Corn on the cob and fire, put to the test
Internet videos and cookbook recipes make grilling corn seem as easy as basic arithmetic. Cob on the fire (plus) cob off the fire (equals) classic summer bite. But the ear of corn I was holding might as well have been a calculus problem.
Why? Because after studying those videos and recipes, I was more confused than ever. Each method is different, but all promise the same outcome: perfection.
To determine once and for all the best way to cook corn, I challenged myself to cut through the elephant's-eye-high thicket of information and get down to the basics. That's where things really got complicated, and where the calculus comes in.
Throughout an entire month, I tested more than 30 ears of corn in every conceivable way: husks on. Husks off. Wrapped in aluminum foil. Placed directly in the embers. On the cold side of an indirect fire. And on and on.
I learned several lessons along the way, many applicable solely to the method being tested. Two of the lessons, though, could be applied to all.
One: Soaking corn in water before putting it over a fire is never a bad idea. The kernels of water-submerged ears invariably came out plumper and juicier than those that went straight to the fire.
Two: Perfection might be in the palate of the beholder. Each method accentuates different aspect of flavor and texture. So depending on what kind of corn lover you consider yourself -- a smoke freak, char head or kernel worshipper -- there is a method for you.
Initially, I tried each method five ways: soaking the corn, not soaking, flavoring with butter, flavoring with olive oil and not flavoring at all. The flavorings, frankly, seemed only to complicate things. Whether charred, smoked or steamed, each ear took on too much of the flavor of the fat to truly spotlight the taste and texture of the corn.
So I dropped them entirely and could finally concentrate.
Every chomp into the glorious seasonal vegetable became a rumination on tiny differences. This one was juicy but a little starchy, that one benefited from a caramelized char but was a tad dry. Which was the perfect ear of corn?
When wrapped in aluminum foil, I found, a soaked ear of grilled corn tasted practically irrigated. Its kernels squirted. The downside was that the grill flavor was more a whisper than a shout. Still, it was detectable. Another downside was that after a few bites the corn tasted slightly starchy, not as sugar-sweet as some of the other versions. That was probably due to a lack of caramelizing, which occurs when the corn is singed by fire. Yet what more or less amounted to a form of steaming produced a fabulous, straight-ahead corn flavor that a little butter or olive oil slathered on -- afterward -- only enhanced. Kernel worshippers will love this version because it plumps the kernels to practically bursting, awarding deep pleasure to rows of munching.
Grilling corn naked over a fire -- no husk, no foil -- looks simple on the videos. But I found I had to watch carefully, because the kernels can blacken quickly and unevenly. Once you get the hang of turning it roughly every two minutes, the corn tans deeply and somewhat more evenly. (Some deviation, as a mathematician might say, is a welcome thing.) Perhaps predictably, the corn that went on dry came off dry, while the soaked ear was moister. Its char added depth to that picnic mainstay, corn and bean salad, whose lime-accented sprightliness was subtly set off by deeply caramelized and even blackened kernels. With its wonderful grill flavor, this corn is for the char heads.
Smoking the corn creates the mysterious flavor that only smoke can, but it's important to grill it a little first. Otherwise, the corn might over-smoke before the kernels are cooked to the desired tenderness. Again, the soaked corn outperformed the non-soaked corn, maintaining more moisture and flavor. The evocative smokiness is wonderful on its own but works even better in familiar side dishes to add an enigmatic quality. Which it did for, of all things, the much-maligned creamed corn. To be clear, I'm talking here of homemade creamed corn. There is such a thing, and it is fabulous. And it transcends all vestiges of childhood yuckiness when lashed with the flavor of wood-smoked, bronzed kernels. This is corn candy for smoke freaks.
Cooking in the husk turned out to be my favorite technique. It can be done using any of the methods I've described, but it is particularly well suited to cooking right on the embers. Some recipes will tell you to use twine to secure the husk after removing the silks. Don't. What happens to twine in a fire? Burns up. Then what? Husks come undone, corn burns. Use aluminum foil instead to bind the husk at the pointy top of the cob. Use long-handled tongs to move the corn frequently. Even then, the ear will be a patchwork of char, bronze and untouched blond. The resulting textural differences, though, add up to spectacular flavor.
Cooking in the husk mates smoking, grilling and steaming and creates the most heady aroma and a flavor that seems to hark back to the field where the corn was picked. Regardless of your flavor profile, cooking in the husk, while the most challenging method, is the most rewarding, and the resulting corn is best eaten on the cob with whatever you want to put on it -- including nothing at all.
There was a touch of madness about this whole thing, a fever that broke one evening with that revelation about the folly of perfection. It's about what you like, and sometimes I like the char flavor of direct grilling, sometimes the juicy burst of foil-wrapped corn, sometimes the field-fire aroma of smoked corn. Just depends on my mood and how I am going to eat it.
The key was cooking each properly. All of the methods, I should note, produced corn that was great with butter and salt -- but only after it came off the grill. Pretty simple conclusion, right? Somehow, we need to complicate things before we can know how profound simplicity can be.
• Follow Jim Shahin on Twitter @jimshahin.