The Food Lab: 3 Ways to Grill Corn

The Food Lab

Unraveling the mysteries of home cooking through science.

[Photographs: J. Kenji López-Alt. Video: Vicky Wasik]

I've had three great corn epiphanies in my life. The most recent was when my little sister showed me the best, fastest way to prepare fresh corn on the cob indoors.* Before that, a college friend showed me that you can throw whole corn in the husk on the embers of a campfire and, rather than burning into oblivion, it emerges blackened on the outside and perfectly steamed in the middle.

But the first was the most important.

* Place a whole, unshucked ear of corn in the microwave. Microwave it for three minutes. It is now perfectly cooked, and you are welcome.

It happened on a first-grade field trip to an upstate New York farm, in which the kids piled onto a tractor for a tour of the corn fields. I remember the farmer plucking an ear off the stalk as we rode by and passing it back to Daniel Powell,** who took a bite, rolled his eyes a bit, then passed the ear on to me. All of this would have long ago been lost, packed away in some rusty cabinet in the attic of my memory, had it not been for the one crystallizing moment that came next: I bit into that corn and tasted for the first time what 100% fresh-off-the-cob corn can really taste like. Sweet, juicy as an apple, and packed with flavor.

** The same Daniel Powell who once dared me tricked me into eating rubber cement (and subsequently told the teacher when I got a stomachache), and, in a separate incident, stapled my hand to the table.

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Three corn varieties.

It illustrates the first step to really great grilled corn: Start with the freshest corn possible. Whether you start with a yellow, white, or bicolor variety, as soon as it comes off the vine, corn sugars undergo enzymatic reactions that slowly convert them into blander, mealy starches. Though producers are hard at work making corn that not only is sweeter off the stalk but, more importantly, stays sweeter for longer (the Wikipedia entry on sweet corn varieties is fascinating), your best bet for tasty corn is still to buy it as local and fresh as possible—preferably picked that morning and sold at a farmers market or farm stand—and to cook it as soon as you get it home.

So what's the best way to grill corn? I frequently use three different methods, and each has its advantages and drawbacks. Here they are.

Method 1: In the Husk

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In the husk.

Ah, good old epiphany number two. Grilling corn in the husk is easy and tasty and gives you a neat, built-in handle—just fold back the husk to reveal the steamed corn within. Some folks recommend peeling back the husk, removing all the silk, then folding the husk back into place, but I find this to be more trouble than it's worth. Just peel the silk back along with the husk when you shuck it after cooking.

If you want to get really fancy, you can peel back the husk, remove the silk, and add some flavored butter before folding the husk back. This has the advantage of making your corn look magical, but, in terms of improved flavor or cooking qualities, it really doesn't offer more than simply rolling the cob in flavored butter after cooking.

How to do it: Place corn in the husk, directly on top of hot coals, and cook, turning occasionally, until it is steamed through to the center (you can peek and rewrap the corn to check if you need to), about 15 minutes. The corn can also be grilled in the husk on a rack above the coals. The outside should be completely black, but the interior should be steamed and moist. Let the corn cool slightly, pull back the husk and silk, roll in flavored or plain butter if desired, and serve.

Advantages: It's super, super easy on the prep. You can simply buy ears of corn and haul them out to the backyard or campfire, no other work required. It also produces flavorful corn with lightly grassy notes from the husk.

Disadvantages: It can be a little messy to eat (the blackened husk gets on your hands), and it can sometimes be difficult to gauge, timing-wise, whether or not the corn inside is completely cooked. This method also will not produce a charred or grilled flavor.

Method 2: Wrapped in Foil

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Wrapped in foil.

It's very similar in process to the in-the-husk method, but there are a few differences here and there in how the corn ends up.

How to do it: Shuck corn and discard silk and husk. Wrap the corn in heavy-duty aluminum foil, with or without a flavored butter or oil inside. Grill directly on hot coals, or on top of a grate set over the coals, turning occasionally, until the corn is fully cooked, about 15 minutes.

Advantages: Very easy to serve—just pull the corn off, let it rest, and serve. The foil will also keep the corn hot for a long time, making this a good method to use for large gatherings or buffet-style service. As with in-the-husk corn, flavored butter inside the package is a neat trick, but doesn't produce markedly superior results to simply coating the corn in flavored butter after cooking.

Disadvantages: It's heavy on prep, requiring shucking, cleaning, and rewrapping.

Method 3: Grilling Naked

That's the corn naked, not you, of course. This is my personal favorite way to grill corn. It results in corn with charred, browned, nutty bits that really make it taste, well, grilled. And isn't that what this is all about?

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Naked.

How to do it: Shuck and clean corn. Don't worry about getting every last stray piece of silk—they'll burn away on the grill anyway. Do not be tempted to brine your corn. Place the corn directly over a very hot fire, and grill, turning occasionally, until it's charred and cooked through, about 10 minutes total. Serve immediately with flavored or plain butter and salt.

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Advantages: It's quick and easy, it lets you keep an eye on the corn as it grills, and it produces plenty of smoky, charred, grilled flavor.

Disadvantages: The corn won't be quite as juicy as corn steamed in the husk or in foil.

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We may not be able to agree on the best way to grill corn, but let's at least have a delicious ear or two shoved in our mouths while arguing it over, agreed?