To determine once and for all the best way to cook corn on the cob, I challenged myself to cut through the elephant’s-eye-high thicket of information and get down to the basics.
Throughout an entire month, I tested more than 30 ears of corn in every conceivable way: husks on. Husks off. Wrapped in aluminum foil. Placed directly in the embers. On the cold side of an indirect fire. And on and on.
I learned several lessons along the way that can be applied to all:
One: Soaking corn in water before putting it over a fire is never a bad idea. The kernels of water-submerged ears invariably came out plumper and juicier than those that went straight to the fire.
Two: Perfection might be in the palate of the beholder. Each method accentuates different aspect of flavor and texture. So depending on what kind of corn lover you consider yourself — a smoke freak, char head or kernel worshiper — there is a method for you. Here’s the results:
WHEN WRAPPED IN ALUMINUM FOIL, I found, a soaked ear of grilled corn tasted practically irrigated. Its kernels squirted. The downside was that the grill flavor was more a whisper than a shout. Still, it was detectable. Yet what more or less amounted to a form of steaming produced a fabulous, straight-ahead corn flavor that a little butter or olive oil slathered on – afterward – only enhanced.
GRILLING CORN NAKED OVER A FIRE — no husk, no foil — looks simple on the videos. But I found I had to watch carefully, because the kernels can blacken quickly and unevenly. Once you get the hang of turning it roughly every two minutes, the corn tans deeply and somewhat more evenly. Perhaps predictably, the corn that went on dry came off dry, while the soaked ear was moister. Its char added depth to that picnic mainstay, corn and bean salad.
SMOKING THE CORN creates the mysterious flavor that only smoke can, but it’s important to grill it a little first. Otherwise, the corn might over-smoke before the kernels are cooked to the desired tenderness. Again, the soaked corn out-performed the non-soaked corn, maintaining more moisture and flavor. The evocative smokiness is wonderful on its own but works even better in familiar side dishes, such as homemade creamed corn.
COOKING IN THE HUSK turned out to be my favorite technique. It can be done using any of the methods I’ve described, but it is particularly well suited to cooking right on the embers. Some recipes will tell you to use twine to secure the husk after removing the silks. Don’t. What happens to twine in a fire? Burns up. Then what? Husks come undone, corn burns. Use aluminum foil instead to bind the husk at the pointy top of the cob. Use long-handled tongs to move the corn frequently. Even then, the ear will be a patchwork of char, bronze and untouched blond. The resulting textural differences, though, add up to spectacular flavor.
Cooking in the husk mates smoking, grilling and steaming and creates the most heady aroma and a flavor that seems to hark back to the field where the corn was picked. Regardless of your flavor profile, cooking in the husk, while the most challenging method, is the most rewarding, and the resulting corn is best eaten on the cob with whatever you want to put on it — including nothing at all.