Ear Apparent Transcript

Corn Field

    "Though we have tried and tried, sex is not as good as sweet corn," or so famed Lake Wobegoner, Garrison Keilor, once wrote. As far as I know, no one has made such claims on behalf of other corn varieties. I suspect many a young American has thrilled to the sight of Jiffy Pop swelling enthusiastically on the stove.
    Besides being the New World's greatest contribution to nutrition, corn as we know it has the distinction of being one of Man's earliest inventions. Like the wheel, corn has rolled itself down the countless avenues of our lives lending its ear to everything from plastics to pharmaceuticals. But, creations can turn on the their masters and corn has caused its share of pain and suffering. But, in the laboratory that is the kitchen, corn is our friend and if we'll just take the time to listen to it, to understand it, learn what it needs, well I might not go as far as Garrison Keilor but I'll admit corn is darned good eats.

Corn Field

GUEST: Debra Duchon, Nutritional Anthropologist

    Corn, you may have noticed, doesn't very closely resemble it's grassier cousins rye, wheat or barley. That's because one day back in Maize-olithic ... ha, ha, ha, hurmgh ... Mexico looking at some grasses spotted an anomaly, a mutation. Now, I'd love to go into detail, but as I have told you time and time again I am not a nutritional anthropologist.

AB: But, you, of course, are.
DEBRA DUCHON: Yes, I still am.
AB: Great. So tell me, how is it that man created corn?
DD: Well, first of all let's get this straight. It's not corn anymore, it's maize. Corn is a linguistic artifact. It's an old English word that means a little, hard thing. Like you get a corn on your foot, you have an acorn drop from the tree.
AB: So, they basically just didn't know what it was, so they called it corn.
DD: Yeah, any grain, any generic grain came to be called corn.
AB: Oh, okay then. So, how is it that man created maize?
DD: It seems there was two kinds of grasses that grew side by side in Central America and they had a grain that the Indians would just gather.
AB: Right.
DD: And they found that if they grew next to each other they grew better. Well then, about 35 hundred years ago they magically, spontaneously cross pollinated and made a whole new plant and that's what we call maize today. And that new plant transformed their culture and society. In fact, the Aztecs went so far is that they would actually commit human sacrifice to the corn god.
AB: Wow. I guess the Aztecs must have been disappointed in the corn when the corn ran back to Europe with Cortez. Ha, ha.
DD: Yeah, maybe they were but you know, in a way the native Americans got the last laugh.
AB: How's that?
DD: Well, because the Spaniards took back the material but not the technology to make it healthful. The way the native American style of making it was with alkali that it would change the cellular structure in the amino acids and make it a more healthful product.
AB: Ah, so the Europeans didn't do that.
DD: No, they just cooked it and made it into mush and made into bread and all kinds of things and then they started getting this nutritional deficiency disease that became known as polegra.
AB: What are the symptoms of that?
DD: Well, first you get this rough skin, and then you get diarrhea, and then that goes on to dementia and then death.
AB: You know, Debbie, you're always full of these cheery, little, fun facts. I really appreciate that about you.
DD: I try.
AB: By the way, why is it that whenever I meet you you're walking around in grass?
DD: Oh, right now I'm just looking for a baseball game.
AB: [sigh] Well, you can find that one at Blockbuster, I think.

    So, here's the real deal. See, as man and corn developed together man kept seeing these recessive traits come out and they would cross breed those. Eventually, they actually got corn to grow with this husk on it. Makes it completely impossible for the corn to germinate itself. So, corn is completely dependent on man. But, it does repay man in the kitchen.

The Kitchen

    Having been under development for a good 10,000 years, there are a lot of corn varieties. I mean, how else could the good folks of Mitchell, South Dakota do this? See that? That's all corn. Corn palaces. Everybody there's got one.

corn palace
1999 Corn Palace

    Well, un-phased by this vast variety we here at Good Eats have managed to shoehorn the entire corn universe into three varieties: pop corn, field or dent corn, and sweet corn which despite making up a measly 1.66% of the American corn crop is the corn we think of when we think of corn. Now, freakishly mutated though it is, corns are still grasses and just like grains of wheat or grains of rice each corn kernel is an individual seed composed of seed coat, an embryo, and a kind of botanical fuel tank called an endosperm. And it's the composition of the endosperm which decides the culinary disposition of every variety of corn.

Pop   Dent   Sweet
hard   Endosperm   soft
Coat   Embryo   Endosperm

    Now, take sweet corn for instance. The endosperm is mostly made up of sugar. But when the ear is picked, the ear senses that something is seriously wrong and it deploys this enzyme which starts rapidly converting the sugar to a more easily metabolized starch.

enzyme: chemical catalyst

    How fast does this happen? Well, let me put it this way. I know corn connoisseurs out there who actually put a pot of water on to boil before they go down to their market for their corn. In other words, once a again we're facing one of these.

... a culinary time bomb
that is.

    Modern agronomists have bought corn lovers a little time by developing hybrid varieties that compensate for the sugar lost between field and market by having 2 to 3 times more sugar to begin with. Today's market bins are dominated by super-sweet varieties with seductive monikers like Summer Sweet, Star Bright and the bi-colored Honey & Pearls.

super sweet

    You can also buy yourself some time by only choosing really fresh corn. When you pick up an ear take a really good look at it. Is it plump? Is the husk bright and moist? Is the cut end bright and moist? Shouldn't be any dark splotches there. And look at the tassel, important things, tassels. Should be slightly sticky and brown not matted and black. A black tassel signifies a mature ear and that means more starch than sugar.

Ear: plump / firm
Husk: bright / moist
Cut End: bright / moist
Tassel: gold / sticky

    Now, if it passes inspection on the outside, take a look on the inside. The kernels should be tight, rowed all the way up to the top and when pierced ... aah ... should explode with milky goodness.

kernels tight and
rowed to top

The largest ear of corn on record was grown in the
Jala valley of Mexico and measured 24 inches long.

The Kitchen

    Now, you can get maybe 1 - 2 days tops out of your fresh corn if you wrap it tightly in plastic and put it in the coldest part of your refrigerator.

wrap in plastic and
chill 1 - 2 days

    If you're looking for more time, though, you're going to have to take a cue from food scientists over at the University of Maryland who've actually figured out that you can hold corn at it's peak of flavor for up to 2 weeks if you shuck it and give it 15 minute ice water bath laced with 1 drop of lemon juice and 2 drops, believe it or not, of Clorox bleach. Turns out that the bleach/citrus Mickey lowers the water's PH just enough to inhibit both microbial and enzymatic action in the corn.

15 min ice-water bath
1 drop lemon juice
2 drops Clorox
(per one gallon H2O)

    Post bath just seal it up in a freezer bag and put it right back in the coldest part of your fridge.

seal and refrigerate

    Now when in-season, young, fresh corn scarcely needs cooking. But since butter doesn't really melt on cold ears, a quick dip in boiling water, say a minute, is appropriate. Now when it comes to cooking shuck on or off, it's really a matter of taste. Personally, I appreciate the, excuse the wine-speak, grassy notes that the shuck lends.

60 seconds in lots
of boiling H2O

    Now, if you're corn has been stored for more than a day or two or if you suspect the farm is more than, say, 2 zip codes down the road, add 2 tablespoons of sugar to the water, but no salt. Or you can skip the water all together and ...

2 Tbls sugar

no salt during cooking,
it can toughen kernels

... roast. Thirty minutes in a 350 oven will not only cook your kernels to perfection, it will actually enhance their sweetness. When the husks start to brown and the ears yield to gentle pressure you're ready to shuck, butter, salt, eat, repeat.

30 min at 350

shuck  butter  salt  eat
shuck  butter  salt  eat

    If there were a secret to creamed cornand of course I'm not saying that there is onebut if there were, it would be removing as much of the sweet endosperm as possible while leaving a majority of the fibrous and I might I mention completely indigestible seed coat behind.

    Now, to this end you do not need to employ bizarre specialized engines of corn destruction. I never have been able to ... well, they just scare me. All you've really got to have is a good sharp knife, a paper bowl and a wide, flat, metal bowl or pan to catch all the action. Now the strategy here is to not think about cutting the corn off. Rather, shaving it off. The knife stays almost dead parallel to the cob. And you don't have to worry about the knife because the paper bowl is there to prevent any dings.

sharp knife
paper bowl
wide pan or bowl

    Oh, by the way, before you even start this business go ahead and chop half an onion and sweat it in 1 tablespoon of butter along with 2 pinches of salt, kosher salt, and one sprig of rosemary, bruised. There. Now remember, sweating is a low heat method. If you start to see any color or brown forming on the onion, turn down the heat.

1/2 onion, chopped
1 Tbls butter
2 pinches kosher salt
1 sprig rosemary, bruised

    Once you've given eight ears of corn a good close shave, it is time to milk. Just turn you knife over and use the spine to scrape out the rest of that endosperm. And if you'll angle the knife kind of down and away from you it will act like a mud flap and keep you from taking this stuff directly in the face. Just turn and scrape. Don't worry about going all the way to the bottom. I usually do this in two stages.

8 ears raw corn

back of blade

    When you get down to the bottom just pick up the cob and scrape it against the knife. I'm actually not moving the knife just scrapping the cop against it to get those bottom kernels. There. Now that is some of what we're looking for. That's the endosperm, nice and milky and soft.


    When you see this kind of honeycomb look that means you've defiantly gotten everything that's worth getting. But don't get rid of this. It's got all kinds of purposes. You could, for instance ... [places corn cop pipe in mouth] Well if the Macarthur thing's not exactly your style, you can still smoke it. Just save up these corn bones, keep them in freezer, whip them out the next time you grill. Just drop one right onto your charcoal. Beats wood chips by a long shot.

    Once the onions are nice and soft and the rosemary is fragrant, it's time to add our corn. And make sure when you do you get every drop of it. And turn the heat up to medium high, not all the way to high, just medium. A tablespoon of sugar will help increase the overall corniness of the dish. I don't know any other way to put it.

medium high heat

1 Tbls sugar

    Now, if you find that your corn is pigmently challenged, you want a little more yellow, then, uh, reach for the turmeric. It's not going to add much in the way of flavor but it will add a great deal of color. It will only take about a quarter of a teaspoon.

1/4 tsp turmeric

    Just stir this constantly for about 2 minutes or until the juices start to reduce and tighten up. The actual time is going to completely depend on how juicy your corn was to begin with. So just stay with it and watch it. You'll notice that it pulls away nicely, completely dry, when you stir it off the pan. That looks pretty good.

stir to "tighten"

    So, leave the heat where it is. We're going to go ahead and add something that's going to help thicken this up later on. Two tablespoons of yellow corn meal. Just sprinkle that right on the top. Now, this does not gelatinize the way that flour does but it is extremely absorbent. So, as it sits and cooks its actually going to start drinking up a lot of the moisture that we're going to add to this pan. Whisk is best for this, by the way. Just work that in.

    Now, when it comes to adding liquid I've got to tell you back before the days when I started [sigh] seriously eyeing the Sans-a-belt pants rack, I used to put lots of cream in here, sometimes a quart for one batch. But I found that if you use this corn meal to thicken, kind of as a slurry, you can get by with a lot less cream but it's creamed corn. You've got to have some, right? So, one cup of heavy cream. Oh, come one. Don't get all huffy about it. If you're so worried about your fat intake start driving past some of those drive-thrus, hmm.

1 cup heavy cream

    There. Now just work that in with the whisk and cook over slightly lowered heat, probably medium for 2 to 3 minutes or until this reaches the consistency that you're looking for. It should be able to stand up on a plate.

reduce heat and cook until corn is softened, 2 -3 minutes

    Then, just fish out the rosemary like that and grind on the black pepper.

black peeper to taste

Large or "Tellicherry" peppercorns are named for the Indian port
town of Tellicherry which was made famous by the spice trade.

The Kitchen

    Corn bread is everything I love about America. Independent, determined, unapologetic. Corn bread has no agendas. Knows no race, color or creed. And it starts with the ground meal of Dent corn which makes up over 80% of America's corn crop.

Dent = 80% + US crop

    Named for the depression that forms in its crown when the kernel is dried, Dent corn is different from sweet corn in that it has two different endosperms or rather small protein laden 'horny' endosperm ... I didn't make that up ... and a large, starchier, soft endosperm. And it's this substance that makes Dent corn perfect for over 3,000 applications from every food stuff imaginable to fireworks, paper, ink, antibiotics, packing materials, trash bags, ceiling tiles, tires, road deicer, rayon and of course corn bread.

    When it comes to corn bread I don't care what side of the Mason Dixon line you hail from, you need cast iron. Skillet that is. Black gold. Ten inches wide and 425 hot. So, get this in here before you set up the rest of the gear.



    Construction begins with 2 cups of corn meal. Now, I don't mind measuring this stuff by volume because unlike flour, corn meal doesn't really compress. Oh, I prefer yellow corn because I think it just makes a tastier meal. But you can use white or even blue if you want.

 2 cups corn meal

yellow corn meal

    What really counts is the nature of the grind. Now in some corn cultures, say South Africa, course meals produced by devices that look like this are the norm. But, here in America with the exception of grits and in the deep south, hominy, fine corn meals dominate.

    Now, mass produced versions ground by high speed steel rollers are extremely uniform in texture. And since they are de-germinated in the process they've got a lot of shelf life if not a whole lot of flavor.

        Mass Market:
        •long shelf life
        •short on flavor

    Now, I go for meals ground by small, independent mills. Besides containing some if not all of the flavorful germ, that embryo we were talking about earlier, these meals are usually stone ground which results in a very unique texture and flavor. But, since they do contain some fat these meals need to be kept air-tight and cold, as in the freezer.         Stone Ground:
        •whole grain
        •unique shape
        •complex flavor

always keep airtight & cold

    Back in the bowl we've got our corn meal to which we'll add 1 teaspoon of kosher salt and a tablespoon of sugar and 2 teaspoons of baking powder. We're actually going to use 2 different leavenings here, the baking powder 1-to-2, and a quarter teaspoon, actually half a teaspoon of baking soda.

1 tsp kosher salt
1 Tbls sugar
2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda

    Now, as you probably remember from our biscuit show, The Dough Also Rises, you've got to have a balance of acid and alkaline if you're going to have really great CO2 production and that's what does the leavening. So, in this case we've got a balanced acid/alkaline combination but we've thrown in an extra alkaline. What's up with that?

alkaline    acid

    Well, because there's acid in buttermilk. And we're going to have a cup of buttermilk in the wet ingredients and that's going to balance things. Oh, be sure to mix this stuff up dry leavenings don't like to be left in clumps. So, cup goes in along with 2 eggs and 8 ounces, that's one cup, of our creamed corn. Cool, huh?

1 cup buttermilk
2 eggs
1 cup cream corn

    Now, you don't have to make your creamed corn. You can use stuff just from the can, from the grocery store that's okay. But obviously, the flavor is not going to be the same.
    So whisk that together just until the eggs disappear. There you go. And then dump all of the dry right into the wet. Now, I know. That's different from the usual procedure. But in this case it's okay because for one thing corn meal is not like flour. It won't clump up on contact with moisture. The other reason is that this will keep you from over mixing and if you over mix corn bread batter you end up with something flat like a Johnny Cake and Johnny Cakes are different from corn bread.

    So, stir and then stop and take a look. You might need to add more moisture to this depending on the moisture content of your corn meal or of the corn you started with in the first place. You don't want it to look like cake batter but you don't want a block of yellow either. This looks like a loose mortar and that is exactly what you're looking for.

if batter won't pour -
add more buttermilk

    Supply your corn bread with some spine by getting the pan ripping hot and then pouring in about 2 tablespoons of canola. Swirl that around just enough to coat then pour the batter right in. Do this right here on the rack of the oven because you do not want to let this pan cool down. Don't stand around and talk to the oven either or people might get the wrong idea. Anyway, get everything in there that you can and get it back in.

2 Tbls canola oil

    Now, the welding gloves, by the way, are not required. There just here to prove a point. This handle is hot, okay? Of course, if you've got welding gloves hanging around the house, why not?

A 56 lb bushel of corn produces 72,800 kernels, 32 lbs
of starch, 33 lbs of sweetner
and 2.5 G of ethanol.

The Kitchen

    Now, some people like to use the old tooth pick test to check for doneness but I have better luck with what I kind of call the "pillow" test. That's a good name. Just put your hand on top, it's hot but you'll be quick, and just push down. If it bounces right back up then it's definitely finished.

"pillow" test

    You know, the best things about these multi-purpose lids is they really are multi-purpose. Behold. Not only is there a handle on the bottom to keep your hand unscathed but the ridges help prevent your precious baked goods from ending up down in the 'dog zone.'  Plate and then just repeat and there you go. Perfect corn bread.
    Well, I guess that's about it ... Oh, geez. I almost forgot the popcorn. What's the pop about, anyway? Well, if you surround a small, soft, starchy endosperm with a large amount of high protein or horny endospermno, I told you, I didn't make that upwrap it all in a super hard outer coat and you basically got a bomb ready to go off but only when cooked. When heated the moisture boils, turns in to steam, blows the whole thing to smithereens. The sudden decrease in internal pressure allows the starch inside to expand several hundred times in volume and solidify. Kind of like this stuff [sprayable foam], only it taste good. This doesn't.

    Popcorn's freaky architecture makes it perfect fodder for the microwave. Quarter of a cup of quality popcorn into a brown paper bag, put a little oil, a pinch of kosher salt, shake on some hot stuff if you like, and, uh, seal up the bag with 2 staples to keep the steam in. Into the microwave on high for 2 to 3 minutes or until there's 5 seconds between the pops.

1/4 cup popcorn
2 tsp olive oil
1/4 tsp popcorn salt
pepper "shake"
2 staples
2-3 minutes on high

    Whether you agree that corn out ranks other earthly pleasures or not, you can't argue. Corn is uniquely and absolutely American, just like Clint Eastwood or the Rocky Mountains. The way I see it, Italy ran off with our tomatoes, Ireland stole our spuds but these, these are ours, not to mention seriously good eats.

Outtake: Corn Field

DD: Whoa, look at the snake.
AB: [quickly jumps and runs around DD] What!
DD: [laughs]

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Last Edited on 08/27/2010