Corn recipes: microwave corn on the cob & bake polenta

Aug. 29, 2023
A surprisingly effective way to prepare and cook corn on the cob is in the microwave. Photo by Bill St. John, for UCHealth.
A surprisingly effective way to prepare and cook corn on the cob is in the microwave. Photo by Bill St. John, for UCHealth.

Of all the fruits and vegetables that we grow, cook and eat, none is as much a result of our human hands as is corn. To say it another way, corn as we know it simply would not exist were it not for thousands of years of human industry.

Unlike the apple, say, or the bean or the potato, corn just did not “happen,” or even evolve on its own.

Sometime between 9,500 and 10,000 years ago — that’s older than Harvard! — the people living in present-day south-central Mexico took the tallish wild grass called teosinte (pronounced tay-oh-SEEN-tay) and began to work with it so that it would produce less aggressively stony seeds (as well as, over time, more of them on its thin stalks). Teosinte’s scant seeds were rather nutritious, but it took a lot of grinding to make them so.

Scientists and archeologists estimate that it took something like 300 generations of farmers (or close to 6,000 years) to select, train and encourage teosinte into the corn we continue to grow today. Over those years, the size of teosinte’s cigarette butt-sized “ears” (or what we now call “cobs”) became 60 times larger, the grains or kernels themselves 80% plumper, and the number of grains per cob increased by 300%.

Get tips on how to pick, store and cook fresh corn.

We treat corn as a vegetable, whereas botanically, it is both a fruit and a grain and, as a grain, the most widely planted on the planet. What we call “corn,” most of the rest of the world calls “maize,” from its Latin name, Zea mays. “Zea” means “seed-like grain;” “mays” is the Taino word for “giver of life.” (The Taino, a Caribbean people, were those whom Christopher Columbus first encountered in this hemisphere, on the island of Hispaniola, what is now both Haiti and the Dominican Republic. From the Taino, he took the first maize back to Europe in 1493.)

Indeed, of all the plants Columbus took from what came to be called “The New World” to the Old — the potato, tomato, cacao pod, avocado, the squash, turkey and chile pepper, to name merely a handful of dozens — it is maize that has had the greatest impact on the global diet, both for good and ill.

About 4,000 years ago, these same ancient Mesoamerican farmers developed ways of “inter-growing” corn, squash and beans for the same season and in the same space and — Holy Amino Acid! — they had a complete diet. Likewise, 3,500 years ago, they discovered that boiling their maize in an alkaline aqueous solution both released the skin from the kernel and made available increased nutrition from within it.

That process is called “nixtamalization,” from the Nahuatl words for ash (“nextlí) and ground corn (“tamallí). The Mesoamericans cooked corn this way 1,500 years before the birth of Jesus.

These indigenous peoples of the Americas were gifted with neither modern science nor advanced agriculture, but, somehow, they figured out how to maximalize almost everything good about corn many thousands of years ago — long, long before farmers or nutritionists in the modern era gained similar insights.

That is their great story.

Polenta: Baking breathes new life into this corn recipe

Certain recipes are “supposed” to be cooked in one certain way only — which is why we often don’t make them, the “supposing” having become a nuisance.

Corn polenta (what some call yellow “grits”) is like that. Its catechism includes the admonition that “Thou shalt stir the polenta constantly.”

This quasi-religious ritual comes to us romanticized after countless cooking school vacations in Italy. How could you ever not constantly stir your polenta after a dimple-elbowed Mamma turns out hers from a copper pot as old as Garibaldi, onto a mammoth dark wood table under a pergola at her farm in Emilia-Romagna?

It’s easy; turn the page on the prayer book. That Mamma is one myth; other Mammas exist who also are worthy of worship. I found my polenta Mamma by reading one, from Piedmont, who bakes her polenta in her oven, and remembering another Mamma (this one a Tuscan) who taught me how best to cook dried beans — by baking, not boiling them.

And leaving them be, for hours if necessary. The discipline was good for my soul, not merely my mouth.

Polenta is one of Italy’s marvelous “canvas” foods (such as risotto or those Tuscan beans), onto which cooks can paint both sweet and savory flavors and multiple other textures, in the instance of polenta in both its warm (runny) and cooler (hardened) showings.

Which is better? Waves of piping hot yellow, on a pretty plate, studded with chunks of cheese or nobs of butter? Or slivers of firm polenta, fried crisp in olive oil or clarified butter and topped with a spiced ragu, honey, or homemade summer’s-end jam?

It’s a choice never easy to make.

But in the first place, why all the stovetop stirring? Because, apart from its bone fide service in mythmaking, unless vigorously stirred, the grits of cornmeal form niggling lumps in the heating polenta. But they do this only as the grits become warm.

It was to prevent the water at the top of the pot from becoming tepid (and therefore instigating lumps) that the cook was instructed to “constantly stir,” in order to bring the hotter bottom water to the surface and thereby to even out the temperature of the polenta as a whole.

Placing the pot in an oven surrounds it with a uniform, unvarying temperature. When the temperature is constant, the stirring need not be.

In the corn recipe here, the time it takes to finish the polenta depends on the type of cornmeal you use. Coarser, stone-milled grits take upwards of two hours, from start of cooking to finish; finer, softer grits (such as those from white corn, a form of corn difficult to avoid making pasty, so I avoid them) take about an hour.

Also, buy good grits such as those from Anson Mills or Bob’s Red Mill. They are more costly than run-of-the-mill cornmeal — but just — and well worth the selection if you want terrific corn aroma and taste.

Oven-cooked Soft Polenta recipe

Serves anywhere from 10 or more, depending on toppings or final preparation.


2 cups coarse-milled yellow cornmeal grits

10 cups of filtered water

1 tablespoon kosher salt 


Before preparing the polenta, to a large oven-ready pot or Dutch oven, add all the ingredients, stirring well to combine the salt into the mix. Skim any chaff that floats up, using a tea strainer or a fine-meshed spider.

Cover the pot (optional) and let the cornmeal soak at room temperature overnight or for at least 8 hours.

Heat the oven to 375 degrees. Place the pot on the stove over medium-high heat and give the mix several very healthy whisks. Bring the polenta just to a simmer, whisking well a couple of times and using a wooden spoon to distribute anything that settles at or sticks to the bottom or along the sides or corner edges of the pot.

Place the pot in the oven, uncovered (very important), and let it bake undisturbed for 1 hour.

After the hour, take up the pot and whisk the polenta heartily (including the skin that may form on top), also giving it a turn or two with the wooden spoon. Put back into the oven, uncovered, for another 30 minutes.

Now, you merely need to take the polenta out to see if the grits are cooked through sufficiently to your liking. Honor an al dente smattering.

If the polenta is too runny for you, or the grits need another 15-20 minutes, give it any more necessary time in the oven and a finishing whisking.

Serve very warm with whatever flavorings you like (or none at all, if you want mere corn awesomeness): pats of butter, chunks of cheese, tomato sauce, herbs or spices—or honey, maple syrup, or agave syrup and anything cinnamon-y if eating earlier in the day or for dessert. Flavoring possibilities are legion.

Cool leftover polenta (or make a whole batch for this purpose) on a flat, parchment paper-lined baking sheet until cool enough to place in the refrigerator. When cold, cut into whatever shapes (“fingers,” squares, punched-out rounds) that you later will fry, bake, or grill and then flavor accordingly.

Blue-and-Gold Breakfast Cornbread is a mildly sweet, delicious alternative to pancakes or waffles. Photo by Bill St. John, for UCHealth.
Blue-and-Gold Breakfast Cornbread is a mildly sweet, delicious alternative to pancakes or waffles. Photo by Bill St. John, for UCHealth.

Blue-and-gold breakfast cornbread recipe

Adapted from; serves 12. Served with a dollop of yogurt, sweet butter, honey or a river of maple syrup, this mildly sweet cornbread is an unexpectedly delicious alternative to pancakes or waffles. Seek out blue cornmeal online or in well-stocked specialty markets.


2 cups buttermilk

1 1/2 cups blue cornmeal

1/2 cup all-purpose flour

1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 teaspoon salt

2 eggs

1/4 cup butter, melted

2 tablespoons pure maple syrup, plus more for serving

1 cup fresh (or cooked) sweet corn kernels, cut from cobs or thawed if frozen

1 tablespoon butter

Plain whole milk Greek-style yogurt


Position a rack in the middle of the oven. Place a 10-inch cast-iron skillet on oven rack. Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

In a large bowl, stir together buttermilk and cornmeal. In a medium bowl, whisk together flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt.
In a small bowl, whisk together eggs, melted butter and the 2 tablespoons of maple syrup.

Add egg mixture to cornmeal mixture; whisk to combine. Whisk in the flour mixture just until combined. Gently fold corn kernels into batter.

Carefully remove the hot skillet from the oven. Add 1 tablespoon of butter to the skillet and tilt the skillet to coat the bottom and sides as butter melts. Pour batter into hot skillet. Place skillet in oven.

Bake until edges of cornbread are golden brown and pull away from sides of skillet, 25-30 minutes. Set aside until skillet is cool enough to handle. Cut cornbread into wedges and serve topped with a dollop of yogurt, sweet butter, honey or a river of maple syrup.

Microwave-cooked Corn on the Cob

This is a surprisingly effective way to cook corn on the cob. Let the ears out of the refrigerator for 30 minutes, if that’s where they’re coming from so that they can shake off most of their cold. Leave the husks and silks intact. If necessary, remove some of the stem ends so that all ears can spin their do-si-do on the turntable without striking any side of the microwave.

Zap on high for 3-4 minutes per ear, depending on thickness; for example, three ears for 9-12 minutes. Cook up to 3 ears at a time, laid side by side. When done, cut off an inch from the stem end. With a kitchen towel or several sheets of paper toweling, grip the ear at the tapered, silked end and squeeze and pull. Both the husks and silks will slide right off.

Reach Bill St. John at [email protected]

About the author

For more than 40 years, Bill St. John’s specialties have been as varied as they are cultured. He writes and teaches about restaurants, wine, food & wine, the history of the cuisines of several countries (France, Italy, Spain, Belgium, and the USA), about religion and its nexus with food, culture, history, or philosophy, and on books, travel, food writing, op-ed, and language.

Bill has lent (and lends) his subject matter expertise to such outlets as The Rocky Mountain News, The Denver Post, The Chicago Tribune, 5280 Magazine, and for various entities such as food markets, wine shops, schools & hospitals, and, for its brief life, Microsoft’s In 2001 he was nominated for a James Beard Award in Journalism for his 12 years of writing for Wine & Spirits Magazine.

Bill's experience also includes teaching at Regis University and the University of Chicago and in classrooms of his own devising; working as on-air talent with Denver's KCNC-TV, where he scripted and presented a travel & lifestyle program called "Wine at 45"; a one-week stint as a Trappist monk; and offering his shoulder as a headrest for Julia Child for 20 minutes.

Bill has also visited 54 countries, 42 of the United States, and all 10 Canadian provinces.