It’s early August, and everything tastes of summer. The tomatoes. The watermelon. The corn.
Oh, yum, the corn.
Let’s talk about the corn. Perfectly grilled, nearly-too-hot-to-touch, summertime sweet corn, loaded with butter and salt and pepper and tasting of perfection.
Can you tell? I love summer sweet corn.
This recipe is simple. There is only one required ingredient: corn. Optional ingredients include butter and salt and pepper and whatever else you like to dress up your corn on the cob. But, really, this is just corn. It doesn’t get much simpler.
Why grill corn? Three reasons:
First, cooking on the grill keeps the heat out of the house. And, since corn comes into season about the time summer is at its meanest, keeping heat out of the house is a good thing.
Second, grilling gives corn a smokey sweetness that I especially love. Maybe you prefer the pure corn flavor of boiled sweet corn. That’s fine. We’re all welcome to our opinions. For me, it’s grilled corn. Yum.
Finally, third, grilling corn is just easy. You don’t shuck the corn. You don’t worry about the silk. You don’t clean the ears or fuss about a big pan or worry about spilling boiling water between the stove and the sink. Easy. Easy is good. Especially when easy is also tasty.
If we want perfect grilled corn, we need to start with perfect corn. You want the freshest, sweetest, bestest sweet corn you can find. This means, you do not want corn from the grocery store. This is so important that I’m going to repeat it:
You do not want corn from the grocery store.
That corn was picked ages ago, packed on a truck, bounced around on a highway, and delivered to your local Big Name Grocer who knows when. That “fresh” corn may have been picked a week ago, or more.
I’m gonna let you in on a secret: Sweet corn starts losing its “sweet” the moment you pick it.
Best way to get the freshest possible sweet corn is to grow it yourself, protect it from the raccoons and birds and corn ear worms, and pick it moments before cooking it. Really. Some folks actually get their grill hot or their water boiling before they pick their corn. The sooner you get that ear cooking, the sweeter it will be.
No corn patch? Me neither. Not this year, at least.
That’s ok. The second best way to get sweet corn is your local farmers’ market. That corn was probably picked a few hours earlier. Worst case scenario, it may have been harvested the evening before the market. Not days and days ago. And, it probably traveled less than an hour to get to your local market. For the best possible farmers’ market corn, get to your market early, before the corn has a chance to heat up and dry out in the sun and heat. Look for corn that is stored in the shade. And, don’t be afraid to dig deep into the pile. The less the corn is exposed to the heat and sun, the better it will taste. Promise.
So, you’ve found your source of corn. Next, select your ears. Please, don’t just grab the first ears of corn you see. Put some effort into this. You’ll be glad you did.
First, look for size. Girth. You want an ear of corn that has some heft to it.
Next, give that ear a fondle. Don’t be shy. Does it feel firm and full? Can you feel the kernels through the husk? Are there any gaps or valleys? You want an ear of corn that feels full, and round, and doesn’t have any unevenness to it.
Finally, peel back the top of the leaves from where the silk emerges. Don’t peel off the whole husk. That’s just rude. It’s also unnecessary. You just need to expose the first few kernels. What do you see? A little bit of bug damage isn’t bad (this means your corn wasn’t heavily doused with chemicals; a good thing). But, massive destruction suggests the whole ear may be inedible. If the bug damage is bearable or non-existent, it’s time for your final test: poke your thumbnail into a single kernel. What happened? Nothing? Then, this ear of corn isn’t for you. Put it back, and try another. Or, did you get squirted with a milky white fluid? Perfect! That ear of corn is fully developed and well hydrated. Buy it, and lots more like it.
Take your corn home. Pronto. No stopping for other errands. No leaving the corn in the car while you make another quick stop. No. Please. Just go home with your bounty. You’ve worked hard to find the perfect ears of corn. Don’t let that effort go to waste by cooking your corn on the way home.
Once home, you have a decision to make. Will you cook your corn RIGHT NOW? Yes? Fine, let’s get started. But, if your answer is “no,” please put that corn in the fridge until you’re ready to cook it. The cold will help preserve the sugars. The sugars are good. This is sweet corn, after all.
Once you’re ready to cook, fire up that grill.
Unless you’re cooking something else along with the corn, there’s no need to preheat. Just set the grill to roughly medium- or medium-high-heat, and put your corn — unwashed and in its husks — on the grill. Leave a bit of space between each ear of corn. This allows the hot air to swill around, and everything will cook better and faster.
Really. That’s all there is to it. Close the lid. Walk away.
Ten or 15 or 20 minutes later (or, when you remember), revisit the grill. Check on the corn. Using a pair of long-handled tongs, take a peek at the underside of those ears.
Is the husk nicely charred? Maybe even a little burned? Good. That’s what you want. Flip the ears over, close the lid, and walk away.
Repeat once or twice or thrice more, until the entire husk is evenly charred. Corn cooks slowly. Expect to spend 30-45 minutes grilling your corn. Every grill is different, which means your grill might cook faster or slower. Just keep checking on the corn. When in doubt, peel back the husk and see how things look. You want the kernels to look plump but maybe a tiny bit charred. A few totally burned kernels are ok, but are also a sign that you’ve probably cooked that side long enough.
Yes, you will use a lot of gas or charcoal in the process. This is why it’s best to go ahead and grill a lot of corn at once.
[Note: Yes, it is possible to burn / overcook corn on the grill. If this is your first time grilling corn, it's best to err on the side of caution. Set the heat to medium, and set a timer as a reminder to check the corn every ten minutes. Once you've done this a few times, you'll figure it out.]
You’ll know the corn is done when the husk is thoroughly charred, and the silks look completely burnt. Like so:
Unless you’re grilling this corn for some future use, you want to shuck this while it’s still hot.
This takes a certain amount of finesse.
I suggest grabbing a thick kitchen towel. Use the towel to take a firm grip of the base of your corn, and start carefully peeling back the husk. It should come easily. You’ll notice that most of the silk is already gone; burnt away by the grill. Bonus.
Keep husking until you’ve got a mostly-exposed ear of corn. Then, swap your hands. Use the kitchen towel to grab the husked ear of corn, and use your bare hand to pull the rest of the husk from the ear. Give it a twist or two. You should be able to twist the husk and stem right off the ear.
At this point, you can get fancy if you want. Add spices or cheeses or salsas. Go crazy. Lots of fun recipes start with grilled corn, but don’t stop there.
But, you could stop here. Because, grilled corn is wonderful. It is a destination in itself.
Take that ear of freshly-grilled corn and eat it while it’s still nearly too hot to pick up. I like a healthy coating of butter and salt and pepper, but don’t let that limit you. Do what you want. It’s hard to go wrong when eating freshly-grilled summer sweet corn.
This is how summer should taste.
Do you have any favorite summertime recipes for fresh sweet corn? Please share them in the comments section below.