Corn 101: How to Choose, Store, and Cook Fresh Ears
The building block behind bourbon, corn flour, cornmeal, corn syrup, and tortillas is such a huge part of our national culture that the Southern Foodways Alliance, which celebrates Southern culinary culture, dedicated a whole symposium to corn.
And no wonder: It’s as complicated as it is delicious. We reached out to Jessica Battilana, author of the cookbook Corn, to find out any tricks she had up her sleeve when it came to selecting, buying, and preparing it.
Generally speaking, because sweet corn converts its sugar into starch once you pick it, it’s important to eat corn as soon after picking it as possible (although Battilana might quibble that thanks to “advances in corn breeding,” that’s often not quite as crucial). Look for ears with bright green, snug husks and golden-brown silk, and buy directly from the farmer when you can. Battilana suggests looking for ears with tassels that are “a little damp—not slimy—which can be an indicator that it’s not all dried out.” She likes to pull down the silk to look at the first few rows of kernels, using her thumbnail to see if she can get a sort of milky juice to spray out when she punctures a kernel. If she can, she’s optimistic.
And don’t be afraid if you spy what Battilana calls “an unwelcome little resident.” Corn earworms are very common, particularly in organic corn, so peel down the husk and silk even further to see what sort of damage, if any, your little friend has caused. And buy an extra ear just in case you get an ear that’s less spotted with kernels.
There are a lot of stories out there about how quickly folks like to get their corn home to a vat of boiling water—my biology teacher told us to do this because of the aforementioned sugar conversion—but you can simply keep corn at room temperature if you’re going to cook it a few hours later. And if you’re eating it the next day, you can certainly, refrigerate it; Battilana likes the crisper for this purpose.
How to cook it? The sky’s the limit. You can dunk it in salted water, boiling or simmering until tender. You can grill it. You can bake it. And yes, the Bundt pan hack you’ve read about does work to get those kernels off, if you want to toss them into a raw corn salad with tomatoes and herbs. Sauté them in butter with shallots for a warm side dish, or spin sautéed kernels with coconut milk (another Battilana recipe from her book). There are a ton of options out there (ahem, bacon).
If you’re grilling corn, there are a few camps; Battilana simply leaves the husks on, brushed with canola oil, and grills directly on the coals. (She doesn’t soak, nor does she pull the silk out beforehand, but to each her own!)
One of Battilana’s favorite recipes, a riff on Mexican street corn inspired by Italian flavors, is below.
Cacio e Pepe Corn
- ¼ cup grated Pecorino Romano cheese
- ¼ cup grated Parmesan cheese
- 1 ½ teaspoons coarsely ground black pepper
- 4 ears corn, shucked
- 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
In a small bowl, stir together the Pecorino, Parmesan and black pepper, then spread the mixture in a thin layer on a rimmed baking sheet. Bring a large pot of water to a boil over high heat. Add the corn and boil for 5 to 6 minutes. Drain the corn, rub the ears all over with the butter, then roll each ear in the cheese mixture, pressing lightly so it adheres. Serve immediately.