The Food Lab Lite: The Best Corn Chowder
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As a New Englander, chowder runs thick in my blood. Besides eating it straight off the cob, there's no better way to enjoy summer corn in all its sweet glory than in a sweet, rich, and creamy bowl of chowder. My mother's recipe invovled a can of creamed corn, an equal amount of half-and-half, and a teaspoon of chicken bouillon. I loved that version growing up (and it's still a cornerstone of my little sister's recipe repertoire), but over the years I've been perfecting my own take on the dish, and its secret really comes down to one thing:
Want to know the secret to great corn chowder? Great corn. It's as simple as that. The trick is getting the great corn. After that, it's a cake walk.
Ears To You
Seminal food moment #23: Second grade field trip to an upstate New York farm. Me, on a tractor, the farmer grabbing an ear of corn as he drives by, shucking it, and handing it to me to taste. In my head I was thinking "Holy Skeletor! I'd trade in my Battle-Armor He-Man for more of this!", which roughly translates to my current vocabulary as "Holy f*&k, this tastes amazing!" (My eloquence has diminished significantly through the years.)
Incredibly sweet, bright, and flavorful, it became the definition of good corn in my mind; the corn that all corn since has tried to live up to. This happens only rarely.
With corn, freshness is everything. See, the vast majority of corn produced in the world is picked when fully mature and used as a grain to feed livestock. Sweet corn—the variety of corn we buy from the grocer or farmer's market—on the other hand, is eaten before it reaches maturity. This is crucial. All corn loses sweetness as it ripens; the sugars naturally present within each kernel slowly convert into starches.
Because of the result of a happy mutation several hundred years ago, sweet corn has a far higher concentration of sugar in its kernels than the regular old field corn it mutated from. It's this mutation coupled with its useful harvest that gives it an intense sweetness.
But here's the hitch: as soon as the ear leaves the stalk, that sugar begins converting to starch. Within a single day of harvest, an ear of corn will lose up to 50% of its sugar when left at room temperature. Even more—up to 90%—when it's sitting out in the hot sun at the farmer's market.
Moral of the story? Buy your corn as fresh as possible, refrigerate it as soon as you can, and cook it the day you buy it.
In my book, all chowders contain dairy (don't give me none of that Manhattan clam chowder crap), most contain potatoes, and some contain pork—all traditional and inexpensive New England products. I used to make my corn chowder with bacon—the most readily available cured pork product at the supermarket, but I was never too happy with its dominating smoky flavor, so I switched over to unsmoked salt pork.
Eventually, I realized that salt pork is really just a crutch for sub-par corn. If I'm going out of my way to get the best corn possible, I want its flavor to really shine. These days, I use no meat at all in my chowder (other than mild chicken or vegetable stock if I have it on hand).
Most chowder recipes call for sweating down some onions in butter, adding your corn kernels, potatoes, and dairy, perhaps thickening with a bit of flour, and letting it cook down. None of this bothers me. What does bother me is what goes into the trash: the empty corn cobs.
Anyone else out there go for two or three rounds on their corn on the cob just to suck at the little bits of sweet milk left in the cob after you've eaten the kernels off? Like the crispy fat around a rib bone, that's the tastiest part of the corn. Why would you want to throw it away?
Instead, I like to use the corn-milking technique: scraping out the milky liquid from off the cobs with the back of a knife. By then infusing your base stock with the scraped milk and empty corn cobs (along with a few aromatics), you can vastly increase the corniness of the finished soup. (I mean that in a good way.)
It doesn't take long to infuse the stock—all of ten minutes, which is just about enough time to sweat off your onions and corn kernels.
I even made a quick video of how it's done a couple years back.*
*Please excuse the un-HD and un-SeriousEats-brandedness of it.
Once you've got your corn milk stock made, the rest is simple: simmer your onion-butter-corn-flour-stock-potato mix until the potatoes are tender, add your half-and-half (I prefer it to cream as the fattiness of cream can cover up some of that sweet corn flavor), and puree just enough of it to give the soup some body and help keep the yellow butterfat properly emulsified into the mix.
The great thing about this stock-infusing technique is that it's totally adaptable. Sometimes I feel like making a smooth and sweet corn velouté, which I'll make exactly like my chowder, omitting the potatoes and cream, and blending until completely smooth in the blender. Want your sweet corn ice cream extra corn-y? Just add the corn milk and steep the cobs in the dairy (Max uses the technique in this sweet corn and basil ice cream recipe). You say you like the flavor of bacon in your chowder? Go for it, nothing's stopping you except perhaps your cholesterol and your spouse.
I, fortunately, have a spouse who can be plied with corn soup when I really want to get my way. Might I suggest you try the same?
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About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Chief Creative Officer of Serious Eats where he likes to explore the science of home cooking in his weekly column The Food Lab. You can follow him at @thefoodlab on Twitter, or at The Food Lab on Facebook.