If there were a signature summer dish of my childhood, it was corn on the cob. Sweet, tender and juicy. Is there anything better? My father loved it. Still does, though he doesn’t eat a half-dozen ears in a sitting as he once did.
Back then, on his way from here to there in the old Pontiac station wagon, he would pull over at random roadside stands at the slightest hint of corn for sale and, inevitably, bargain for a better price (“At least throw in a couple more ears,” he would say, to our chagrin and the farmer’s annoyance).
Once home, the task of cleaning the corn fell to my siblings and me, who grudgingly did so in the spot where we made the least mess — on the back steps of the porch, where the corn silks could easily blow away.
At that point, my mother took over what had now become a family project. She reached for the pressure cooker, which in those years had more of an element of danger than it does today. Once it was filled with as many ears as possible and some water, my mother would lock the cover in place and place the pressure valve atop. Then she set a timer.
We would watch at the dinner table as the valve of the pressure cooker rattled away, whistling and jiggling like an out-of-control rocket. The thrill was being so close to the possibility of disaster should our mother be distracted. We almost willed it to happen, if truth be told, because who wouldn’t want to see corn on the cob hit the ceiling. It never did, of course, because my mother knew the time limits that she had set in motion.
The pressure cooker did, indeed, make great steamed corn, though later, as a cook in my own kitchen, the mechanism felt far more dramatic than necessary for such a simple meal. Not so incidentally, it also seemed like too much work given that I would first have to hunt for the pressure cooker, packed away in a cupboard.
Instead I turned to a simpler method. I slip the ears into boiling water for but a brief bath, a minute or two only, just enough to soften the kernels a bit, because they are already tender. It’s my go-to method for a quick meal.
My mother’s approach, however, still guides my advance prep: from farmstand to the stovetop in as few hours as possible. If I don’t need the corn until the next day, I wait and buy it then.
There’s nothing much better than steamed fresh corn on the cob. But, as cooks, we always have to mess with perfection, which I’ve done on many occasions, including the summer spent testing every which way to grill corn. Like all “best methods,” mine reflects more personal preference than it does absolute wisdom.
Here’s what I found: Keep it simple. This is nature’s perfect food. (Yes, Dad, you had that right.) Experiment with these methods and find out what you like best.
Unhusked corn. This is truly as easy as you can get. Toss an ear of corn, still enrobed in its husk, directly onto the grill for about 10 to 15 minutes, turning it occasionally. If there’s a cover to your grill, use it. If you’re cooking over a campfire, toss the corn in the embers to cook. The husk, in effect, steams the corn, and also provides a hint of flavor.
Partially husked corn. This is a little fussier method. Start out grilling with the corn in the husk for 5 to 10 minutes. Then pull back the husk and silks, and baste the corn with melted butter (flavored or not). Either fold back the husks before you return the ear to the grill, or leave the kernels exposed to the heat for a few more minutes.
Husked corn. My favorite method! In this case, remove the husk and silks and place the stripped-down ear directly on the grill, with or without basting it with melted butter. Cook the corn until it’s lightly browned — how long will depend on the cook and the intensity of the coals. The kernels aren’t quite as tender as with other methods, but the smoky flavor is just what I’m looking for.
You don’t have to cook fresh corn at all. We love it raw in salsas and salads, though that smoky taste from grilling can certainly perk up the flavor quotient in either dish.
Prefer to boil or steam your corn? Salt toughens the vegetable so do not add it to the water. And if you’re boiling the corn, bring the water to the right temperature before you add the cob, again so the kernels don’t toughen.
Of course, you can also roast corn in the oven. But why would you do that on a hot day?
The microwave works well if only one or two cobs need to be steamed. More than that and you might as well steam a bunch of them on the stovetop. To microwave, place one or two ears in a dish with a little water and cook on high (2 minutes for one ear, 5 minutes for 2 ears).
A bit of seasoning
Perfect as corn is, many of us reach for butter to gild this lily of a treat. Flavored butters are one of those quick tricks of the kitchen. Simply soften butter and add the flavorings. Then either smooth the mixture into a container or roll it into a log and wrap it in plastic wrap until it’s time for guests to cut off slices for their corn. Either way, store it in the refrigerator.
Some flavor options: To 2 sticks of butter, add either 1 teaspoon cayenne pepper or 1 teaspoon minced garlic or 1 teaspoon minced chives or sea salt to taste.
Get the corn ready
Refrigerate unhusked corn in a loose plastic bag until you need it, preferably for not more than a day.
Don’t husk corn until you are ready to eat it.