Corn pudding and hush puppies, cornbread stuffing and succotash. If anything qualifies as authentic American cooking, it surely involves corn. We eat it fresh—still on the cob, creamed, and as the critical ingredient in corn chowder. We eat it dried and ground into cornmeal—in corn pone and muffins, as fritters and johnnycake. Domesticated for millennia, corn has come a long way from its teosinte roots.
Today have six types of corn, five of which are the result of selective breeding: pod corn, flint corn, popcorn (this could be considered a subset of flint corn), flour corn, dent corn, and sweet corn. (Pod corn is a mutant that forms leaves around each kernel, and isn’t commercially useful.)
As Thanksgiving approaches, many of us use flint corn in our decorating. These are the multi-colored ears also known as Indian corn, because it has been cultivated by native Americans for thousands of years. Flint corn gets its name from its extra-hard hull—as hard as flint. It has a lower starch content which makes it resistant to freezing, so it does well in colder climates.
Hominy is a form of flint corn that has been treated with an alkali; it’s often ground into grits. But most varieties of flint corn are grown because they look pretty, not because they necessarily taste good.
I think my favorite is popcorn—I’m rather addicted to it. I’m not alone; popcorn has been around for at least 5,000 years. It’s sometimes considered a form of flint corn. In fact, you can buy multi-colored popcorn, although it looks white when popped, as the hull is hidden inside the exploded endosperm. The kernels have an extra hard outer hull and a high moisture content. When heated, that moisture becomes steam. Pressure builds inside the hull until the kernel bursts. The result is extra tasty with salt and lots of melted butter!
On the other hand, flour corn has a thin hull, and lots of starch. It’s left to dry on the cob, then (as you’d suspect from its name) ground into corn flour. Tortillas, anyone?
Dent corn is a relative newcomer, developed by an American farmer, James L. Reid, around 1846. It has a particularly high starch content. Most of our modern hybrids have dent corn genes.
Sweet corn is eaten fresh, not dried. It first arose a few hundred years ago as a spontaneous mutation. Since then, a lot of breeding has resulted in corn that is earlier maturing, disease resistant, and more productive.
It’s also sweeter than ever, thanks to the identification of the genes that govern sugar content. If you’re ordering sweet corn from a seed catalog, you may have to choose between cultivars designated su (normal sugary), se (sugary enhanced), or sh2 (shrunken-2). (It’s actually a bit more complicated than that, as breeders continually come up with new combinations.)
Su indicates the old-fashioned varieties, the kind your grandmother grew. As soon as they’re picked, they begin to lose sweetness as sugars turn into starches.
Sh2 cultivars have a higher sugar content, and they stay sweet for a couple of weeks after harvesting. In these cultivars, starches are replaced by sugars, which takes up less room. The result is a shriveled kernel. (Sh stands for shrunken.) Lacking plenty of starches to feed the developing embryo, these cultivars don’t germinate as well in cold soil. It’s also vital to separate sh2 cultivars other types of corn, as cross pollination results in tough, inedible ears.
Se varieties are similar, in that they also have a high, long lasting sugar content. Additionally, their hull is very tender, with delicious results. Se corn needs to be isolated from sh2 and field or popcorn, but not from su cultivars.
The latest craze in sweet corn, ‘Ruby Red’ is an se hybrid that hit the market a few years ago. It’s the first commercially available sweet corn I’ve seen with red kernels. If you want to eat it fresh, it needs to be picked before the deep red color fully develops. Left on the stalk until dry, the brightly colored ears make good decorations. You can order it from Burpee Seeds (which is the source of this photo—please don’t sue me).
Because of the danger of cross-pollination, the home gardener with limited space does best to just choose one variety of corn to grow each year. If you’re determined to try more than one, be sure to separate them in time, with one crop tasseling and pollinating well before the other.