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Dharma Kitchen


Sweet Corn Do's and Don'ts

Sara Bir


Ladies and Gentlemen, thanks for stopping by. As the Dharma Kitchen is closed for vacation, I've invited my good friend, Sara Bir, for a guest post about corn. 

Fresh sweet corn is the ne plus ultra of summer produce. Tomatoes bruise and squish more easily, but it is the deceptively delicate sweet corn that demands special treatment.

My husband and I just returned from a trip to our former home, Portland, Oregon, and while there, we gnawed on sorry specimens of truck farm sweet corn at several cookouts. I discovered anew the tragic West Coast void of corn literacy. The folks out there just don’t get it. Probably even Alice Waters doesn’t truly get sweet corn. We live in the Mid-Ohio Valley, where Midwest bleeds into Appalachia, so we really get it. Whether you live with one toe in the Ohio River or one in the Pacific Ocean, here’s a handy crash course in sweet corn literacy.

DO make an entire meal of sweet corn. Even grizzled meat-lovers understand that sweet corn is the centerpiece of dinner, and anything else is just auxiliary.

DO aim to buy sweet corn the day you plan to prepare and serve it.

DON’T buy sweet corn that was not harvested in the very recent past. Corn is a living thing, and every minute it spends separated from the stalk it grew on, its precious sugars convert to starches. Tender, juicy corn becomes more akin to cow feed the longer it spends in transit.

NEVER buy sweet corn from the grocery store. Just don’t.

DO buy sweet corn from people you trust: farmers. Podunk farms stands are ideal. Ask when they corn was picked and they’ll tell you right up front. They likely will tell you before you even ask. The answer you want is “this was picked a few hours ago.” My dad has been known to drive half an hour out of the way in search of the freshest sweet corn.


DON’T remove the husk from the corn until you prepare it. The husk makes a protective shield around the corn—it is nature’s plastic wrap!—and helps your corn stay sweet and plump.

DO eat corn every single day, if you are so inclined. Is there a more perfect food? It’s a vegetable and starch in one handy package, with tons of fiber to boot. Those tiny rows of plump kernels, each bursting with sweet juices and pure corn flavor, are so very satisfying to crunch into. Some work across the cob as they munch (“typewriter keys,” my mom calls it), some work in spiral fashion. I go willy-nilly, perhaps because I get overexcited.

DO try eating sweet corn naked (the corn, not you.) Good corn needs no butter. No salt, no pepper, no nothin’. I happily eat my corn unadorned. Grab three ears of corn, a pile of green beans, and a stack of ripe tomato slices, and you have the ideal summer meal.

DO prepare sweet corn as follows, if you have a grill. This method keeps the kitchen from getting too hot and utilizes the corn husk as a nature-made disposable steaming device. It also facilitates some light caramelization on scattered corn kernels, but not enough to overpower the pure character of the corn itself. Count on 3 ears per person; you can always cut the kernels off of leftover ears and freeze them for later, during those 10.75 dreary, sweet-corn-less months of the year.

Take the corn home. Go outside and have a big bucket nearby. Strip the very outer husks off of the corn, but keep most of the inner husks on there. Then pull out as much of the silk as you can. Soak the corn in water for at least half an hour (that’s what the bucket is for).

Light the grill. Medium-ish heat is good. If you have a big mess of corn, you’ll fill the entire grill, in which case the heat should be somewhat higher. Arrange the corn on the grill and close the lid. Every now and then, pop over to the grill to turn the corn. After half an hour or so, peek in one of the ears (be careful of steam!) If you are my dad, there’s probably something unrelated to corn that you need to argue with my mom about, so do this now.

My dad wears big leather work gloves for the next step: remove the husks from the cooked ears of corn (your compost pile will be so happy!) The corn will be very hot, and the leather gloves allow maximum protection with maximum mobility. Put the ears of corn in some kind of covered container. Call the family to the table (a picnic table, or perhaps you are lucky enough to have a screened-in porch with a patio dining set) and make sure you provide salt, pepper, butter, and whatever else for those who choose to pollute their corn as they eat it. Also have an empty plate or platter on the table where people can set the stripped ears of corn as they finish. It is very important to continue offering your guests ears of corn, just as a good server or bartender notices a drink a few sips away from emptying and asks if you’d like another. Don’t let anyone leave the table until they have consumed at least two ears of corn. Probably there’s a peach or berry pie or cobbler for dessert, but you can always tell yourself that your third ear of corn is dessert.

Sara Bir is the food editor of Paste Magazine. Her website is