Summer is for sweet corn, field corn – and corn queso
As you drive down almost any highway in Illinois, a common sight this time of year is row after row of corn (it’s the state’s biggest crop after all). It might be easy to associate that corn on the cob you’re enjoying this summer with what you see in the field. But, you might not realize that sweet corn only accounts for one out of every 100 ears of corn grown in the U.S. So, what’s the difference between what you see in the field and the sweet corn cob that’s on your plate?
- There are lots of different seed varieties a sweet corn farmer can choose to plant, ranging from growing climate to color to sweetness.
- Sweet corn is harvested in July and August, before the sugars convert to starch, so there is lots of water in the kernels to make it sweet and juicy.
- A combine gently picks the whole ear and puts it into a cart. On my farm, we pick our corn by hand. It takes practice but after a few ears you can tell by the size and the feel of the ear if it’s mature enough to eat. The fresher the corn is, the greener the husks will be, so when you’re picking out sweet corn at the grocery store, farmers market or sweet corn stand, look for greener husks.
- Sweet corn is usually light to golden yellow in color or even bi-color with a mix of white and yellow.
- A sweet corn plant tends to be shorter and has fewer leaves.
- In just a few hours after harvest, sweet corn is typically at the processing plant being canned or frozen.
- Uses: Sweet corn is eaten fresh off the cob, or frozen or canned for later use. My favorite way to eat sweet corn is about an hour after it’s picked, then we shuck and boil it, and add some butter and pepper. We also freeze a lot and eat it throughout the year.
Field or grain corn
- Just like sweet corn, there are lots of field corn varieties from which farmers can choose.
- Field corn is harvested in September or October when the kernels are hard and relatively dried out (when the kernel dries out, it gets a noticeable dent in the middle – earning this kind of corn the nickname, “dent corn”).
- A combine separates the kernels from the cob in one single process, thanks to the modern technology we have today!
- Field corn is more of a dark yellow or orange tint in color.
- A field corn plant is taller (up to 12 feet tall and more) and fuller looking with more leaves.
- I deliver my field corn to a local grain elevator at harvest. Some of the corn I raise goes to ethanol plants, where it’s used to make renewable fuel. It can be loaded onto railroad cars, which go to other states to feed livestock, or it’s put on barges on the Illinois River where it may be exported for use around the world. And of course, some might stay in my local area to feed cattle and pigs.
- Uses: Field corn gets used in many ways: livestock feed; processed into corn meal, flour and starch; as an ingredient in other foods (like cereal, chips, etc.); ethanol – a renewable fuel; bioplastics; the list goes on.
Next time you drive by a corn field, you’ll know that the rows of corn you see most likely aren’t destined for your plate in the form of sweet corn on the cob. But, they’re still doing great things to feed and fuel our world.
Looking for a new way to enjoy sweet corn? Chicagoan Kit Graham shares this delicious recipe for corn queso that’s a must try. Bonus: It also includes a field corn ingredient: corn starch!