Friday, September 11, 2015

Corn 101

Corn or maize (the Spanish name) is a large grain plant. Corn has a leafy stalk that makes ears which are surrounded by the grain. The grain is actually the seeds that are called kernels. There are six varieties of corn. Dent which is also known as Yellow Dent or Field Corn. It has a high starch content and a small "dent" at the crown of each kernel. Dent was developed by two Illinois farmers, James and Robert Reid. The variety won a prize at the 1893 Worlds Fair. Most of the corn in the United States is Yellow Dent or some sort of hybrid variety. Flint is next. It is sometimes referred to as Indian Corn or Calico Corn. It has a hard outer layer which is "hard as flint." This corn was cultivated by the Native Americans and there is evidence of the use of Flint in Pawnee archaeological sites dating back to pre-1000 BC. The kernels of this corn are multi-colored. Flint can be used as popcorn and also in making hominy, a staple of the early settlers. The settlers grew Flint corn as it withstood the harsh New England winters. You may be familiar with this variety as well, as you will find it in the markets around the holidays (especially Thanksgiving) and marketed as "Ornamental Corn." Another variety is the Pod variety. It s a wild variety and thought to be the ancestor of todays domestic corn. Next is Popcorn which is known as Popping Corn. This variety of corn expands the kernel and puffs up when heated. Interestingly, popcorn can pop as it has a moisture proof hull or outer coating. The large commercial popping machines were invented by Charles Cretors in the late 19th century. During the Great Depression, popcorn was cheap (5 to 10 cents a bag) and it became very popular. Popcorn was also an abundant ration for soldiers during World War II. Flour Corn is soft and starchy and is primarily used for producing Corn Flour. Lastly there is Sweet Corn which is also called Sugar Corn and Pale Corn. This variety has a high sugar content and is harvested when the kernels are immature (called the Milk Stage) and not the Dent Stage. Sweet corn is prepared as a vegetable and does not store well. It must be eaten fresh, canned or frozen. There are several varieties of corn in each category. For an in-depth look at available varieties, go to this site from Johnny's Seeds

Many historians believe that corn or maize was domesticated in the Tehuacan Valley of Mexico. Around 2500 BC the crop began to migrate to much of the Americas. At this point corn spread to Europe and the rest of the world as Field Corn can be grown in very diverse climates. Field Corn is used to feed livestock and the sugar rich varieties were produced for human consumption. Note that Field Corn is used in a wide variety of products like cornmeal or masa, pressed for corn oil and fermented into alcoholic beverages like Bourbon Whiskey. Another controversial use of corn is High Fructose Corn Syrup used in a wide variety of processed foods, beverages and baked goods. According to, the United States is by far the largest producer of corn at 14,215 bushels which is approximately 8.2565 gallons a bushel. The United States is followed by China, Brazil, the European Union and the Ukraine.

Did you know that corn is part of the grass family? And the early settlers used corn as money to trade for furs and meat. For more fun and interesting facts go here and here.

To learn more about corn go here.

GMO Corn

A genetically modified organism (GMO) is an organism whose genetic material has been altered using genetic engineering techniques. GMO corn has been genetically engineered to be herbicide resistant (Roundup Ready) and to produce its own insecticide (Bt Toxin). Like all GMOs, genetically modified corn has not been thoroughly tested to ensure that it is safe for consumption.

In the United States, 89% of corn grown is GMO corn. Corn is not the number one GMO crop in the US. It is actually 3rd in amount of acreage planted with soybeans being number one and cotton number two.

Prior to 2012 only GMO corn was used for processed foods, oil, starch/modified starch, animal feed and as an energy crop (i.e biofuels) was GMO. However, in 2012 GMO sweet corn began to be sold in grocery stores and farmstands. It started in 2011 when Monsanto planted 250,000 acres of GMO sweet corn (40% of sweet corn market). This corn is being used for canned and frozen corn.

In the United States growing non-GMO sweet corn is difficult due to the large amount of GMO corn fields in agricultural areas. Many organic and sustainable growing farms are surrounded by farms that grow GMO corn which blow corn pollinates and cross contaminate the non GMO corn.

The best way to insure that you are eating non-GMO sweet corn is to buy organic corn or packages that have the “NON GMO Project” label on them.

To Store

As far as food safety is concerned choose corn that has not been exposed to excess heat. Corn husks should be fresh and green and not too loose around the husk. Gently pull back the husk to examine the kernels which should be plump and in tightly arranged rows. It is recommended that to maintain the optimal sweetness of corn it should be consumed on the day it is brought home. If you cannot, some of the newer varieties can be refrigerated in an air tight container for up to three days with the husks on. Fresh corn freezes well. For different methods to freeze corn go here.
To Nourish

Corn is high in Pantothenic Acid, Phosphorus, Vitamin B3, Manganese, Fiber and Vitamin B12. Corn is surprisingly rich in phytonutrients with antioxidant benefits. Corn has digestive benefits and supports the growth of friendly bacteria in the large intestine. Corn has blood sugar benefits. Also some interesting research has linked corn to overall nourishment with the added benefit of mineral absorption, especially when paired with legumes. Another newer area of research is corns potential anti-HIV activity. For more information about the health benefits of corn go here.

To Prepare 

Corn kernels are usually cooked by methods that include boiling, roasting, sautéing, grilling and baking. To watch a brilliant video on how to cut the kernels from the cob go to this video from Food & Wine. Corn on the cob is commonly boiled, microwaved or grilled. For tips on these cooking methods check out this article from Fine Cooking. And for 50 fresh corn recipes check out this page from The Food Network.

To Try