Picking a Delicious Ear of Corn

Nothing is quite so good as a delicious ear of corn picked fresh from the garden. A freshly picked ear of corn is sweeter and more delicious than any ear of corn you’ll ever taste. The fresher the ear, the more delicious the taste. Of course, that delicious ear of corn starts with the correct planting technique and choice of corn variety. We happen to prefer the Bodacious variety because it produces evenly colored corn with a great taste. The ears are normally full (indicating good pollination), the stalks don’t seem to break quite as often, it’s a little less susceptible to pests, and we find that the ears are often larger. We’ve also tried a number of other varieties such as Kandy Corn (somewhat sweeter) and Serendipity Bi-color Corn (interesting color combinations and ripens somewhat earlier). So far, we like Bodacious the best, but you need to choose a corn variety that works well in your area. Take factors such the type of soil, variety of pests, and weather into account when making your choice.

Planting the seeds correctly is also important. We have quite a bit of high wind in this area, so we plant the seeds one foot apart in rows and each of the rows two feet apart. If you plant the corn seeds too closely together, the corn won’t ever produce a strong stalk. In fact, a worst case scenario is that the corn won’t produce any ears. Planting the corn too far apart makes the stalks more susceptible to wind damage and reduces pollination. You may get full sized ears, but you won’t get ears that are full of kernels. You may have to plant your corn differently depending on your area to get optimal results.

The tough part is figuring how when to pick the corn. Yes, you see the ears pop out sometime after the corn tassels (corn cross pollinates through wind action—it doesn’t depend on a pollinator to pollinate it). The tassels are the male flowering member of the plant, while the kernels (ovules) are the female flower member of the plant. These female members reside in a husk and sent out silks to receive the pollen. Pollen travels down the silks to the ovules and pollinates them. Each ovule requires individual pollination, which is why you can see ears with only a few kernels or you can see one or two ovules that didn’t pollinate in a given ear. The point is that the pollination occurs, the kernel grows, and then there is a magical period when the kernels are full of delicious sugar-filled liquid that is absolutely delightful to ingest. After that, the sugars begin to turn to a less tasty starch.

The silks are part of the key to discovering when to pick the corn. When the silks whither and turn black, you know they have done their job—the kernels are pollinated (or at least as pollinated as they’ll get). However, the kernels aren’t instantly fully sized. The dying silks tell you that pollination is over and that you’ll soon have tasty corn to eat.

The next clue is to feel the ears. Gently place your hand around an ear and you can feel the kernels growing. It takes a while, but you’ll eventually developer a touch that tells you that the kernels are getting larger. At some point, you’ll stop feeling any growth. In addition, the ears will feel solid, without any gaps between kernels.

At this point, you can peak at the ears. Gently pull the husk back to reveal the tip of the ear. The kernels at the tip develop last, so the kernels at the bottom are always riper and fuller than the kernels at the tip. When the last few rows start the look the right color and fullness, try sticking a thumbnail into one of the kernels. If you see a liquid come out, the corn is ready to pick.  If there is no liquid, carefully smooth the husk back over the ear. It should ripen normally within a day or two.

Of course, sometimes the kernels at the tip of the ear aren’t pollinated or may not grow right for other reasons. Sometimes a corn borer ruins your day. Earwigs are also a problem at times (and beneficial at others). Never allow the corn to stay on the stalk for more than a week after you feel full ears. If you have doubts, pull one ear, fully husk it, and evaluate the results. Cutting the kernels from the ear and trying a few raw will tell you quite a bit about the status of the corn.

Sweetcorn—it’s the stuff of summer. What are your experiences with corn? Do you grow it yourself or get it from a roadside stand? Let me know at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.