloves
1/2 t salt
1/2 t pepper
1/4 C mayonnaise
1/4 C sour cream
3 T lime juice
1/2 C grated Parmesan cheese
3 sliced green onions
1/4 C diced red onion
1/2 C chopped cilantro
1 t minced jalapeño

Strip the kernels from the corn cobs; set aside. Melt butter in a large skillet over medium high. Add garlic and cook for a few seconds. Add corn kernels and cook until starting to brown, about 5 minutes. Transfer corn to a serving bowl; stir in salt and pepper. Add mayonnaise, sour cream, lime juice and Parmesan cheese. Toss well to allow the heat to melt the dressing mixture into a creamy sauce. Add remaining ingredients and toss to combine. Serve warm or at room temperature. Yield: 8 servings.


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