Sweet corn!

Sweet Corn1
It’s hard not to get excited when spying a roadside stand displaying rows of juicy ears just waiting to be taken home, dunked in boiling water and slathered with butter.

By Olivia Bloom

Nothing signifies the height of summer like biting into a sweet, succulent ear of corn, preferably fresh picked from the field. And those of us with melted butter running down our chins are not alone. Americans eat a lot of corn, about 21 pounds per person annually.

It’s hard not to get excited when spying a roadside stand displaying rows of juicy ears just waiting to be taken home, dunked in boiling water and slathered with butter. While that may be the preferred cooking method, Paula Szalay, of the family-owned Szalay’s Farm & Market in Peninsula, insists that raw is best.

“I had a mom with two young girls shopping in our farm market the other day and the girls were kind of fussy and tired,” Paula recalls.

“So I grabbed an ear, shucked it, broke it in two and gave each girl half. The mom called me a few days later and told me the girls don’t want their corn cooked anymore, but only want to eat it ‘the way the lady gave it to them.’”

Sweet corn is technically a grain, not a vegetable, and has undergone radical transformation since the Supersweet hybrid was introduced in the late 1970s. The sugar in corn starts to turn to starch as soon as the ear is separated from the stalk, losing nearly half its sweetness within 12 hours of picking if not chilled. This makes transporting the ears difficult, especially if they have to be trucked long distances.

The hybrids have changed that, extending the shelf life and enabling corn to be shipped to northern states even in winter. But those of us in Northeast Ohio know that fresh is best. The typical harvest time for sweet corn here is mid-July through early September. Corn typically takes 60-80 days to produce a crop, according to Lana Rufener of Rufener Hilltop Farms & Market in Mogadore, Ohio.

“We just planted our last crop of the season this week, which we’ll harvest in early September,” she says, adding that corn harvested later in the season is better than the first early ears. “You get a bigger ear and it’s sweeter.”

Lana and her family harvest their corn every day and will even go back out into the fields to get more if they run out. In addition to offering corn at their own market, Rufener sells her harvest to Fishers Foods in the Canton area.

Corn is planted in multiple waves throughout the season and is continuously harvested. Ideal growing conditions include temperatures between 68 and 73 degrees, but corn can survive temperatures as low as 32 degrees and as high as 112 degrees for short periods. A steady supply of moisture is essential.

“We didn’t quite make the old adage of ‘knee high by the Fourth of July’ this year because of the lack of rain in late June and early July,” Paula Szalay says. “We’re really hoping for a good, long soaking soon to stay on track.”

The stalks grow seven to 10 feet tall and each cob has an average of 800 kernels with one strand of silk for each kernel. Each cob always features an even number of rows. Ohio is the sixth largest producer of sweet corn in the U.S., which is ranked first in corn production worldwide. Paula says the most popular variety of corn is the yellow and white, often referred to as “honey and cream.”

“The taste changes every day,” she says. “You know how a wine connoisseur can taste subtle differences? Corn is the same way. It all depends on the amount of rain, the temperature and the soil.”

Scott Graf of Graf Growers Garden Center in Akron agrees. He attributes the sweet taste of his corn to the cold water bath the ears get as soon as they are harvested and the black, peat-based “muck soil” that he and his family grow their corn in.

“We grow our corn in drained swamp land which retains moisture,” he says. “We rarely have to irrigate and that shows in our corn. Even with the sparse rainfall we’ve had recently, our ears are bursting with sweetness.”

Scott says the popular bicolor corn really took off about 30 years ago and he doesn’t remember the last time he planted corn that was all one color.

“The single color varieties aren’t as sweet and they are coarser and chewy. Our customers demand the bicolor corn.”

The best way to tell if the corn in stores or roadside stands is fresh is not to yank back the husk, but to look at the stalk end. If the cut is brown and dry, it is past its prime. The cut should still be moist and white or just a little bit brown at the edges. Take it home immediately and store it in the refrigerator, where it will retain most of its flavor for up to five days.

The best way to preserve that summertime flavor all year ‘round is by freezing. Lana’s method is to toss the ears of corn into boiling water for a few minutes then plunge them into a sink filled with cold water. She removes the kernels and then turns the knife over and runs it down the cob.

“Use the flat end to get the juice; it really makes a difference,” she says. She adds a little butter and seals the corn in freezer bags.

Paula’s method is to place an ear of corn in the center of a Bundt cake pan, and scrape the kernels off with a knife.

“If you use the pan your kernels don’t go rolling around all over the place,” she explains.

She also says you can freeze corn right in the husks.

“You literally can’t mess it up.”

Other than eating corn raw or boiled, Scott’s favorite method is to grill it.

“I like to soak the ears in water for a bit, then put them on the grill. When the husks are brown they’re done,” he says. Scott also grills corn with the husks off, which blackens the kernels on the cob.

One of Paula’s customers likes to fry the corn while it is still on the cob, which “caramelizes it and gives it a smooth flavor.”

But when the Szalay clan is really busy they “just put it in the microwave for three minutes in the husk, pull it out, roll it in butter, salt it and eat.”

Graf Growers Garden Center is located at 1015 White Pond Drive, in Akron.

Rufener Hilltop Farms & Market is at 1022 State Rte. 43, in Mogadore.

Szalay’s Farm & Market is located at 4563 Riverview Road, in Peninsula.