How to Choose Corn on the Cob


Corn on the cob is one of summer’s joys. Growing up in the Midwest, my family and I would spend our summers at a lake in Indiana. The farmers near the lake grew delicious sweet corn in the sandy soil. I remember coming in off the lake towards the end of the day, getting in the car with my mom, and heading to a nearby farm stand to pick up corn for dinner. Delicious!

The variety we bought in those days, whose taste I remember fondly, is Silver Queen. It’s a white corn that produces delicious, crisp kernels. I can recall the sound and feel, the popping crunch on my tongue, of the firm, crisp kernels.

Silver Queen is the oldest type of sweet corn, categorized as a standard (su), and it’s more sugary. The problem with older varieties is that they loose their sweetness rapidly. Within 24 hours of picking, approximately 80 percent of the sugar in the standard varieties has converted to starch. The traditional wisdom for cooking corn was to put the water on to boil and then go into the field and pick the corn to drop in the pot. Today, your best chance of tasting Silver Queen or some of the other standard varieties is to grow some yourself or get some from another home gardener.

The more modern and common corn varieties you’ll find for sale at farm markets or grocers today are either sugar enhanced (se), or supersweet (sh2). What is lost with the switch to these varieties is taste and texture. These varieties have more sugar and less corn flavor as do the older, su types. But what is gained with these varieties is shelf life. Se varieties contain a larger amount of sugar versus starch and can last two to four days refrigerated before cooking.  The sh2 varieties have four to 10 times the sugar content of the su varieties and will last up to 10 days refrigerated.

When choosing corn, look for ears that are bright green and slightly damp, with the husk tight to the ear. The tassels, or silk, protruding out to the top of the ear should be brown and sticky. Dark, black, or dry tassels means the corn is old. It has been too long from the field. The stalk end should be yellow, not brown.

Checking the size of corn kernals

I always pull back a bit of the husk at the top of the ear to see the size of the kernels. What I’m looking for are young ears, with round but not overcrowded kernels. My dad always said, “You want space between the rows.” I like the texture and taste of the younger ears. They are hard to find in my local market, but worth the effort to my tongue.

A cob of freshly cooked Silver Queen is heaven. Anyone growing some in their garden and willing to share? I’m happy to put the pot on to boil and do the cooking!

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