Fresh corn: how to pick, store and cook

June 16, 2021
Elotes (Grilled Mexican street corn) using fresh corn.
Source: Getty Images.

Corn’s around the corner. Here are tips for pickin’, storin’, and cookin’ fresh corn.

  • Pick up each ear of fresh corn you’re hankering after; it should feel hefty. Run your fingers down the length of its husk, feeling for any cavities or bulges, either one a sign of damage or spoilage.
  • There’s no need to peel back any of the husks, even near the tip. It truly is unnecessary and, besides, you ruin the ear for any subsequent buyer. Husks should feel moist, hug the ear, and be dark green (unless someone’s already peeled away the outer husk). You don’t want to buy those anyway. Silks should be tan or golden; any slimy dark brown or black silks are bad.
  • Final fret check: Gently feel with your fingertips around the silked end. The kernels should be plump and firm very close to or all the way to the tippy top.
  • Fresh corn is always best the day that you pick (or buy) it. You may store it for a couple of days (up to three) in the coldest portion of the refrigerator, still wrapped in its husks, in plastic bags. A paper towel wrapped around every third ear is a good way to wick away moisture.
Thinking about food and the Fourth

By Bill St. John

The red, white and blue is plenty blue these days. Blue as in “glum”—to be generous. Despite that the worst of the pandemic appears past (for us Americans anyway), we’re certainly a fractured flag. Blue’s a wide hue these days.

Some might say that the only thing we all do in concert is kvetch. Well, we still all wake come morning. We all pass our days; we eat our three squares. Or most of us do.

But do we do any one thing together on any one given day?

Once, not so long ago, on the Fourth of July, Independence Day, our national birthday, all of us watched a parade, saluted the flag, oohed-and-aahed at works on fire in the sky.

But all of us don’t do—or, really, choose not to do—all of that altogether anymore on the Fourth of July.

Yet one thing that we all did on past Independence Days we’ll still do, every one of us (for the great majority).

We’ll eat.

We’ll eat fresh corn, we’ll eat burgers, we’ll eat brats. And potato salad, and cornbread, and ‘q, and always a lot of whatever we’ll eat.

On the Fourth, we eat in the late morning because it is a day off, or in the early afternoon because it’s a picnic, or we eat before the night yawns to a close because that’s the best time to savor the day’s labor spent or spared.

This year, most of us will eat together again, demasked. We’ll sit at tables outside if the weather is lucky, or in screened-off porches, if it is not. We’ll sit with Gran and Pa and Mom and Dad. We’ll sit with our children.

We did much the same last year on the fourth Thursday in November when we gave thanks for that same red, white and blue. But even then, manuals helped manage family shoals should one have been more or less red than blue, or the reverse, or neither.

But July 4 somehow declares independence from that worry and, so it seems, all worries that beset us.

Because all of us, we just get excited to take a break and sit down and eat. Together.

We do not eat alone. Or blue. Worth remembering, that.

To grill: Pull back husks just enough to remove the silk, then reposition husks. (Alternatively, you may leave silks intact; they easily slide off after cooking.) Soak the ears in cool water for 20 minutes, then place on a hot grill. Cover, grill for 15-20 minutes, turning the ears every 5 minutes or so.

Of course, you may grill ears of fresh corn “naked,” or stripped of their silk and husks. Just be careful of burning the fresh and tender kernels, unless that kind of char is what you’re after anyway. Timing? Your eyes will tell you what’s up and when.

To microwave: This is a surprisingly effective way to cook fresh 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 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.

To boil: Husk ears and remove silks. Trim if you see fit. Boil in rapidly boiling, salted water (no milk or sugar necessary) for 2-3 minutes for crisp kernels, up to 6 minutes for softer kernels.

To roast: Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Roast ears with husks and silks intact for 20-25 minutes, depending on thickness. If ears are husked, with silks removed, wrap in aluminum foil and roast for the same amount of time.

Elotes (Grilled Mexican street corn)

One rounded teaspoon of the popular chile-lime seasoning called Tajín may substitute for the combination of both the chile powder and the lime juice. Makes 4.

Ingredients

4 ears fresh corn, shucked

1/4 cup mayonnaise

1/4 cup sour cream or Mexican crema

Juice of 1/2 lime

1 teaspoon ancho or guajillo chili powder, plus more for serving

1/3 cup cilantro leaves and tender stems, finely chopped

1/2 cup Cotija or queso fresco cheese, crumbled

Directions

In a large, wide bowl, mix together the mayonnaise, sour cream or crema, lime juice, chile powder and cilantro. Set aside.

Get more great tips and recipes from Bill St. John.

Grill the fresh corn cobs over medium-high heat, turning, until well browned on all sides, 8-10 minutes, perhaps more. With tongs, slather cobs all over with the flavored mayonnaise mixture and serve topped with the crumbled cheese and more chile powder (or chile sauce) to taste.

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 sidewalk.com. 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.

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