Sinking your teeth into a cob of just-picked-and-immediately-steamed sweetcorn is one of the soaring high points of the growing season. But there’s more to corn than just sweetcorn.
It’s not out of the ordinary to count over 50 different corn varieties in the average American seed catalogue, including some truly startling head turners: cobs of pearlescent creams, near-black kernels, and eye-poppingly marbled varieties with golds, reds and purples all on the same cob! Then there’s their wide range of uses: sweetcorn for eating fresh, corns for drying and grinding into cornmeal or corn flour, corn for popping, and decorative types to add a little visual cheer.
So, let’s peel aside the husks and peer a little closer into the wonderful world of corn.
Sweet types are the result of a mutation of the standard field corn and are harvested while the kernels are still immature, which technically makes sweet corn a vegetable, not a grain.
You can tell if sweetcorn is ready to pick with the fingernail test. Peel back just enough of the husk to expose a few of the plump kernels, then sink a nail into one of them. If it exudes a watery liquid it’s not quite ready, but if the liquid is milky then the cob is good to go. Enjoy sweetcorn as fresh as you can, but freeze gluts off the cob before they turn too starchy.
There are many, many varieties of sweetcorn, with hybrid types are usually bred to max out natural sugar levels – ideal if yours is a sweet tooth!
Corn for Popping
Popcorn types have kernels containing a higher moisture content, which turns to steam when heated. As the steam builds up, so does the pressure, until the hull tears open, enabling the kernel to explode to up to 50 times its original size. Pretty amazing, right?
Popcorn isn’t the preserve of modern movie goers. In fact, they’ve been popping corn in what is today Mexico for at least 5,000 years! Pop this corn onto your seed shopping list and keep this long tradition alive. It’s great fun for younger members of the household – heat whole cobs in the microwave for spectacular-looking popcorn on the cob.
British gardeners can choose from a few popcorn varieties such as ‘Fiesta’ and the rounded and ruby-red cobs of ‘Strawberry Popcorn’. You’ll have more choice if you are growing in a warmer climate.
Corn for Grinding
Golden yellow cornmeal is made by grinding up certain types of dried corn. Cornmeal is often sold as polenta here in the UK, but strictly speaking polenta is a porridge made of boiled cornmeal. The American version of polenta is grits, a popular dish in the South that’s cooked the same way, only using hominy, a pale type of corn, in place of the standard yellow corn.
Cornmeal flour is also the base ingredient to corn chips, tortillas, taco shells and cornbread. Most corn is grown in order to dry and process in some way.
Dent corn is the most common type of corn used for cornmeal, so called for the small but noticeable ‘dents’ at the top of each kernel. Flint corns are super hard – hence the name – and come in a range of colours, making them very popular to use as decorations, though they can also be popped for snacking. And then there’s flour corn, grown in drier regions to grind to even finer texture to give corn flour, which can be used in place of wheat flour.
Options are limited here in the UK, but one variety that seems to be available just about everywhere is ‘Painted Mountain’ corn, a type of flint corn that is both reliably early and exceptionally ornamental, with burgundy red stems and multicoloured cobs in reds, yellows, creams and purples. Grow it for decoration, to roast, or to dry and grind into a delicious and nutritious cornmeal or flour.
Finally, a word on drying corncobs in the damp and dreariness often accompanying the tail end of summer… par for the course for British gardeners! Bring your cobs indoors to finish drying. Peel back the husks to expose the kernels then tie them up out of the way of direct sunshine in a warm, dry, well-ventilated place. You could also dry cobs on racks. Once they are completely dry, detach the kernels from the cob (rubbing two dried cobs together helps dislodge them) and store in an airtight container.
Have you grown corn for drying or popping and, if so, what did you grow? I’d love to know, so please leave a comment below.