September 14, 2005


Reinventing the cob: Corn is sweeter than ever, but how to recapture its true flavor? A few cooking tricks make all the difference (Russ Parsons, September 14, 2005, LA Times)

THE taste of corn isn't what it used to be, people complain. And you know what? They're right. There's one very good reason for that — corn isn't the same plant it used to be.

Modern corn, for all its faults, is the result of thousands of years of painstaking genetic selection. And therein lies a very important lesson: In agriculture, as in life, you have to be careful what you wish for.

New varieties of corn, bred to have higher levels of sugar and to preserve that sweetness longer, have flooded the market in the last 15 years. Today they're about the only types of corn you'll find.

These brave new cobs are definitely sweeter than the old varieties, but they also tend to be a little tougher and somewhat lacking in that ephemeral "corny" flavor.

Early in the season, we are willing to overlook these shortcomings, so overjoyed are we by the sheer presence of corn at all. But by this time of year, when that sweet honeymoon feeling has worn off, we start to get a little restive. Still, it is way too early to give up on corn. Southern California farmers will be harvesting it for at least two more months and possibly even until Thanksgiving.

Instead, you need to use a few tricks. Granted, the appeal of plain old corn on the cob, simply buttered and generously salted, may not be what it was two months ago. Now you have to get a little creative in your cooking, picking good partners for corn and looking at those kernels in a whole new way. You might even have to throw out some old notions about how to cook corn. But that's getting a little ahead of the story. What happened to corn in the first place? [...]

What we think of as corn flavor — as opposed to sweetness and texture — appears only after cooking; it's based primarily on aroma. It is mainly a function of a chemical compound called dimethyl sulfide (which is also found in a wide range of foodstuffs, ranging from cabbage to lobster meat). The new varieties of corn are lower than traditional varieties in the chemicals that create dimethyl sulfide.

There is hope for people who miss real corn flavor. In the last couple of years, varieties have been introduced with complicated genetics that offer the best characteristics of the old and new types. The goal is an ear of corn with the sweetness and slow sugar-to-starch conversion of the new corn, but with the creaminess and strong corn flavor of the old.

The seeds for these varieties are more expensive, so the farmer has to charge more. For this reason, they have been slow to catch on so far. Craig Underwood, who runs his family's popular farm stand in Somis, says he has tried these varieties. "I did like the flavor. It was really sweet corn," he says. "But people weren't willing to pay the extra money for it."

In any case, when you're at the farm stand or produce market shopping for corn, odds are you won't have a clue about the particular genetic strain you're buying. At best, you'll be offered a choice of yellow or white — or bicolor, a cross-pollinated combination of the two.

The differences are meaningless in terms of flavor. Despite what you may have been told, one color of corn is not necessarily sweeter or "cornier" than the other. The small amount of beta-carotene pigment that gives yellow corn its color is flavorless, and the new varieties all come in both white and yellow.

Really, the choice of color is just packaging; the one you prefer will to a great extent be based on where you live. Different areas of the country prefer different colors of corn. Generally speaking, white corn is preferred from the mid-Atlantic region through the South, bicolor is popular in the Northeast, and yellow rules most everywhere else.

Posted by Orrin Judd at September 14, 2005 12:00 AM

Good article. Burst a kernel of a modern hybrid and all you get is sugar water. Your only real hope of getting that old fashioned corn flavor is to grow old fashioned varieties in your own backyard garden.

Yet another argument against the inhumanity of city life - need a lot of room to grow corn.

Posted by: Rick T. at September 14, 2005 9:27 AM

We've taken to roasting our corn on the grill, rather than boiling it. It improves both the texture and the taste. The problem is that, especially on a grill, cooking times are hard to predict and the corn can easily get scorched. On our grill, a husked cob, wrapped in tin foil, should roast for about 12 minutes.

Posted by: David Cohen at September 14, 2005 11:14 AM

Here's some additional advise from a corn fan: take Cohen's roasted corn, but instead of butter and salt, serve it with a wedge of lime and chili powder. Squirt the kernels generously with lime juice and then sprinkle on the powder to taste. The acid and spice bring both highlight and balance the sweetness in the corn and seem to bring out the ellusive "corn" flavor.

Posted by: Foos at September 14, 2005 11:23 AM

Back in college I knew an anthro grad student who spent a few summers digging at the Kahokia mounds in Missouri. He said you could tell when maize cultivation got going by the number of cavities in the teeth he uncovered.

Hybrid corn is just worse, but my oh my is it tasty.

Posted by: Ed Bush at September 14, 2005 12:33 PM

Don't husk it.

Posted by: oj at September 14, 2005 12:40 PM

Here in NH the corn I've had this year, much of it imported out of our season, has been outstanding.

David, try soaking the ears with the husk on in saltwater and roast them on the grill with some of the husk on. Best with seawater.

Posted by: Genecis at September 14, 2005 12:42 PM

I tried roasting it in the husk after soaking it, but I haven't been able to avoid scorching the husk, which, um, diminishes the pleasure.

Posted by: David Cohen at September 14, 2005 2:12 PM

Try eating it cold after cooking it.

Posted by: Robert Schwartz [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 14, 2005 2:58 PM

And don't eat the husks--they're supposed to scorch.

Posted by: oj at September 14, 2005 3:08 PM

The key to good corn on the cob is freshness, measured in minutes, between the time it is harvested and the time you start eating it. When my family grew it, we pulled the ears off the stalk and shucked them immediately before Mom cooked it. If you prepped the corn even an hour earlier, it just didn't taste as sweet and fresh.

Only years afterwards, after I'd pretty much forgotten what truly fresh corn tasted like, could I stand to eat store-bought "fresh" corn again.

Posted by: PapayaSF at September 14, 2005 4:22 PM

Try serving it this way.

Posted by: joe shropshire at September 14, 2005 8:02 PM