Vegetable of the Month: Corn

When most of us think of corn, we imagine rows upon rows of the tall stalks, creating vast seas of green in America’s Heartland. For the most part, this is an accurate assumption: corn planted for grain production, or dent corn, covers approximately 80 million acres, representing 90 percent of all grain crops (the others being sorghum, barley, and oats). However, this was not always the case and the corn we enjoy comes in a variety of types, flavors, and sizes.

Corn from Tamai Farms

Background & History

The corn that we cultivate now, Zea mays, was derived from a wild grass, teosinte, which is native to the Americas. The cultivated version has been grown by humans for at least 3,500 years. When Europeans first landed in the New World, different groups of people were growing thousands of different cultivars of corn and preparing them in many different ways, including roasting, baking, steaming, parching, drying, and pickling.

As western expansion led to the development of the Midwest and West, corn fields began to replace forests and grassland. By 1910, corn fields already covered 100 million acres in the United States. With improvements in technology and changes to farming techniques in the 1940s, corn yield per acre increased and farmers were able to produce more corn on less land. For example, in Iowa in 1935, corn crops yielded 39 bushels per acre. In 1965, they yielded 62 bushels per acre and in 2000, they yielded 145 bushels per acre.

The most common type of corn, dent corn, is used for livestock feed, corn-based food products (e.g., corn syrup), ethanol, and other non-edible products (e.g., plastic filler). The amount of corn used for ethanol has increased drastically in the 2000s. In 1999, 566 million bushels were used for ethanol. Today, 4.9 billion bushels are used for ethanol.

Characteristics & Types

Corn plants have a cane stalk, like other grasses, ears, and tassels. The ears, or the female part of the plant, must be wind-pollinated by the pollen in the tassels. Once pollinated, the kernels will fill out the ear.

Common types of corn include:

  • Dent Corn. As described above, this variety, also called field corn, is the most common in agriculture. It is used for products such as cornmeal, flour, and hominy. The kernels have a small depression on the top, hence the name “dent” corn.

  • Broom Corn. Actually a different species, Sorghum bicolor, varieties of this type of corn have a broom-like top and include “Black Amber,” Black Kafir,” and Hungarian Black-Seeded” corn.

  • Flint Corn. Flint corn has a very hard kernel and, when milled, these are most commonly used as cornmeal.

  • Flour Corn. The soft kernels of this corm make it easy to mill into a soft flour. They grow very well in the Southwest.

  • Miniature Corn. These little corn cobs are found commonly in Asian dishes. They are harvested early, within a week of the first signs of silk.

  • Ornamental Corn. Commonly called Indian corn, this corn is grown for decorative purposes. The kernels have a variety of attractive colors that can be dried.

  • Parching Corn. This type of corn comes in red or black colors and the kernels will split when cooked. They are used for general eating.

  • Popcorn. Actually one of the oldest types of corn that hasn’t changed much from it’s original cultivar, popcorn has a variety of colors and comes in 50 varieties.

Tips & How to Enjoy

Unless you are planning to start making cornmeal, you will most likely be selecting sweet corn at the farmers market. The best way to select corn is to peel back the husk and puncture a kernel with your fingernail. If it has a satisfying pop or squirt, then it’s perfectly ripe. Avoid the corn if it’s dry, mushy, or too hard. If you find this unsanitary, you can judge the ripeness by looking at the tassels. If they are brown and sticky, the corn is likely to be ripe. If they are black, they are overripe and dried out.

If you plan on grilling the corn, leave the husks on the cob and soak them in water for about 15 minutes. With the husks still on, you can put them on a medium temperature grill for about 15-20 minutes. A variation of grilled corn with some tasty flavored butters can be found here.

For most other preparation, you will need to remove the husks and silk. A classic black bean, tomato, and corn salad can be a great addition to any late summer dish. And, since winter is just around the corner, freeze some corn and use it throughout the year in soups. Here is a healthy corn soup with tomatoes and basil and a corn chowder recipe, straight from the Heartland!

Corn Chowder

  • 1 very large potato or 2 small potatoes
  • salted water
  • ½ onion, chopped
  • 1 ¾ cup corn kernels
  • ½ cup thinly sliced pimento or red peppers
  • salt & pepper
  • pinch of thyme
  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 2 cups milk
  • ½ cup light cream
  • ½ to 1 teaspoon paprika
  • 1 tablespoon brown sugar

Peel potatoes as thinly as possible and dice into ½ inch cubes. Cook in salted water, covered, for 20 minutes. Saute onions in butter in large pot. Add remaining ingredients and simmer for 20-30 minutes, stirring occasionally. Soup should be slightly thickened and delicate in flavor. Serve with black bread or French garlic bread.

Fun Facts:

  • The sweetness of sweet corn is the result of identifying a recessive “sweet gene” in the lab in the 1950s at the University of Illinois.

  • Kellogg’s first sold cornflakes in 1898.

  • In its present form, corn cannot exist without the help of humans.


Burpee’s The Complete Vegetable and Herb Gardener: A Guide to Growing Your Garden Organically, Karan Davis Cutler, 1997.

This entry was posted in Produce of the Month. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *