Uncommon Corn

For improved nutrition and great taste, try growing these colorful whole-grain corns.

| Summer 2018

More than 500 billion pounds of corn are grown in the United States annually, mostly for livestock. Sadly, we humans have lost our appreciation for corn as a whole grain to cook and eat ourselves. Today, we think of corn mostly as a sweet vegetable, but many types of unsweet grain corn deserve much wider use in our gardens and kitchens.

Corn (Zea mays) was developed about 7,000 years ago in the Oaxaca Valley of Mexico. Many Native American tribes came to depend upon this easy-to-grow, protein-rich grain. Modern, commercial grain corn products are commonly degermed to lengthen their shelf life, but degerming removes flavor and nutrition. So, if you want to enjoy the most flavorful and nutritious corn possible, you have to do what the Oaxacans did — grow and grind your own.

Processed cornmeal, grits, polenta, and other corn products have had their skins and germs removed, both of which carry much of the flavor. The germ is removed because it’s high in natural fats, which turn rancid quickly after the corn is ground if it’s not refrigerated. Removing the germ from the corn dramatically reduces the vitamin and mineral content. This “Whole Grain is Healthier” table shows the dramatic nutritional difference between 1 cup of whole-grain yellow cornmeal and 1 cup of degermed yellow cornmeal.

And there’s another problem: Mass-market corn products, including most organic ones, are made from high-yield hybrids rather than from high-flavor corns. The optimal corns for people-food are heirlooms or specialty cultivars. Some small companies are producing exceptional freshly ground, whole-grain heirloom corn products.

The main reason companies grow hybrid corn rather than open-pollinated (OP) corn is productivity. Some hybrids are more productive, disease-tolerant, and resistant to falling over — called “lodging” — than OP varieties. But they don’t taste very good. And by saving the seeds from your own OP corn, you can develop a variety well-adapted to your climate, site, and soil. There may also be important nutritional differences between modern hybrids and many varieties of OP corn; for example, OP corn often has higher protein content than hybrids.

Whole Corn Cookery

If you start with a good-tasting cultivar, handle it properly, and cook it with care, whole-grain corn can be the basis for some truly satisfying food. Glenn Roberts, founder of Anson Mills in Columbia, South Carolina, speaks of heirloom corn the way vintners speak of wine. (Anson Mills sells cornmeal, polenta, and grits to top chefs and other consumers by mail order, and works to preserve 20 heirloom corns.) Roberts describes blue-corn grits as having “flavor nuances that start out mineral and then blossom into citrus peel” as they’re slowly cooked at temperatures of less than 180 degrees Fahrenheit. To get the full flavor from any type of culinary grain corn, Roberts says, it’s essential for the corn to ripen and dry on the stalks. Slow drying, low-temperature milling, and immediate refrigeration of freshly ground corn keep the flavors alive.

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