Corn
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Corn (Zea mays) is the third largest human crop in the world, after Wheat and Rice.  It’s a main source of nourishment for millions of people, especially in Latin America, Asia and Africa.

Only in America is Corn called Corn.  It is known as Maize in most of the rest of the world, and even “Indian Corn” in some areas.  The name Maize is derived from mahiz, a Taíno word (Taíno is the native language of Haiti and the Dominican Republic).  The word “corn” comes from the ancient word for “kernel” or “small seed” in a number of languages (“korn” in Old Saxon, “coren” in Middle Dutch and “kurnam” in Proto-German). 

In England, “corn” originally meant any kind of grain, including salt, which is how they arrived at the name Corned Beef.   Corn is a term for Wheat in England, Oats in Scotland and Ireland and Rye in Germany (“Korn”).  Americans originally called the plant Indian Corn, but in the early 1800s they dropped the “Indian” adjective and it became simply Corn.

Though Corn is often eaten as a starchy Vegetable and is usually included in the vegetable sections of cookbooks, it’s actually a Grain.  (See SK’s Resource on Types of Grains.)  Corn is a member of the Poaceae family, whose members are also called true grasses.  The family includes Wheat, Rice, Barley, Millet and Bamboo and its grasses were indispensable to many early Indian civilizations.  They provided food for humans and their livestock as well as building materials for shelter. If you would like to know more about The History of Corn follow the link.

It’s astounding how much Corn has made its way into our diets.  Every person in America consumes about 25 pounds of Corn every year. Some form of Corn can be found in at least 3,000 common grocery store items, from Peanut Butter to Cereal to Soft Drinks, to the Lecithin used to preserve the Batter coating on Fish Sticks.

Since it was first created in the mid-20th Century, High Fructose Corn Syrup with its ease of assimilation and low sticker price has been used to sweeten thousands of processed foods, including Breads, breakfast bars, candy and processed Juices.  It can even be found in canned Soups and frozen and canned Vegetables.  Corn is the main component in most dry pet food.  Corn is also used in many non-food products like ethanol, paints, candles, fireworks, drywall, sandpaper, crayons, shoe polish, antibiotics, cold medicine and adhesives.

A large percentage of the US Corn crop is raised for feed for foreign and domestic livestock, Poultry and Fish.  In America, cows, chickens, sheep, turkeys, pigs, and fish like Catfish, Talapia and some Salmon are all raised on Corn.  By this reasoning, if we eat Yogurt made of Milk from a corn-fed cow or an Egg from a corn-fed Chicken, we are essentially eating Corn transformed.  As Michael Pollan puts it in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, (the link goes to Amazon) if we have a lunch of Chicken McNuggets and wash it down with a Coke we are essentially having some corn with our corn, and if we top it off with a Ring Ding, we’re having corn for dessert as well.  Pollan states that modern day Mayan people still sometimes call themselves, “the corn people,” or, “corn walking.”  In his opinion, we Americans could easily amend this slightly and call ourselves, “processed corn walking.”

Season

Corn is a summer crop.

Availability

Corn is available all year long.

Cultivation

Corn likes lots of full sun, space (Corn plants should be planted about a foot apart), warmth and fertilizer.  The soil should reach a temperature of 60° F (15.5° C) before Corn is planted.  It is a “heavy feeder,” and some growers fertilize a Corn crop twice before its harvested.  Corn’s roots are shallow and it is susceptible to drought.  It should be watered frequently, preferably around the bottom to avoid getting the stalks too damp.  Corn is an annual plant and needs to be replanted every year. 

Production

Corn has been the largest commercial crop in the U.S. since 2012 and is grown on 88.7 million acres. In our Corn-producing states, an acre of Corn can grow about 30,000 Corn plants.  Somehow we manage each year to have a higher yield of Corn per acre.  In fact, worldwide Corn production has tripled since 1970.  Interestingly, the production increase is a result of genetic modification and the development of better methods and fertilizers, but the increase is also partly due to global warming.  Despite the potentially catastrophic dangers of it, global warming has also brought longer growing seasons, and more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has a positive effect on fertilization.

Farm animals are the biggest consumers of U.S. Corn, gobbling up about 34% of the national crop. Another third of the crop is used to produce ethanol, as a fuel additive. The bulk of the rest of our Corn crop is exported. 

Corn is brought to market as Fresh Corn, Canned Corn, Frozen Corn and made into ground grain, silage and Corn Oil.

Corn Kernels are also processed before being eaten.  Perhaps the first form of Corn processing was a method called nixtamalization developed by early Indian cultures to help remove the hard hulls on Corn Kernels.  The Kernels are cooked in an alkalized water solution (containing such things as ashes, Lime or lye) until the hulls begin to loosen from the kernels and can be rubbed off.  The hulled kernels can then be ground  and used in dough for Tamales or Tortillas (but not to make Corn Chips).  Hominy (not to be confused with Hominy Grits) is Corn Kernels that have been nixtamalized and left whole.  Hominy is most familiar as an traditional ingredient in Posole, a rich Soup made in many areas of Mexico and South America and the American Southwest.  Besides the Hominy, Posole contains a variety of Meats, Chili Peppers and Sweet Peppers, Garlic and Spices, and is served with garnishes like Avocado, Pickled Onions and Cilantro.  Whole Corn Kernels can also be processed to make Corn Nuts, a popular snack food made from giant Corn Kernels that come from Peru. 

Processed Corn that has been dried and ground becomes Cornmeal or Cornstarch.  Cornstarch is Cornmeal that is made from only the endosperm of the Corn Kernel and therefore has a much finer texture than traditional Cornmeal.  Cornstarch is used as a Thickening Agent in place of Flour (as a thickener, but not as a Flour replacement as the main ingredient in baked goods) in Sauces, Soups and Puddings.  The more coarsely ground Cornmeal is used in a wide variety of dishes, including Polenta (boiled Cornmeal), Cornbread (and dishes made of Cornbread like Cornbread Stuffing), Grits (from Hominy), Corn Cakes, Johnny Cakes, Spoonbread, Indian Pudding, and in Cookies, Cakes and Muffins.  Cornmeal is also used as a thickener in some Soup and Chili recipes. 

Varieties

Man has been trying to improve on Corn almost since he began cultivating it.  The first few thousands years of tinkering didn’t bring many improvements.  It wasn’t until Gregor Mendel’s experiments in plant genetics in the 1860s that the necessary science began to be understood. 

It took another 60 years and the work of other geneticists (GH Schull and DF Jones in particular) for Corn hybrids to become viable.  Henry A. Wallace, an Iowan farmer and science buff who was Vice President under FDR as well as holding other federal government offices, developed a highly successful Corn hybrid in the mid-1920s.  In 1935 he launched what became the most successful Corn hybrid seed company in the world, the Hi-Bred Corn Company, today called Pioneer Hi-Bred Corn Company.  As a testament to the success of his company, in 1933, 1% of all farmland in Iowa used hybrid seed.  Ten years later, nearly 100% of Iowa farmland was planted with hybrid seed.

Thousands of Corn hybrids have been developed to improve nearly any Corn characteristic you can think of.  There are hybrids for higher yield, drought resistance, insect and pesticide resistance, sweetness, crispness, delayed conversion of sugars to starches.  Today there is also a lot of skepticism about all this genetic modification.  Some people feel we have overstepped our natural bounds and are creating monster Corn that does us more harm than good.  At the same time, there have been many advances in Corn productivity and quality because of hybridization.  Today we can produce 20% more Corn than we did in 1930, and we are growing that amount on 25% less acreage than was devoted to Corn in 1930.  That is no small feat.

There are five main kinds of corn produced on a large scale.  They are categorized by the amount of Starch in their Endosperm:

  • Popcorn and Flint Corn – Have a high Protein to Starch ratio; small hard Kernels, rather than Waxy.  Popcorn has been around since the early Indian cultures.  It became especially popular as a snack food in America in the 1800s, and then became our favorite movie watching food.
  • Dent Corn/Field Corn – Has a deposit of soft, Waxy Starch at the top crown of the Kernel (giving it a “dent”).  Cornmeal is made by drying and grinding Dent Corn.  Dent Corn can be white, yellow or blue.  Common uses include dishes like Polenta, Grits, Hush Puppies and Spoonbreads.  Dent Corn is also grown as feed for livestock.
  • Flour Corn – Has little Protein, is mainly Waxy Starch; is soft and easily ground into Flour.  What we call Indian Corn today (the kind we decorate with at Thanksgiving) is a multicolored (variegated) form of Flour Corn.
  • Sweet Corn – Has more Sugar than Starch and translucent Kernels; its Sugar begins to turn to Starch as soon as it is picked.  This is the Corn we eat as Corn Kernels or fresh as Corn on the cob.

Because Sweet Corn’s Sugar begins to turn to Starch the moment its removed from its stalk, some people say for it to taste the best you should have a pot of water Boiling on the stove before even heading to the garden to pick it.  Of course we can’t all do that, and as a result, one branch of Corn hybrid science has been focused on slowing Corn’s rapid transformation of Sugar to Starch.  The most recent Sweet Corn hybrids called Super Sweet, SH2 and Sugary Enhanced are specifically developed to address that problem.  The varieties have names like Kandy Korn, Candy Store Corn and How Sweet It Is Corn.  Though their sugar takes days or weeks to become starch instead of hours, many kinds have also lost some of their original corn flavor, and some might even be too sweet tasting.  We tend to like earlier hybrids like Silver Queen Corn, Peaches and Cream Corn, Butter and Sugar Corn and Early Sunglow Corn.  They weren’t necessarily bred for extended Sugar life, but they have retained their full “corny” taste. 

Purchasing

Buy fresh Corn that is still in its husk.  Many people peel back the top of the husks to check the quality of the kernels.  We think you can find good ears without peeling back the husks, which we are sure would make green grocers much happier.  The husk on a good ear of corn will be green and fresh looking.  The bottom of the husk will be pale green with no brown on it, and the Silk sticking out of the top will look thick and lush.  A good ear will be heavy, and by pinching the top end of the husk, you can tell if the husk is full of corn. 

Storage

Once you get your fresh ears of Corn home, wrap the husks in a damp towel and store them in the refrigerator.  Shuck the ears right before cooking. Use fresh corn quickly for the sweetest taste. As noted above, picked Corn rapidly converts its sugar to starches. 

Culinary Uses

Corn’s seed Kernels grow on large ears which are encased in hair-like fibers called Silk.  The Silk-covered ears are in turn surrounded by a covering of thin leaves called Husks. To use fresh Corn, we must Husk it (remove the Husks) and clean up the Silk (it’s not a Good Chew).

Once revealed, an ear of Corn is covered with Kernels, which are its seeds.  (Incidentally, the term “ear” is from an ancient word “ahs” which meant “husk of corn” and has nothing to do with hearing.)  Each Kernel is composed of three main parts, the Germ, the Endosperm and the Pericarp (outer shell or hull).  In Nature’s amazing way, every row of Corn on a particular ear has the same number of Kernels.  Usually the total is about 800 Kernels per ear.

Corn is a wonderfully comforting food.  It’s not a sophisticate and doesn’t aim to impress.  In that most cultured and elegant of cuisines, classical French, we only know of two dishes that include Corn, and even there Corn is only an adjunct to the main event; the French refuse to grant it a place at the main table.

The snooty French aside, Corn is happily eaten almost everywhere else in the world.  Corn and Beans eaten together make a complete (and inexpensive) Protein, so there are many dishes in poor areas and Third World countries which combine the two, including the mix of Corn and Black Beans in many Mexican and South American dishes, and Succotash (Corn and Lima Beans), popular in the American South.

This is not to say Corn can’t be used in more elegant ways.  Today it shows up in high-end dishes as part of a complex Sauce or as an Accompaniment to Fish, Shellfish or Beef and Corn Relish or Corn Salsa are popular choices to add some spark to a bland dish.  But Corn is still happiest as a homebody, and the perfect choice for down-to-earth dishes that warm and satisfy us.  It is excellent in Soups and Chowders, savory Puddings, Soufflés, Custards and Casseroles.  Whole Corn Kernels can be added to Corn Fritters or Corn Cakes.  Corn adds sweetness and texture to Salads and any mélange of vegetables, and is part of the traditional American mix of frozen Mixed Vegetables.

Corn is beautifully neutral and a great support player.  In fact, it may be harder to find foods it doesn’t pair with well than those it does.  Corn goes well with Mexican ingredients and seasonings such as Avocados, Jalapeños (and other Peppers), Cilantro and Lime.  It has a particular affinity for its old friend from the New World, the Tomato, and also enhances Fish and Shellfish, particularly Shrimp and Scallops.

But of course, the best of all Corn dishes, in our opinion, is the simplest.  Whether you’re a round-and-round or typewriter up-and-down-the-rows eater, it just doesn’t get much better than fresh Corn on the Cob, Boiled or Steamed until just tender, then dabbed or rolled in a bit of Butter, sprinkled with a dash of Salt and Pepper.  The taste is the essence of summertime.

As mentioned above in the Varieties Section, because Corn’s Sugars begins to turn to Starch the moment its removed from its stalk, the fresher it is cooked, the better. In fact, some people say for it to taste the best you should have a pot of water Boiling on the stove before even heading to the garden to pick your corn.

And here are some tips for cooking your ears of summer Corn.  Don’t add Salt to the water; it will make the Corn tough. If you add Milk to your water before Boiling, it will enhance the Corns natural sweetness.  Though we love the summer ritual of buttering, salting and peppering an ear of corn, we learned of another interesting option from Craig Claiborne that makes the process a little more convenient.  Craig makes a softened salt and pepper Compound Butter beforehand and then serves it at room temperature in a Ramekin. You can also serve the seasoned butter as a spread, or re-chill it and still roll the ears in the “corn butter” if you like that part of the ritual.

Then there’s the black fungus called Huitlacoche or Cuitlacoche, aka “corn smut” that sometimes appears on Corn during the rainy season in parts of Mexico.  Huitlacoche can destroy 5 to 10% of a Corn crop.  The US has spent years trying to eradicate it from our farmlands.  But in Mexico it is considered a delicacy and sought as avidly as Truffles are in Europe.  It also turns out huitlacoche is loaded with nutrients.  When it can be found, some high-end restaurants in America will offer specialty dishes such as huitlacoche stuffed into Chicken Breasts or huitlacoche Quesadillas.  Some marketers admit it can be a bit of a hard sell.  Its flavor is an “acquired taste,” and its black, sticky, clumpy appearance is a bit off-putting for most diners. 

If you need Corn Kernels for a recipe, of course the best option is fresh Corn Kernels just off the cob, but frozen corn can be substituted in many instances. There is a tool for removing the kernels from their cob called a Corn Scraper, but you can easily remove the kernels with a Chef’s Knife.  If you use a knife, be careful not to cut too close to the cob to avoid cutting off part of the tough cob as well.  After removing the kernels, use the dull side of the knife to scrape down the cob a second time to collect the delicious (and nutritious) corn juice/milk.

A different way to remove the kernels is with a Mandoline.  Set the Mandoline width to 1/4" width and rest it on a plate or in a pie plate to catch the kernels.  Use a Kitchen Towel to hold onto the cob to keep your fingers safe as you scrape the Corn over the sharp blade.

Portion Size

Allow 1 Corn on the Cob per person.

Pairings

Basil, Bay Leaf, Caraway Seed, Chervil, Chili Powder, Chives, Cumin, Curry Powder, Dill, Lovage, Marjoram, Nutmeg, Oregano, Paprika, Rosemary, Saffron, Sage, Salt, Star Anise, Sugar, Tarragon, Thyme, Pepper, Bacon, Beef, Clams, Crab, Chicken, Eggs, Fish, Lobster, Pork, Scallops, Crayfish, Carrots, Celery, Peppers, Cilantro, Fennel, Garlic, Ginger, Leeks, Mushrooms, Onions, Parsley, Potatoes, Scallions, Shallots, Squash, Tomatoes, Butter, Buttermilk, Cheese, Cream, Crème Fraiche, Mascarpone, Milk, Beans, Cornmeal, Polenta, Rice, Oils, Vinegars, Chili Sauce, Honey, Maple Syrup, Mustard, Pesto, Salsa, Salads, Pasta, Stocks, Sauces, Soups

Substitutes

Nutritional Value

Nutritional Value USDA
CORN,SWEET,WHITE,RAW
Amount Per 100g
Calories 86
%Daily Value*
 
1%
Total Fat 1g
0%
Saturated Fat 0g
Polyunsaturated Fat 0g
Monounsaturated Fat 0g
0%
Cholesterol 0mg
0%
Sodium 15mg
5%
Potassium 270mg
6%
Total Carbohydrate 19g
8%
Dietary Fiber 2g
Sugars 3g
Protein 3g
* Percent Daily Values are based on a 2,000 calorie diet. Your Daily Values may be higher or lower depending on your calorie needs.
Nutrition

Corn contains some smaller amounts of vitamins, most notably niacin, Vitamin B-6 and Vitamin A. Beans and Corn eaten together provide a Complete Protein, which makes them a highly valuable combination for vegetarians, who sometimes have difficulty getting enough complete proteins in their diets. 

Some of the dangers of the overconsumption of processed Corn products are recognized, but the scientific community is more than cautious in its conclusions.  According to the FDA, the link between high consumption of High Fructose Corn Syrup (aka HFCS) and obesity has not been clearly established, and not surprisingly, any connection between the high rate of obesity and HFCS is downplayed by producers of processed foods.  For more on this subject, see our Resource on High Fructose Corn Syrup

Gluten Free

Yes

Low Fat

Yes

Low Calorie

Yes