Most people think of corn on the cob as the sweet corn fresh in midsummer. But corn is so much more! There are thousands of different types of corn and thousands of different ways to eat it. The preparations range from bowls with spicy posole to semolina, tortillas, "nuts", beer, popcorn, tamales, bread and so on. If all you eat is fresh sweetcorn, you are really missing out!
One of the reasons corn is so incredibly versatile in the kitchen is because corn can be modified so easily. Starting with ingenious plant breeding techniques used by indigenous peoples 8,000 years ago, corn has evolved to grow in almost all growing climates and altitudes. There are different categories of corn based on their grain structural properties that have different culinary uses.
Even if you don't grow your own corn, it is part of everyday life as corn has made its way into many industrial processes, biofuels, and animal feed. As you learn more about corn and how to grow it, you will get a whole new appreciation for this remarkable crop.
The "story" of "Horn"
Sweet corn tassels sway in the wind. Source: ConanTheLibrarian
Corn is one of the oldest domesticated plants. The formation of maize began around 8,000 to 9,000 years ago in what is now central Mexico.
Corn was domesticated from a wild grass known as teosinte, which is similar to modern corn in that it has similar green stems and leaves and forms tassels at the top. But the ears are tiny, only two inches long, and have few rock-hard seeds.
For millennia, indigenous peoples experimented with the culinary qualities of teosinte, selecting seeds and encouraging the growth of traits they liked. Teo ink can be popped when the kernels are dry and is also a soft, sweet-tasting seed when eaten green. Anyone from the plains can testify that the wild grass base is sweet and delicious. Teo ink is no different!
Thanks to their ingenious plant breeding techniques around 6,000 years ago, maize resembled what we recognize as maize: a central core surrounded by grains. This early corn was popcorn and quickly spread to North and South America through the movement of people and the sharing of seeds. Plant breeders continued their work to develop different strains and get this tropically adapted grass to grow in new environments.
Archaeologists have identified the earliest corn in the southwestern deserts from sites 4,000 years ago that were the entrance for corn in what is now the United States. Around 2,000 years ago, in addition to types of flour corn, people also grew types of popcorn, which were probably developed in the kitchen because of their ease of grind and flexibility.
The dependence on corn in the diet increased, as did the variety of varieties. Between 1,500 and 1,000 years ago, corn was grown in the temperate regions of what is now the United States and southern Canada, along with other crops such as pumpkin, beans, amaranth, tobacco, and sunflower. Corn began to spread around the world 500 years ago after the colonization of indigenous peoples by Europeans.
Various types of corn are among the largest agricultural raw materials in the world today and, along with wheat and rice, make up a significant proportion of the calories of the human population. In addition to food, various types of corn are grown for animal feed, industrial products and biofuels. Because of this, corn is also one of the most heavily manipulated crops as new varieties are introduced every year. The methods for developing this maize range from classic plant breeding techniques for developing maize over millennia to CRISPER gene editing technology.
The Most Common Types Of Corn
There are tens of thousands of different varieties of corn today, and many that have been lost to monoculture and industrial agriculture. Some varieties are widespread and adaptable, while others are adapted to the unique growing conditions of a particular valley. All of this diversity offers unique culinary uses, tastes or colors.
Over 28,000 unique collections of corn are stored in the germplasm bank of the International Center for the Improvement of Corn and Wheat in Mexico City, the heart of corn diversity. Thousands of other unique collections exist in smaller national and regional seed banks. While the variety of corn is immense, corn can be divided into several categories based on the core structure that gives each corn unique culinary characteristics.
With so many different types of corn, the choice can be overwhelming. First, think about what you are most likely to eat and what varieties will grow in your area. Choose varieties that come from your region and are adapted to your growing season. All of the different species and varieties are the same species, Zea mays, and because corn is wind pollinated, it is very easy to cross-pollinate. It can be tempting to try several varieties, but stick to one per season so you have plenty of space and avoid unwanted mixing between varieties.
Sweet corn varieties are best for fresh meals. Source: slappytheseal
Much of the gardener and seed catalogs focus on sweet corn as this is the best known and most accessible for the home kitchen. Nothing says summer like a fresh ear eaten straight from the cob!
Sweet corn is best picked in the early or dairy phase when it is still tender and juicy. The milk stage of sweet corn is identified by the release of a milky substance from the kernel when pressed with a thumbnail and occurs a week to 20 days after the corn tassel begins to release pollen.
Sweet corn was created from genetic mutations in harder flint and flour grains that prevented the conversion of sugar into starch. The milk stage of flint and flour corn varieties tastes mildly sweet, but is starchy and tough.
When you open a packet of sweet corn seeds for planting, the kernels should be wrinkled because the dominant sugar is dehydrated. As soon as the fresh ear is picked, the sugar begins to dehydrate. So use it right away. Local tastes so much better than bought in the store!
Dozens of high quality heirloom varieties are widely available, including Stowell's evergreen and Golden bantam. More and more sweet corn hybrids are being released in the United States that breed for super sweet kernels, disease resistance, and early ripeness. Look for white, yellow, or a two-tone color that includes both types, e.g. Peaches and cream.
Sweet corn is the ideal corn to be eaten fresh in the green or milk stage. But it can also be roasted, dried and reconstituted (like chicos, a New Mexican preparation). You can even go as far as grinding dried sweet corn into a deliciously sweet cornmeal.
This type of flour "Purple Hopi" is brightly colored. Source: statelyenglishmanor
Flour corn is mostly made up of soft starch, which makes it easy to grind into fine corn flour. Flour corn varieties can grow from short 2-foot varieties to 8-10 foot tall varieties and grow well in drier areas. The ears are usually long and slender and can be harvested at their immature or "dairy" stage. Common preparation methods are steaming, boiling or frying.
While it's sweeter and more tender than flint at this stage, it's not as sweet as sweet corn. Flour corn is most commonly harvested when it is fully ripe, dry and ground into corn flour.
The taste of flour corn is subtle and delicate. Without the dense oils and proteins packed into the endosperm, the flavor isn't as rich as flint corn varieties. Blue and red varieties have the most flavor and the most nutrients from an abundance of antioxidants and carotenoids.
The soft texture of flour corn makes it much easier to grind and digest, which is why most preparations are made from fine corn flour. There are many uses for foods such as bread, tortillas, tamales, or quill (cornmeal added to drinks). Flour corn kernels can also be left whole and dried out for corn nuts and processed into posole. Dried grains can be ground with a powerful blender or a food processor or hand crank mill which will bring out the best flavor. Roasting whole grains or the ground cornmeal intensifies the taste and gives it a nutty richness.
Flour corn varieties come in a rainbow of colors and even different patterns. Some of the most beautiful contain spots and stripes. The Pawnee Seed Preservation Project is working to restore eagle corn, known for the dark spots that resemble birds in flight on each core.
Hopi Blue, Seneca White, and Apache Red are just a few of the varieties of flour corn. Most Native American communities have their own version of white, blue, red, yellow, and multi-colored flour grains adapted to their growing environment. The variety available in stores Painted mountain contains a colorful arrangement without an ear that looks like any other.
The color is contained in the thin outer layer of the corn kernel, while the inner soft starch is white. As a result, most ground cornmeal has a whitish-gray appearance with a hint of core color. The color of the final cooked product is intensified by adding an alkaline material like wood ash or completing the nixtamalization process.
Nixtamalization is a preparation that involves soaking the corn in water with calcium (calcium hydroxide) or food-grade pickling lime and boiling it, then peeling it to remove the outer shell, which also softens the core. It is named after the Nahuatl word nextamalli (language spoken by many indigenous Mexicans), a combination of the words for lime or cal and tamale. This process changes the chemical composition of the corn, intensifying the color, but also changing the taste and giving it the bite and aroma of a tortilla chip. The resulting kernels are known as posole or hominy and ground nixtamalized corn, commonly known as masa or nixtamal.
The alkaline treatment also alters the corn's nutrient availability so that more protein and niacin can be digested. Wood ash, such as juniper traditionally used by Navajo (Diné), also provides a significant amount of calcium. A bowl of traditional blue corn porridge, hot porridge made from ground cornmeal, contains as much calcium as a glass of milk.
Dent or field Corn
Dent or field corn has a distinctive indentation on each core. Source: Tom Gill
Dent Corn is named for the indentation that appears at the top of the core as it dries. The grains contain a hard form of starch on the sides and a soft starch type in the middle. These medium thicknesses tend to shrink as the core dries, creating a "dent" in the top of the core.
Ears made from dents are usually large and sturdy, and therefore have tall, strong stems to support their weight. As a rule, the plants are not littered with numerous stalks, so-called arable farmers, which is common with heirloom meal and flint types. The tall individual stalks also make them attractive for harvesting with large commercial equipment and for use in corn mazes.
Dent corn, also known as "field corn," makes up most of the world's commercially grown corn, and the United States is no different. It is mainly used in forage, silage, corn gluten meal, food products from corn bread to tortilla chips, and is further refined into high fructose corn syrup, plastics and ethanol. Because of their commercial uses, many of the dental maize varieties grown are GMOs or hybrids.
Dentmais has a high starch content and can be ground to maize flour when the harvest is dry. The medium grain texture is also great for grains. Dry grains can be nixtamalized to grind hominy into masa or hominy grains (milled using the nixtamalized process and preferred in many areas of the southern US).
Freshly harvested, dented corn is used in Mexico for elot (corn on the cob with spices such as salt, chili powder, butter, cotija, lemon juice or lime juice and mayonnaise), but is being replaced by more aromatic types of sweet corn. When harvested just past the height of the dairy stage, it makes an ideal base for green corn tamale, which gives the dough some stiffness but maintains the sweetness of the dairy stage.
With a few notable exceptions, there are fewer dent corn varieties available to the home gardener. The popular one Oaxacan Green and Damn the butcher from many retailers as well Dia de San Juan by Native Seeds / SEARCH is valued for green corn malt.
There are many types of corn, as these flint corn ears show. Source: jlevinger
This variety of corn has a hard outer layer that protects the small, soft endosperm in the core. This hard outer layer is said to be "as hard as flint", hence the name. Flint corn has a glassy appearance and typically long, slender ears. In addition, flint corn comes in a variety of colors and are often very tall plants.
Unfortunately, many people miss the culinary qualities of flint corn and ignore it as decorative. Flint corn, however, has a lot of flavor. Flint corn can be nixtamalized and, when dry, processed into masa and hominy or ground to obtain a coarsely ground corn flour that is ideal for polenta. Flint grains can also "burst" when heated, but often the grains tear open instead of exploding completely. Still tasty as a kind of corn nut. The hardness of the core allows types of flint to be stored very well and be less prone to insect and rodent hunting.
Flint corn varieties available to gardeners include Chapalote, a variety known to have been grown continuously in the American Southwest for 4,000 years, and Roy Calais Flint, an 8-row variety for the northern climate. Floriani Red is an Italian heirloom that is becoming increasingly popular for polenta in the US.
Popcorn can also come in multiple colors. Source: beautifulcataya
Popcorn is the oldest domesticated variety of corn and has a glassy appearance very similar to flint corn, but in miniature with smaller kernels and ears. When popcorn is heated, the moisture in the core turns into steam, which explodes the starch inside, literally turning the core upside down. The result is the white, starchy, crunchy indulgence that everyone knows. Popcorn is very accessible to the home gardener as it doesn't take extra processing time to become edible and many varieties are low in space-saving stature.
Popcorn comes in a variety of colors, including single-color varieties such as yellow Tom Thumb or the red one strawberry to multicolored rainbow species like Cochiti and Glass gemstone. Popcorn is harvested when the ears are dry and the kernels are hard. Too little or too much moisture leads to bad popping. Due to the high starch content of the kernel, popcorn is extremely tough when harvested in the fresh milk stage and can best be fully ripened.
It's not the kind of popcorn that makes bright red or rainbow popcorn. Each popcorn is white in color due to the color of the endosperm (starch). However, if you look closely you may see a bit of paint in the center of the exploded core. This is the pericarp, or outer shell, from which the nuclear color comes from. These are the pesky parts that get stuck in your teeth.
About the writer Melissa Kruse:
Hello, my name is Melissa. I am a plant lover, gardener, food lover and mom to a fun-loving 5 year old. Growing up in Nebraska surrounded by cornfields, I now call Phoenix my home and love living in the Sonoran Desert, spotting edible native plants year-round, and gardening.
My academic background is in ethnobotany and anthropology, and I have a passion for teaching others about biological and cultural diversity. During the day I work as an educator and breeder in an urban community garden and take care of a local pantry. I learn for a lifetime and I keep picking up new passions. I recently started growing microgreens, canning jams, and growing fruit trees.
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