All About Corn: Picking, Storing and Cooking Corn

Here's everything you need to know about America's favorite vegetable: corn.

Some vegetables actually ripen and improve in flavor after being picked. Not corn. Corn always tastes best freshly plucked from the stalk.

Corn's never as sweet and delicious as it is during those first precious hours off the stalk. That's because, once picked, the sugars in corn immediately begin to break down and turn to starch. That's why roadside farm stands usually have the best corn. And why corn is tastiest when eaten within about 8 hours of picking.

How to Pick Fresh Corn

Fresh corn is at its peak from May through September.

1. Look for ears that have some heft for their size.

Good weight can mean the center hasn't been eaten away by bugs or fungus.

2. Look for moist, bright green husks clutching tightly to the ear and healthy (not dry) silk protruding at the top.

3. Look for plump kernels.

To check out the condition of the kernels, don't yank down the husks -- it dries out the corn and leaves it susceptible to fungus (and annoys the grocer or farmer); instead, feel around the silk end to make sure the kernels are plump and healthy all the way to the tip.

How to Store Fresh Corn on the Cob

Yes, fresh corn is always best eaten the same day you buy it. But it will stay tasty for a couple days, stored in their husks in plastic bags. Pack them loosely, though, to allow a little air to circulate.

How to Cook Corn on the Cob

Corn cooks quickly. Here are four great ways to cook it on the cob.

How to Grill Corn on the Cob

First, pull back the husks and remove the silk, then return the husks to cover the kernels. Soak the ears in water for about 30 minutes before placing the corn on the hot grill. Close the lid, and grill for about 20 minutes, turning the corn every 5 minutes or so. It's done when the kernels are tender and give slightly when pierced with a knife.

Recipe: Grilled Corn on the Cob

Grilled Corn on the Cob_Photo by Molly
Photo by Molly.

How to Microwave Corn on the Cob

It doesn't get easier than this. Leave the corn in its husk, and cook it on high for 3 minutes. Take it out of the microwave and cut off the bottom inch of the corn; with a kitchen towel, grip the corn at the tapered end and pull, the silks and husk slips right off!

Recipe: Microwaving Corn on the Cob

Here's Chef John, husking his nuked corn like a boss:

Image by Chef John.

How to Boil Corn on the Cob

Boiled corn (husked, with the silk removed) cooks in just 2 to 3 minutes in salted, boiling water, giving you nice crisp kernels. For softer kernels, you can let it go a few minutes longer. Steamed corn takes about 10 minutes.

Recipe: Jamie's Sweet and Easy Corn on the Cob

Jamie's Sweet and Easy Corn on the Cob
Photo by Rae.

How to Bake Corn on the Cob

To roast corn, put the ears in their husks in a 450 degrees F (230 degrees C) oven for about 20 minutes. You can also husk the corn and wrap the cobs up in foil.

Recipe: Baking Corn on the Cob

Oven Roasted Parmesan Corn on the Cob

How to Remove Kernels From the Cob

To remove the kernels, run a sharp knife down along the cob (it might be easier to cut the cob in half first), taking the kernels off in rows, being careful not to cut into the cob. Special tools -- "corn zippers" -- can also do the job. One cob of corn will yield about 1/2 cup of kernels.

How To Freeze Your Own Fresh Corn on the Cob

Load up on corn when it's at its peak freshness, then freeze it in plastic bags for those cold, corn-free days of winter. It's easy.

  1. First husk the corn and remove the silks.
  2. Blanch the corn for about 10 minutes in boiling water. Then quickly shock it in ice water.
  3. When cool, cut the kernels from the cobs, and fill up plastic freezer-safe zipper bags, removing as much air as possible.

Is Corn Healthy?

Corn is a good source of insoluble fiber, which helps feed the good bacteria in the gut. It's also a source of vitamin C, folate, magnesium, potassium, and more. Calorie-wise, an ear of corn has no more calories than an apple...and less sugar.

Cooking corn can actually increase its nutritional value by unlocking antioxidants. Of course, as with other veggies, preparation methods make the difference; a perfectly healthy ear of corn can be rendered not-so-healthy when slathered with butter and heaped with salt.

But most criticism of corn concerns its heavily processed forms. High-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) and sweetened, highly refined cereals and salty snacks, for example, are not healthy foods.

Is Fresh Corn Healthier Than Frozen or Canned Corn?

Not necessarily. Corn is typically canned or frozen right at the farm at peak freshness. Frozen corn is blanched and flash-frozen without much loss of nutrients.

In fact, if your fresh corn moseyed from farm to store and then from store to table over the course of a week or so, the frozen corn is likely more nutrient-dense than the "fresh." Certainly when corn is out of season, frozen or canned corn are terrific options.

Pro Tip: Instead of boiling your frozen corn, consider steaming, sautéing, or microwaving it, which holds on to more water-soluble vitamins.

Corn's Flavor Companions

Grown to be sweet and tender, fresh corn is a tremendous flavor-pairing partner. Its original flavor companions remain some of the best: chile peppers, beans, and tomatoes.

To this list, we can add butter, cheese, limes, cream, and fresh herbs. Corn complements soups, stews, salsas, salads, breads, pancakes, and puddings.

Children of the Corn

So versatile, corn is perhaps the New World's most generous crop. When treated with lye, which removes the skin around the kernels, corn becomes hominy. Dried and ground, hominy becomes grits. Cornmeal is coarsely ground corn, which is used in polenta. Cornstarch, a more finely ground meal, thickens sauces, stews and gravies. And corn flour, or masa, is made into tortillas, chips and taco shells.

Dave's Spicy Hominy
Photo by bd.weld.

History of Corn: An A-Maize-ing Story

We think of corn as a vegetable. But the corn plant (zea mays) is actually a grass; the kernels on the cob, grains. In fact, corn gets its name from an English word for grain -- for any grain, actually, even salt grains (which explains "corned beef").

The stunning success of zea mays in early colonial America so overshadowed other grains that it quickly became known by this all-inclusive English term for grain -- corn -- as though it were the only grain in the world.

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