In late August, the Midwest weather just starts to shift from the summer humidity to a more temperate, tolerable fall. The skies are still clear and blue, and the corn is tall, green, and ready to harvest. This part of the county is often referred to as the “corn belt,” highlighting America’s connection with this classic golden grain.
The rolling green fields, towering stalks, and bountiful harvests are undeniably all-American. Not only did corn originate in the Americas, but the United States currently produces nearly 100 million tons of corn, more than any other country worldwide. Although 90% of this corn is set aside for a wide-range of non-culinary uses, like ethanol (for fuel), livestock feed, paper, cardboard, toothpaste, crayons, glue, and surgical dressings, the 1% of corn that does make its way into our food has seemingly endless culinary uses. More than 4,000 grocery store items contain corn in some form or another.
In honor of “corn season,” the harvesting months from August to October, let’s dive deep into how corn uplifts the culinary industry in general, and how it can help your food establishment in particular.
Corn in its Many Forms
Corn may be one of the most versatile ingredients in the culinary world today. Food products contain corn in many, many forms, including:
- Sweet corn
- Corn starch
- Corn syrup
- Masa Harina
- Blue corn and rainbow corn
- Corn oil
- Corn silk
- Corn whiskey
- Baby corn
This golden-yellow summer staple was first cultivated by Iroquois Native American tribes. Although fresh, fire-roasted corn-on-the-cob is typically thought of as a summer food, sweet corn is also a key ingredient in a number of fall and Thanksgiving staples. Creamed corn is a delicious way to prepare fresh, frozen, or canned sweet corn. This comfort food dish is quick, cheap, and easy to make, so it’s a perfect addition to a fall menu. Like a typical Southern dish, creamed corn requires lots of butter. Saute the corn in butter in a medium saucepan. Add heavy cream and season to taste. You can choose to make the creamed corn savory, sweet, or spicy, but typical seasonings include salt, pepper, sugar, cayenne, and nutmeg. Next, whisk together flour and milk and pour it into the pan. Stir the mixture until it thickens.
Creamed corn is pretty versatile. You can serve it alongside fruit salad, corn bread or a pasta dish. Or, you can further perfect your creamed corn by using it as the base in corn casserole or even corn ice cream!
Another popular sweet corn dish – one of my favorites – to enjoy on cold autumn evenings, is corn chowder. Rich, hearty chowder tastes best when made with fresh corn kernels stripped off the cob. As a bonus, you can boil the cobs in a saucepan and use them as a base for a broth.
Mexican Street Corn
If you like your corn on the cob, Mexican street corn is a really popular way of preparing this sweet, yellow treat. It’s not surprising that Mexicans have some of the best ways of preparing corn. Corn originated as a staple and sacred dish in Central America, where the ancient peoples of Mexico domesticated it from a meager, near-inedible, slender, green grass called teosinte. The word for corn in Nahuatl, an ancient Central American language is tlaolli, which means “our sustenance,” attesting to the central role this dish played.
Although in the United States, Mexican street corn is probably most associated with summer and food trucks, the Mexican holiday Dia de los Muertos or “Day of the Dead,” in early November, is a great opportunity to experiment with all sorts of Mexican-themed corn recipes. To make grilled Mexican street corn, also called elote, heat your grill to 400 degrees. Next, prepare a sauce with crema (a Mexican cheese that is similar to sour cream), mayonnaise, cilantro, garlic, spicy pepper, and lime. Grill the corn until golden brown, top with the sauce and crumbled cojita cheese, and serve hot off the grill. As a street food, Mexican street corn is a great addition to a pop-up restaurant or food truck.
Elote is Mexican street corn served on the cob. Esquites is the Mexican-street-corn “salad” served off-the-cob, stripped, and in a bowl. Instead of grilling esquites, the de-cobbed sweet kernels are carmelized slowly in a hot wok or large skillet and then charred, before being mixed with the crema sauce and cojita cheese.
Zea mays everta, better known by its colloquial, non-scientific name, popcorn is the only corn variety capable of popping. The science behind its “pop” is that these corn varieties contain a hard hull, or shell, and a soft, starchy inside. They also contain a moisture content of about 15%. When placed in a microwave or in a popcorn machine, the moisture becomes steam. The steam can’t escape the hard hull, so the pressure builds, and builds, up to an astounding 135 pounds per square inch of pressure. At that point, the hull bursts and the kernel literally explodes inside out. Despite its “explosive” habits, popcorn is a healthy, complex carbohydrate with only 31 calories in a cup.
There are so many ways to spice up a bowl of popcorn. It can be drizzled with oil or butter, melted with chocolate, caramelized with sugar, or made savory and sprinkled with salt, chili, or cheese. There are many seasonal halloween popcorn recipes perfect for fall. And while it’s not the most traditional restaurant fare, in 2015 high-end restaurant popcorn dishes became a trend, with chefs experimenting with popcorn glazed meat, popcorn flavored sauces, and even popcorn ice cream.
The same white, starchy inside of the kernel (called the endosperm) that pops out to make crunchy popcorn is used to make cornstarch. Cornstarch is often used to thicken sauces and gravies and to coat fried foods, but, because it’s gluten-free, it’s sometimes used in baking as well.
Cornstarch can thicken mixtures twice as effectively as flour can. To use it as a sauce base without creating clumps and lumps, start by making a slurry. To make a slurry, first mix the cornstarch with an equal amount of water until it is smooth, and then pour that slurry into the sauce base you are making. An interesting fact about cornstarch is that it also has its fair share of non-food uses. People use cornstarch to remove stains and control odors.
Corn syrup is also made from the starchy part of the corn. Nowadays, a special enzyme breaks down the starch for food chemists and converts it to sugar in a reaction called hydrolysis. Corn syrup is used to sweeten and thicken foods. It also acts as a preservative and unlike sugar, doesn’t become grainy or hard when cold, so it’s a fairly popular additive in many commercial food products. High-fructose corn syrup is the sweetener of choice for brand-name foods like Coca-Cola, Oreos, Heinz Ketchup, and even Ritz Crackers, and is notoriously linked to a number of health conditions like diabetes, fatty liver, and high cholesterol.
In at-home, or in-restaurant cooking, the non high-fructose variety is called Karo syrup and is a cheap and tasty sweetener that chefs can use to make candies and baked goods. Karo has 120 calories – all from sugar – in a two-tablespoon serving. You can find Karo syrup at any big box retailer or online at Amazon or Walmart.
Cornmeal is a coarse corn-flour product often seen in Southern cooking. Nothing says fall more than buttery cornbread or corn muffins, popular dishes on Thanksgiving tables. To make cornbread, a buttery, all-American staple, pre-heat a cast-iron skillet in a 425-degree oven. In a bowl, whisk together cornmeal, flour, sugar, salt, baking powder, baking soda and then mix in the wet ingredients – milk, buttermilk, eggs, and butter.
Reduce the oven to 375 degrees, remove the skillet, coat the sizzling skillet with butter and pour in the batter. Return to the oven and bake the cornbread for 25 minutes.
Grits are somewhat similar to cornmeal in that they are made from coarsely-ground corn, however grits still contain the corn’s hull. That makes them both coarser and a healthy whole grain. Grits have a neutral flavor and are often prepared as a porridge or polenta and served alongside a variety of dishes.
Masa Harina is a corn product made from dehydrated corn dough. Mix this gluten-free, flour-like mixture with water, and you have ready-to-go tortillas. All you need to do is press the dough in a tortilla press and cook it, and you are ready for a delicious Mexican-themed party.
Not only are tortillas used in delicious Mexican recipes in modern times, this corn-based flatbread has a 10,000 year old history. It’s been the staple bread for Central and South American native tribes for thousands of years and plays a major role in Central American culture.
Fresh corn tortillas are a popular addition to any menu because they are gluten-free, whole-grain, and high in fiber. Corn tortillas can be offered as a healthy or gluten-free substitute for hamburger and hot dog buns, pizza bases, and many other menu items. Baked corn tortillas make for delicious chips and croutons. Plus they have a homey, rich, slightly-sweet taste.
Blue corn is a trending, health-food product that’s also used to make tortillas. Blue corn, and it’s close cousin rainbow corn, grows in brilliant shades on the cornstalk, and is a separate variety of corn from its sweet or popped cousins. Most health food stores, and online retailers stock blue-corn masa harina for making blue-corn tortillas. Blue corn has gained popularity recently because of its numerous health benefits. It has a lower glycemic index and more protein than yellow corn masa harina. Additionally, blue corn contains antioxidants that may offer protection against diseases.
Not only can blue corn tortillas be used as a healthful alternative to bread on a restaurant menu, but blue corn flour (also found in health-food stores) makes for a gluten-free, tasty base for corn muffins and cornbread. And blue corn chips are a popular snack food.
Corn’s health benefits go beyond blue corn, low-calorie popcorn, and gluten-free cornstarch. Corn oil is another product made from corn treated with hexane, a chemical that leaches the some-4% of fat found in corn. The oil extracted is then refined to prevent it from solidifying at cold temperatures. In industrial settings corn oil is used as lubricant and cleaner. It’s also found in cosmetic products.
However, corn oil has its culinary uses as well. Because it has a high smoke point, it’s ideal for deep frying foods without burning them. In addition to the fat content, corn oil also contains healthful elements like vitamin E and anti-inflammatory compounds called phytosterols. Corn oil can be found at most grocery stores in the cooking oil aisle, most famously under the brand Mazola.
When you husk sweet corn, the yellow fruit is wrapped in a green, leafy layer. Underneath are white, silky fibers that surround the cob. Alternative medicine practitioners tout the health benefits of corn silk and vitamin and supplement stores often stock it in pill form. But corn silk can also be consumed in more pure forms. First, dehydrate the strands until they are crispy and then place them in a blender to make a mildly-flavored powder for use in salads and smoothies. Alternatively, boil the silk and then strain it out of the water for a corn silk tea. The jury is still out on whether there are health risks to overdosing on corn silk, so for now always consume, and serve, in moderation.
During the Prohibition era, corn was a popular moonshine ingredient. But even now, during the modern, legal alcohol era, corn whiskey is still considered an American classic. This spirit is a true testament to the versatility of corn that even crosses over to the beverage sector. Distillers use corn mash to create a smooth, slightly sweet whiskey that has become a staple in bars and homes across the country.
Corn whiskey is often made using a mash that contains at least 80% corn, which gives it its distinctive flavor. Some famous corn whiskeys include bourbon, which is primarily made from corn, and Tennessee whiskey like Jack Daniel’s, which also has a significant corn content.
If you’re looking to create a unique fall cocktail menu at your restaurant, consider incorporating corn whiskey into your drink recipes. Classic cocktails like the Old Fashioned or a Whiskey Sour can be given a twist with the addition of this flavorful spirit.
Baby corn is perhaps one of the most intriguing forms of corn, and it’s a delightful addition to many Asian dishes. These miniature corn cobs are harvested before they fully mature, making them tender and sweet. Baby corn is a popular ingredient in stir-fries, salads, and appetizers.
Incorporating Corn into Your Culinary Creations
As you can see, corn comes in various forms and can be used in countless dishes. Whether you run a restaurant, food truck, or catering business, the late-summer, early-fall corn season is a great time of the year to pay homage to this multi-use grain.
Consider offering corn-themed specials during these seasonally transitional months to take full advantage of the freshest corn available. Corn in its many forms, makes a welcome addition to Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Dia de los Muertos idishes. Additionally you can market these dishes by highlighting corn’s nutritional benefits and gluten-free and plant-based status.
Corn is not just a symbol of American agriculture; it’s also a versatile and delicious ingredient that can find its way into nearly every food on the market. Whether it’s preparing comfort food classics like creamed corn and cornbread, looking for trendy nutritional opportunities with blue corn, or experimenting with Mexican street corn and other global dishes, corn offers endless culinary opportunities.