Corn Meets Grill – Tips for Grilled Corn

Updated July 5, 2024

One of the most universally loved grains on the planet is sweet corn, in season in North America from May through September. And it’s no wonder. As a vegetable, it delivers sweetness, creaminess, and toothsome texture, even when…ahem…boiled. Not that we would ever select that cooking method for fresh corn on the cob. (Steven, originally from Maryland, famous for its sweet corn, says he hasn’t boiled corn in over 25 years.) We prefer ours husked and grilled over a medium-hot fire, turning it frequently until some of the kernels are appealingly dappled with flavor-enhancing char. Slather with melted butter, sprinkle generously with salt and pepper, and eat as is. Or for something different, try one of our internationally-inspired recipes. (See below.)

In the meantime, here are tips for buying and storing the best sweet corn:

*Buy locally, if possible. (Sweet corn is grown in all 50 states.) Look for fresh-cut stems, green, unblemished husks, and moist, fresh-looking silk. (Each strand of silk represents an individual kernel of corn; each ear hosts about 800 kernels in even rows.)

*The ears should feel firm and heavy for their size.

*There is no need to partially husk the corn before buying as the practice essentially ruins the ear for the next customer and irritates the vendor.

*Gently squeeze the top of the ear; it should feel firm.

*Store the ears, stem side down, in a bucket with an inch or so of fresh water in the bottom in a cool place. Alternatively, refrigerate the corn (unhusked) for up to a day. After it’s picked, the sugars in the kernels begin to convert to starch, which is why it’s important to use (or can or freeze) sweet corn promptly.

Grilled Corn

Travel the world’s barbecue trail and you’ll find a number of constants. Every culture has its version of grilled ground meat, for example, from Middle Eastern kofta to Pakistani chapli kebab to the classic American hamburger.

Meat on a stick is another constant, morphing from Peruvian anticuchos to French brochettes to Azeri lula, Indonesian sate, and Turkish shish kebab.

Summertime, with its farmers markets and roadside produce stands, gets me thinking about another dish that turns up on every corner of Planet Barbecue: grilled corn.

The short list of memorable grilled corn I’ve eaten around Planet Barbecue includes:

Oaxaca, Mexico, where corn is grilled over a charcoal fire, slathered with mayonnaise (yes, mayonnaise), sprinkled with piquant grated cotija cheese, chili powder, and lime juice.
Port of Spain, Trinidad, where grilled corn comes smeared with garlic-culantro butter.
Mumbai, India, where they electrify grilled corn with fresh lime juice and cayenne pepper.
Bogota, Colombia, where street vendors grill corn over portable charcoal braziers to be brushed with margarine, sprinkled with grating cheese, and served to you on a stick.
Hokaido, Japan, where the corn is so supernaturally sweet it requires nothing more than a quick char over a binchotan charcoal fueled hibachi. (Elsewhere, Japanese grill masters baste less sweet varieties with a mixture of melted butter and soy sauce, sprinkling on sesame seeds for crunch.

Americans grill corn, too, but we are riven by debate. On one side: advocates of grilling corn in the husk, who argue that the husk keeps the corn moist, protecting the delicate kernels from scorching.

The other camp insists on grilling the corn naked (with husk off). This caramelizes the sugars in the kernels, producing sweet, smoky caramel flavors. Grilling is all about fire: You won’t get big flavors unless the kernels come in direct contact with the flames. Husk on grilling steams the corn, these partisans argue, which gives you no more extra flavor than boiling.

If you’ve watched Primal Grill or Barbecue University, you know where I stand on the debate: I always grill my corn with the husk off. Or more precisely, with husk stripped back (a technique rather like peeling a banana) and tied together below the ear to form a sort of handle. This makes it easy to munch the flame-charred kernels right off the cob. To keep the husk handles from burning, slide a grill shield under them (pictured at top) or a sheet of folded aluminum foil.

Actually, there’s an exception to my husk off rule: corn grilled “caveman” style (pictured above). Here you lay the ears, husk, silk and all, directly on the embers and grill until the husk and silk burn off. A splash of butter, a grind of pepper, and a sprinkle of sea salt, and you may be looking at the best corn on the planet.

Check out our 1000+ Recipes section here on Barbecue Bible.Com

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