How to pick, store, clean and cook peak summer corn

Becky Krystal

THE WASHINGTON POST – Corn is one of summer’s simplest pleasures. That being said, it generates plenty of debate – how to pick it, how to clean it, how to cook it and how to eat it. I would wager to say that there aren’t many wrong answers to any of those questions – it’s more about what you prefer – but if you’re looking for a few tips to perfect your corn game, read on.

Picking. Given the current shopping restrictions at farmers markets and pandemic-related etiquette in grocery stores, there will likely not be as much flexibility in terms of picking your preferred ears of corn. Handling and even peeling back the husk on lots of ears was never ideal – even in normal times.

It’s still useful to keep a few things in mind. Chef, farmer and author Abra Berens said the husks should be closer to bright green, with perhaps a bit of yellowing near the tip of the cob. She also suggested looking at the silks. They naturally wither after pollination, but the drier they are toward the corn, the longer it has been off the stalk. Like a melon, an ear of corn should feel heavy for its size, which indicates it is juicy.

You may also be able to spot corn worm holes, and even if one decided to have a snack, you can often just cut off that end of the ear. “People seem to really freak out about corn worms,” said Berens, author of Ruffage: A Practical Guide to Vegetables. “They’re not going to hurt you.” I’m glad I kept that in mind when I found a giant one after cooking an ear this week, because after quickly hacking off the sketchy end, the corn was still delicious.

Berens said you shouldn’t be put off by dented or not fully formed kernels either, as those are more indicative of a pollination fluke (each silk is attached to a particular kernel). It may not be the perfect bite, although the rest of the corn should be fine. As far as colours go, white, yellow and bicolour are interchangeable in flavour.

Corn and Sausage Tacos. PHOTOS: THE WASHINGTON POST
Summer corn

Storing. Berens typically stores her corn at room temperature, as that’s how it’s most often displayed at the supermarket. “They do so much research on how to store stuff,” she said. Refrigerating is an option, especially for longer shelf life. Cook’s Illustrated notes that cool temperatures slow the conversion of sugar to starch (modern sweet corn has been bred to keep this slower, too), and the moist air of the fridge keeps the corn from drying out. It recommended stashing corn in the husk in a wet paper bag inside a plastic grocery bag when refrigerating.

Another option, recommended to me by Jeffrey Brecht, professor of horticultural sciences at the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences: Sprinkle the corn with ice and store it in a plastic bag, getting rid of the water after the ice melts and replenishing it every so often. He said removing the husk first prevents the leaves from drawing moisture out of the corn.

Prepping. When I have to shuck corn, I don’t feel the need to do anything fancy. I peel back the husk and the silk all the way, gather them into a bundle and snap the stalk and everything else off together. Voila. Maybe there are a few stray silks, but they’re easily dealt with (or ignored). A vegetable brush and running water can help.

Cook’s Illustrated offers another strategy: Cut off the first few inches of the ear, just a few rows above the stalk, and microwave on high for 30 to 60 minutes. Hold the corn by the uncut end, shake and let the cob fall out. When you need to remove the kernels, take the advice of some of your fellow readers and put the narrow end of the cob into the centre of a Bundt pan, which will catch them as they fall. If you end up with a lot of silks in the kernels, transfer the cobs to a bowl. Fill a separate bowl with water and then dip your hand in it. Run your hand over the kernels in a circle, allowing the silks to stick to your hand. Dip your hand back in the water to rinse it off. Repeat as needed.

There are ways to get even more out of your corn, too. You can save the silks, husk and stripped cobs to make this Corn Broth.

You also can “milk” a stripped cob with the back of a knife (I prefer a smaller paring knife to reduce the likelihood of mishaps) to remove the flavourful starchy liquid that’s waiting to be used in soup, risotto and even ice cream or custard.

Cooking. I couldn’t have said it better than food writer and recipe developer Ali Slagle, who shared a tantalising recipe for Corn and Sausage Tacos. “The best method for cooking corn on the cob is a deeply personal matter best left to debate with relatives.”

My favourite method is probably the easiest, at least for my current lifestyle. That would be microwaving the ears, husks and all. The kernels steam inside the husk, coming out plump, juicy and flavourful. It is easy to experiment: Less time for closer to raw, more time for cooked through. My sweet spot is about four minutes for one ear, eight minutes for two and nine minutes for three.

Berens said her go-to method is boiling, which she does for about seven minutes. Another option she suggests is letting corn sit in just-boiled water without the heat, as you might for poached chicken or boiled eggs. This keeps the corn from overcooking. As to salting the water? Cook’s Illustrated recommends against it, finding that salt toughens the kernels.

Grilling is another popular method, and you have plenty of options – without husk, with husk, smoked and in foil (with or without ice cubes). Check out the full rundown here.

Of course, completely raw corn is a beautiful thing, too.

Corn and Sausage Tacos

Spicy fresh sausage provides the savoury backdrop to sweet, caramelised corn. This from-the-skillet meal can also be done in a hot oven: Cook the kernels and sausage together on a sheet pan until the sausage is browned. Either way, the corn will be draped in the intensely seasoned sausage fat and will need only something creamy, such as avocado or sour cream, and a hit of acid from a lime wedge to complete the taco.

Servings: four to six

Storage Notes: Refrigerate the meat and corn in an airtight container for up to three days.

INGREDIENTS

Two tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil or a neutral cooking oil, such as canola

One pound fresh sausage, casings removed if necessary

Four cups fresh or frozen corn kernels

Three scallions, thinly sliced, white and green parts separated

Kosher salt or fine sea salt

Freshly ground black pepper

Eight to 12 six-inch corn tortillas, toasted

Sliced avocado, for serving

Sour cream, for serving

Lime wedges, for serving

DIRECTIONS

In a large cast-iron skillet or Dutch oven over medium-high heat, heat the oil until shimmering. Add the sausage and cook, stirring and breaking it up with your spoon, until browned, five to eight minutes. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the sausage to a plate, leaving the fat behind.

Add the corn kernels and scallion whites to the skillet. Season to taste with salt and pepper and cook, undisturbed, until browned and starting to pop, four to six minutes. Stir and cook until the kernels are shiny and brightly coloured, about one minute. Return the sausage to the skillet and stir to combine. Remove from the heat. Spoon some filling onto a tortilla, then repeat to fill the rest of the tortillas.

Serve with the scallion greens, avocado or sour cream, and lime wedges for squeezing.

NOTE: To toast the tortillas, place them in a hot, dry skillet (cast iron is good) over medium to medium-high heat, or directly over the burner on about medium-low if you have a gas stove. Let the tortillas darken and even char in spots.

Nurtition: Calories: 550; Total Fat: 36g; Saturated Fat: 12g; Cholesterol: 67mg; Sodium: 994mg; Carbohydrates: 34g; Dietary Fibre: 4g; Sugars: 6g; Protein: 23g.