Corn is a summer staple because it’s the best there is. But you know what makes corn better than the best? Throwing it on a grill and getting some char on those kernels. The technique’s easy, convenient, and loads up sweet corn with smoky depth. From selection to husking, cooking to topping ideas, corn experts Kevin Morrison, chef and owner of Denver’s Pinche Taqueria, Claire Saffitz, BA‘s associate food editor, and senior food editor Chris Morocco give us the lowdown on how to grill corn that’ll knock your socks off.
Charred and Raw Corn with Chile and Cheese. Photo: Ryan Liebe
According to Morrison, there are two main steps to selection: First, try to get local in-season corn. Second, you’ll want to check that the husks look fresh and green. The husks should be tight to the cob and none of the leaves should be falling off. One more tip, says Saffitz, is to feel along the outer husk and make sure that the rows seem neat and tight. It’s bad form to peel husks and check out the cob while you’re shopping, but you don’t have to peel to check the cob top. If the top of the cob isn’t too dry, you should be good to go. Just remember to cook it the day you get it, because the longer fresh corn sits after it’s picked, the more the sugar converts to starch, says Saffitz.
To Oil or Not to Oil
Anything goes. While Morrison adds a little bit of olive or vegetable oil to optimize kernel roasting, Saffitz does her dry. Though Saffitz does note that pre-oiling a cob can help seasoning stick later on.
Ember-Roasted Corn and Leeks. Photo: Kyle Johnson
To Husk or Not to Husk
At Pinche Taqueria, Morrison and his team peel the cob and braid the husk for an extra beautiful presentation. To do the same, peel down the husk, separate into two chunks, and layer left over right then right over left before tying the end off. If braiding’s not quite your speed, you can still keep the peeled-down husk as a handle, or just chop it off.
As for getting that cob on the grill, rest the naked corn directly on the grill. Make sure the cob is parallel to and lodged in between the grates, or else you may have a cob rolling situation on your hands, Saffitz notes. The whole process shouldn’t take any longer than 10 minutes. Just make sure you’re rotating the cobs ever two minutes or so, said Morrison. Some kernels will be darker than others, but that’s all part of the fun and makes for beautiful presentation.
But if you’re feeling up for a little adventure, do it Morocco’s way: don’t de-silk, husk, or soak—and throw fresh corn right on top of the embers. Once the husks are charred and hot, they peel back easily (about 15-20 minutes for this roasted corn recipe). Just shuck and eat.
Corn and Zucchini Salad with Feta. Photo: Roland Bello
Season and Serve
Always season after. Saffitz recommends dressing corn on the cob with a compound butter made of some combination of herbs, salt, and pepper. At Pinche Taqueria, the secret is to pull the corn off the grill and then brush it with a chipotle mayo. Morrison swears by Hellmann’s or Best Foods mayonnaise. He combines one cup mayo with ¼ of a cup of chipotle purée and brushes it on the corn; then, top with a little bit of cotija cheese, diced cilantro, and a generous squeeze of fresh lime juice.
Cooking for a crowd? As much fun as it is to get corn stuck between your teeth, cutting char-kissed kernels off the cob feeds a group just as well. Add kernels to a salad the way you would grains or nuts. Something to keep in mind: “You can’t go wrong with combining ingredients from the same season that peak at the same time (e.g., corn, tomatoes, peaches, etc.),” says Saffitz. And have fun with it—mix and match raw and grilled kernels to vary texture.
Grilled Corn and Nectarine Salad with Toasted Spice Vinaigrette. Photo: Jessup Deane
Other Methods Worth Mentioning
If you’re getting fresh, in-season corn, there’s more sugar and much less starch, said Saffitz: “You can eat it raw.” She can’t totally get behind the remove-the-husk, take-out-the-silk, soak, and-grill method (which basically steams the corn, she said) but it’s one to consider. As is tin foil, which Morocco says is a way to steam it in its own water. But he warns: “The foil doesn’t give it any color” and says boiling it is probably the better route instead of opting for foil.
Morrison remembers the days of boiled corn growing up. Peel the husk completely off, crack off the knob at the bottom, and boil in water for no more than three minutes. Fresh, sweet corn just needs to be heated up. Oh, and smothered in gobs of butter and a dash of salt. That’s how he’ll dish it out at a family gathering come July 4th.
Left to Right—No Excuses
“When you eat, start from the left and work your way to the right,” Morrison said. If you’re wondering why, don’t. “You don’t ask why. That’s just how you do it.”