Sweet corn on the cob is a pleasure that is nearly unrivaled. Messy in the way that the best foods are messy, like a ripe peach that drips juice down the arm or a wedge of melon that slicks your cheeks with sweetness. There is something about the pop of kernels against your teeth, the way the starchy sweet sap can fly sideways and catch a neighboring diner unawares. Eating corn on the cob is visceral.
Everyone has their own cob-management technique. There are those who address one side at a time, leaving behind a cob that is somewhat square. Some go around and around. Having learned as a youngster with braces that the kernels can be pried out with the bottom teeth instead of sheared off at the base, I leave a cob so denuded that it looks as if squirrels have gotten to it. They can laugh all they want, I’m the only one not picking corn and silk out of my teeth all night.
When to Grill Corn
The sweeter and fresher the corn, the more I am an advocate of steaming. This gentle cooking method is ideal for farmers’ market or farmstand corn, as it doesn’t use boiling water that will leach out some of its flavor. But you don’t always have access to just-picked bounty, and when the corn is grocery-store fresh, but not farm fresh, I think grilling is your best bet. The smokiness of the grill and the little bit of char that it imparts actually makes the corn taste sweeter, with the fire helping to caramelize the natural sugars in the corn.
Grilling corn is pretty easy, and there are two basic methods I employ: husk on or husk off.
Prep the Grill and the Corn
For grilling corn, you want to be sure your grill is hot, well-oiled, and preferably has a hot side for direct cooking and a cool side for indirect heat. For husk-on corn, trim the tops of excess husk and silk, and snap any bottom extra stem off. Place all of your husked ears in a large bowl and cover with cold water and let soak for 10-15 minutes before cooking.
For husk-off corn, just shuck and remove all traces of silk. Then lightly oil or spray with cooking spray.
I cook corn husk on when I want a middle ground between steamed corn and grilled corn. By soaking the whole cobs in water, you prevent a “cornflagration,” and the corn will steam inside the husks as the outside chars. The smoky taste will be somewhat minimized. This is a great method for corn you are going to eat right off the cob, or with accompaniments like herbed butter, or in the style of Mexican elote. Cook on your grill over direct heat, turning often, for about eight minutes.
I use this when I am afraid the corn is particularly starchy, or when I plan on removing it from the cob to use in another recipe like a salsa or salad. This style of grilling will result in corn that has a bit more toothsomeness and chew, and a deep smoky flavor. It can stand up to spicy or vinegary accompaniments, but also is great taken off the cob and re-fried in butter. You want to cook this over indirect heat on your grill for the first five minutes, turning frequently, then finish over direct heat for as much char as you like.