Children of the Corn: Baby Corn, Demystified

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[Photograph: Shutterstock]

In addition to my obsession with food, I have something of an infatuation with tiny things. So you can probably imagine how I feel about baby produce. I'll coo and ahh over my budding tomatoes and goochie goo my wee little string beans. But no vegetable floods me with as much maternal delight as mild, crunchy baby corn. I'm the weirdo gazing lovingly at her stir-fry like it's just clapped its pudgy little hands and giggled. There's just something about those tiny rows of kernels, that diminutive center cob that makes me want to pick up an absurdly small set of corn holders and nibble away at it like Tom Hanks in Big.

But have you ever thought about baby corn? I mean really sat and pondered the stuff—not just where it comes from but why you pretty much never, ever see it fresh? Chances are that unless you grow crops of your own, the only baby corn you've ever even seen, let alone tasted, came straight out of a jar or a can.

This fact on its own wouldn't be quite so strange if baby corn were not literally baby corn. After all, there's a fair share of supermarket products that the vast majority of Americans only meet in cans—take hearts of palm or Vienna sausages, for instance. But the United States is the world's top producer of corn, which makes the elusive nature of those adorable little cornlettes (yes, you can call them cornlettes) all the more rankling.

So what's the deal?

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[Photograph: Shutterstock]

To unpack the mystery that is baby corn, we have to talk birds and bees. See, as corn stalks grow, they produce both male and female flowers. The female flowers are ears; the male flowers emerge as a tassel at the top of the plant. For corn to properly mature, the pollen from male flowers must be blown onto the silks protruding from each female ear—each pollinated silk will eventually yield a single kernel of corn.

But baby corn is harvested almost immediately after silks emerge, before pollination occurs. The trademark flavor of sweet corn, let alone anything resembling a mature kernel, has yet to develop at this early stage, since "sugars do not start accumulating until well after pollination," explains Jim Myers, professor of horticulture at Oregon State University. That means that pretty much any breed of corn can yield tender, succulent baby corn, from flint corn (your popcorn and grits), dent corn (corn chips and tortillas), and sweet corn (corn on the cob), to field corn—corn destined for industrial uses like oils and sweeteners, livestock feed, and bio-fuel. And flavor-wise? "A field corn ear won't be much different from a sweet corn ear," Myers emphasizes.

So if there are so many potential sources of baby corn, why is it so hard to find it fresh?

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[Photograph: Shutterstock]

It turns out that most baby corn is grown in Thailand, where it's also known as candle corn. According to Mark Lambert, a representative of the National Corn Grower's Association, "We grow very little if any baby corn in the US, in fact none that I know of personally. It is a very specialized, labor intensive process and a niche market." In other words, it's costly: the mechanical corn harvesters used to strip ears of corn from their stalks aren't designed to work on baby corn. The vegetables need to be harvested by hand, and that means lots and lots of hands and, ultimately, lower profit margins.

"Some people think that baby corn is rather wasteful," says Myers. "You grow this huge grass plant but only take a tiny part to eat." That's why commercial producers have developed seeds that yield more ears than a typical stalk, allowing for more bountiful crops. But the delicate vegetable doesn't travel well and has to be stored in a refrigerated environment, which is why it's virtually always imported in cans or jars, preserved in water with citric or lactic acids, as well as salt and sometimes sugar.

In other words, it tastes canned. "It's a different and, in my opinion, much nicer vegetable when harvested and used fresh," continues Myers. For those enamored by the appearance of the corn and curious about its fresh-picked texture and flavor, it's been likened to hearts of palm: mild, faintly sweet and vegetal, snappy and crunchy. Jealous yet? Heart-wrenchingly disappointed?

Good thing you can totally order it online, request a special batch from a local purveyor, or best of all, grow it in your own garden.

If you are lucky enough to have a patch of land in which to do a little gardening, baby corn is a relatively easy crop to handle—you don't even have to worry about pollination if they're all you're after. That said, Myers suggests growing a sweet corn variety (or whatever corn type you prefer) "and harvesting second ears for baby corn while you allow first ears to mature for the main crop." He elaborates, explaining that "there are prolific varieties that have been developed for baby corn harvest but these are not the best use of one's limited garden resources. You can increase the number of ears per plant by spacing the plants in the row—a foot or 18 inches will suffice." For optimal flavor and texture, the baby corn should be harvested no more than a few days after the silks have emerged from the husk.

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[Photograph: Shutterstock]

Once you've got yourself some cornlettes, whether fresh or jarred, the options are vast. Raw or deep-fried, they make great finger food. Cook them into soups, chowders, and stews or add them to stir-fries. They do well in curries, chili, and even over noodles. Or treat them like their adult brethren and throw them on the grill for mini elotes (or any of these other dressed-up grilled corn variations).

So there you have it, mystery solved. Just be sure to give some mothering encouragement before eating your young.