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Sweet Corn

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What is it?

Certain things just taste like summer, and corn on the cob is one of them. Popular kitchen wisdom used to dictate that the way to cook corn on the cob was to set a large pot of water to boil, run out to the garden, pick the corn, shuck it on the way into the house, and plunge it, post haste, into the boiling water.

The food science behind that conventional wisdom being that corn starts converting its sugars into starches immediately after it’s picked. But thanks to modern hybrid corn varieties like Supersweet and Sugar-Enhanced, which lose their sweetness over days as opposed to minutes, those of us without our own corn patch can still enjoy sweet corn.

There are four types of sweet corn: standard sweet, sugar-enhanced, supersweet, and synergistic. You won’t see these agricultural terms used at grocery stores or even at farmers’ markets, but they help to explain the differences among them in terms of sweetness, tenderness, and how well they store.

If you really want to know what type of corn you’re buying, ask the farmer. Just be prepared to try something new each time. The corn variety you saw on your last visit is probably not the same one you’re going to find on your next. In general, the more sugary varieties of corn take longer to grow and appear later at the market.

Standard sweet
Common varieties include Butter and Sugar, with white and yellow kernels, and Silver Queen, with white kernels. This type of corn has a traditional corn flavor and texture, although sweetness varies among varieties. Its sugars are quicker to convert to starch, so it doesn’t keep long after harvest.

Delectable, Kandy Korn, and Seneca Dancer are three popular varieties. Known for having a more tender texture than the standard type, sugar-enhanced corn is widely popular. Its degree of sweetness changes with the variety, but the conversion of sugar to starch is slower than that of standard sweet corn, so it holds up better.

Varieties include Sun & Stars and Xtra-Sweet. The most sugary of all, this type of corn has less true corn flavor and a firmer, almost crunchy texture, because the skin on the kernels is tougher. It holds its sweetness longer than any other type of corn, which is why you’ll often see it in supermarkets, where the corn isn’t typically freshly picked.

A popular variety is Serendipity. This type has both the tenderness of sugar-enhanced corn and the more pronounced sweetness of supersweet. It requires more time to mature than sugar-enhanced corn and can be watery if harvested too soon.

Kitchen math:

1 large ear yields about 1 cup of kernels.

How to choose:

Farmers’ markets and roadside stands are your best bet for finding fresh and delicious corn. Look for plump, green ears that have fresh-looking cuts at their stems and slightly sticky brown silk at the top. If the supermarket is your only option, you’ll have to adopt a more hands-on approach: pull back the husks and inspect the kernels. They should be firm and shiny. When buying corn, there’s only one absolute rule: never buy shucked corn. This trick hides the evidence of old corn: dried cuts on the stems, lackluster husks, and wilting silk. Don’t be fooled.

How to prep:

When you get your corn home, don’t shuck it until you’re ready to use it.

The simplest method for cooking corn is to plunge it in rapidly boiling water for no more than two minutes. The water should be unsalted, as salted water tends to make the kernels tough.

cutting corn off the cob:

How to cut corn off the cobRemoving corn kernels from the cob can be messy—they like to bounce off the cutting board and end up scattered all over the counter and floor. To keep those kernels in their place, insert the tip of the ear of corn into the center hole of a Bundt pan. Cut the kernels away from the cob in long downward strokes, letting them fall into the pan.

How to store:

If you’re not going to cook your corn the day you buy it, stow the ears in the refrigerator, loosely wrapped in a dry plastic bag.

Here’s a simple way to preserve the sweetness of fresh corn and to keep corn kernels on hand for tossing into salads, side dishes, sautés, or other weeknight dishes. Cut the kernels off the cobs and blanch them in boiling water for 1 or 2 minutes. Drain, let cool, and store in a covered container in the fridge for up to five days. Or freeze the kernels in a single layer on a baking sheet until hard, and then store in an airtight container in the freezer, where they’ll keep for up to three months.


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