The taste of corn isn’t what it used to be, people complain. And you know what? They’re right. There’s one very good reason for that -- corn isn’t the same plant it used to be.
Modern corn, for all its faults, is the result of thousands of years of painstaking genetic selection. And therein lies a very important lesson: In agriculture, as in life, you have to be careful what you wish for.
New varieties of corn, bred to have higher levels of sugar and to preserve that sweetness longer, have flooded the market in the last 15 years. Today they’re about the only types of corn you’ll find.
These brave new cobs are definitely sweeter than the old varieties, but they also tend to be a little tougher and somewhat lacking in that ephemeral “corny” flavor.
Early in the season, we are willing to overlook these shortcomings, so overjoyed are we by the sheer presence of corn at all. But by this time of year, when that sweet honeymoon feeling has worn off, we start to get a little restive. Still, it is way too early to give up on corn. Southern California farmers will be harvesting it for at least two more months and possibly even until Thanksgiving.
Instead, you need to use a few tricks. Granted, the appeal of plain old corn on the cob, simply buttered and generously salted, may not be what it was two months ago. Now you have to get a little creative in your cooking, picking good partners for corn and looking at those kernels in a whole new way. You might even have to throw out some old notions about how to cook corn. But that’s getting a little ahead of the story. What happened to corn in the first place?
A complicated history
Corn is a grain, but one that we eat at an immature stage. If left on the stalk to full maturity, the kernels would become as hard as wheat and almost as full of starch. In fact, this is the state in which most of the corn that is grown in America is harvested -- those varieties are not intended for eating but for processing in a whole range of industrial applications, including sweeteners, textiles, automobile fuels and feed for cattle.
The kinds of corn we eat are picked within a month of pollination. In agriculture, these are called “sweet” corn, to differentiate them from field corn. Because of their immaturity, they also have been called “green” corn (hence green corn tamales, which are made with the addition of sweet corn rather than purely from masa, or ground dried corn).
Almost every type of sweet corn grown today has been developed by man for a certain set of characteristics. This is not an example of Frankenfood genetic tinkering -- modern corn isn’t a genetically modified organism, or GMO. It has been going on for centuries. The ur-corn, teosinte, had cobs 2 to 3 inches long that contained half a dozen hard, starchy kernels.
The new super-sweet corns are the result of traditional plant breeding spurred by naturally occurring genetic mutations. Think of it in terms of basketball players: In the general population, the occurrence of extremely tall humans is rare. But if two extremely tall people should find each other, fall in love and have children, the odds that their offspring will be extremely tall are, well, pretty short.
And so it is with corn. Once breeders started working with a few “freak” corn plants that produced ears with very sweet kernels, it was just a matter of breeding and crossbreeding a few dozen generations to get where we are today.
But genetics is as complicated as a jigsaw puzzle, and it’s hard to alter one factor without changing another. In the case of corn, increasing the sugar content has meant a decline in that amorphous quality called “corn flavor.” It also means kernels that are no longer creamy but crunchy.
The textural difference is easy to explain: The kernels are so full of sugar that there’s not as much room for moisture. And to hold it all in, the skins are tougher.
Flavor is a little harder to explain. What we think of as corn flavor -- as opposed to sweetness and texture -- appears only after cooking; it’s based primarily on aroma. It is mainly a function of a chemical compound called dimethyl sulfide (which is also found in a wide range of foodstuffs, ranging from cabbage to lobster meat). The new varieties of corn are lower than traditional varieties in the chemicals that create dimethyl sulfide.
There is hope for people who miss real corn flavor. In the last couple of years, varieties have been introduced with complicated genetics that offer the best characteristics of the old and new types. The goal is an ear of corn with the sweetness and slow sugar-to-starch conversion of the new corn, but with the creaminess and strong corn flavor of the old.
The seeds for these varieties are more expensive, so the farmer has to charge more. For this reason, they have been slow to catch on so far. Craig Underwood, who runs his family’s popular farm stand in Somis, says he has tried these varieties. “I did like the flavor. It was really sweet corn,” he says. “But people weren’t willing to pay the extra money for it.”
In any case, when you’re at the farm stand or produce market shopping for corn, odds are you won’t have a clue about the particular genetic strain you’re buying. At best, you’ll be offered a choice of yellow or white -- or bicolor, a cross-pollinated combination of the two.
The differences are meaningless in terms of flavor. Despite what you may have been told, one color of corn is not necessarily sweeter or “cornier” than the other. The small amount of beta-carotene pigment that gives yellow corn its color is flavorless, and the new varieties all come in both white and yellow.
Really, the choice of color is just packaging; the one you prefer will to a great extent be based on where you live. Different areas of the country prefer different colors of corn. Generally speaking, white corn is preferred from the mid-Atlantic region through the South, bicolor is popular in the Northeast, and yellow rules most everywhere else.
In Southern California, white corn has come to dominate to the point that today, yellow and bicolor can be extremely hard to find. Color preferences in Southern California have done an about-face in the last 15 years, switching from yellow to white in response to what farmers say was overwhelming demand.
Tom Tapia, of the Tapia Brothers farm stand in the San Fernando Valley, still grows some yellow corn, but it is an early variety, available only in July. “After that, it’s all white,” he says. “Back in the day, when they were first coming out with super-sweet varieties, we could only get white ones. So when people tasted that, they were like, ‘Wow, that’s really good.’ Today we can get yellow corn that is just as sweet, but people just have in their head that white is better.”
Steve Tamai, of growers-market favorite Tamai Farms, says he has experienced the same reversal in customer preference. “We used to grow all yellow, and now we grow all white and a little bicolor,” he says. “The market changed. Before, we couldn’t give white corn away. As soon as the super-sweets came up, white corn really took off.”
The rules have changed
How do you get the best flavor out of these new super-sweet varieties? Remember that corn flavor (as opposed to sweetness) develops with heat, so the first rule is to be sure to cook them thoroughly, but without overcooking. This runs counter to the traditional wisdom of undercooking corn -- that was when the problem was preserving sugar rather than keeping corn flavor. Older varieties that were higher in dimethyl sulfide precursors gave you a greater margin of error. Undercook modern varieties and you’ll end up with something simple as candy. (There is, of course, an upper limit to this -- keep tasting the corn to see when it’s ready, and if you see the kernels starting to dimple, stop cooking immediately.)
If you want traditional corn on the cob, put the ears in a pot just big enough to hold them and cover with cold water. Bring the water to a boil and cook the corn for a few minutes. The kernels will darken slightly. Pull the corn from the pot and let it cool a bit.
There are also ways to reinforce the natural corn flavor. Soak corn still in its husks in water, then grill it. The green-flavored steam from the husks will give the cob a boost. You can then eat the corn either on the cob (try using a flavored butter -- cream the butter with some chipotle puree, or even just lime zest, then shape it in a log and chill it), or use it in combination with other ingredients, such as mixed with spicy arugula, sweet tomatoes and nutty Parmigiano-Reggiano in a late-summer salad.
Another way to bolster the flavor of sweet corn is by pairing it with another type of corn -- such as masa, or plain cornmeal. San Francisco chef Jeremiah Tower’s great corn blini can be transformed by adding kernels of sweet corn and some minced peppers. He served them as a mild foil for smoked sturgeon and caviar. These new blini are so rich-tasting that you can simply smear them with a little Mexican sour cream and some fresh cilantro.
On the other hand, you can play up the sweetness and crisp texture of the new corn while downplaying its lack of deep corn flavor. Combine corn with lots of complementary ingredients. Make a “risotto” with corn kernels and liven it up with chorizo, green onions, red bell peppers, zucchini, shrimp and fresh basil.
It’s a pretty safe bet no one’s going to complain, “You know, I just don’t think this corn tastes like it used to.”