With ancestry from the seeded and grassy teosinte plant, today’s corn results from thousands of years of crossbreeding and evolution. Aztecs and Mayans living in Mexico and Central America originally harvested teosinte and quickly realized that some plants grew better than others. Keeping the seeds of those plants with more desirable characteristics, they cross-pollinated to produce plants that evolved into what we now know as corn. Over time, corn spread to North America and, by the time Columbus and the Europeans arrived, it was one of the most important crops grown by the Native Americans. Although they referred to corn as “maize”, the name “corn” was a general term used by Europeans to describe all grains.
Today, corn is grown on every continent (except Antarctica) in countries such as China, Brazil, Mexico, Russia, and South Africa. With approximately 80 million acres of corn crops, the United States is the world’s largest producer of corn. “The Corn Belt” refers to the area in the U.S. where corn is the predominant crop, including parts of Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Missouri, Nebraska and Kansas.
Surprisingly, corn varies drastically in colors from the common yellow to pink, purple, blue and even black. There are three main types that are widely known and produced commercially. Field, or dent, corn today is grown primarily for animal feed or industrial purposes. Flint corn is most similar to the original maize and continues to be grown heavily in South America. Lastly, sweet corn is the type sold in grocery stores and produced for us humans to consume and enjoy!
Corn provides iron, manganese, the antioxidant vitamin C, carotenoids, and some B vitamins. One medium-sized ear of corn (90g) has approximately 80 calories, 1 gram of fat, and provides roughly 10% of the daily recommended amount of fiber.
In the grocery store, corn should be chosen based on both husk and kernel health. The outside husk should appear fresh, green, and still hold shape around the cob. To check the kernels inside, gently peel back the husk and look for kernels that are plump and tightly packed. Kernels that are too far apart signify that the corn may be dried out and past optimal ripeness. Back at home, you should store corn in the fridge and eat within 1-3 days of purchase for the best taste.
There are a few ways to prepare corn. Raw corn is popular on salads and in salsas or cold dishes, but corn can also be cooked to bring out its naturally sweet flavor. Whether you boil or steam corn, you first will need to entirely shuck each ear of corn. To boil, fill a pot of water and bring it to boil. Place the corn in the pot and allow it to cook for 5-7 minutes. Alternatively, steamed corn requires that the corn only be partially covered by water and it is not necessary to use a steam basket. Fill a pot with about a ½ inch of water. Bring the water to boil and, after placing the corn flat at the bottom, cover the pot for 3-4 minutes.
You can also grill corn to sweetness. Peel back the husks and remove as much of the silk from the kernels as you can. Cover the ear with either butter or olive oil and wrap the husk back around the kernels. While rotating intermittently, cook the corn on the grill for around 15 minutes and remove with a pair of tongs. Regardless of how you cook it, if you want it off the cob, it’s easiest to stand it upright on the stalk end and use a sharp knife to cut the kernels off each side. Try to cut as close to the cob as you can so you have fuller kernels – and watch your fingers!