How to Choose the Best Corn, According to Farmers and Grocery Store Managers

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Choosing sweet corn can be “a gamble,” says Jenna Untiedt, marketing manager at Vegetable farm Untiedt in Minnesota. And she is right. Unless you have x-ray vision goggles, it’s impossible to see what’s under these shells – unless, of course, you peel them off. And that’s something you really don’t want to do (more on that below). There are, however, many other ways to find out if the corn you are buying meets your standards.

I spoke with Untiedt and four other farmers and grocery store managers to find out exactly what those methods are. They share their expert advice on how to choose fresh sweet corn – and some behaviors we should strongly consider retiring. Whether you’re at a farmers’ market or the grocery store, here’s what you need to know the next time you’re shopping for corn.

1. Do not peel off the envelope.

I’m sure most of us (if not all) have read this. Still, it bears repeating. Why am I saying this? Because all person I spoke to brought it up, and for several very good reasons: not only is it “unnecessary” as one farmer pointed out (there are less damaging ways to tell if corn meets your standards ), but it “gives it back if someone else isn’t going to pick it up and run home with it,” says Steve Verrill, co-owner of Verrill Farms in Concord, Massachusetts. And in the case of farm stands and farmers’ markets, he explains, it will attract flies. It can also be dangerous for other shoppers, especially in grocery stores where people can slip more easily on tiled floors, according to David Dudley, produce manager at Sprouts Farmers Market.

2. Or even worse, dig your fingernail into a pit.

If that sounds rude, that’s because it is. Like peeling the husk, this too will cause the corn to dry out. (It also means someone is glue their fingernail in your food.) “People think they can tell freshness by spicing it,” says Untiedt, whose farm produces all the corn that goes to the Minnesota State Fair. “You can do it visually, though. You don’t need to drill the core. For instance …

3. Look for vibrant green envelopes and white butts.

“Bright green, well-wrapped corn husks mean the corn was picked that day or within the last two days,” says Martha Abel, farm manager at Keller’s Farm Stand in Naperville, Illinois. (In fact, everyone I spoke to mentioned the color and integrity of the husks.) You also want to check the end of the corn, where it’s broken off the stalk. “You want it to be more on the white side,” says Untiedt. It will also help you determine if the ears were picked today or within the last two days. As the corn ages, this end of the corn will turn browner.

4. Check the tassel end of the corn.

All the experts agreed that certain manipulations are completely acceptable and even encouraged. The tassel end of the corn is where Whole Foods Market Senior Culinary Development Program Manager Molly Siegler suggests you check first. “It’s often a place that can be soft or damaged.” When you smell corn, “the tip of the glans should be medium thick and slightly rounded,” says Verrill. “If it’s really oily, it’s probably overripe.”

You should also be aware, however, that sometimes “corn doesn’t form all the way to the tip,” says Untiedt, “and that’s usually due to erratic water or drought.” It won’t change the flavor, she explains, just the appearance. His recommendation? Cut off this piece and eat the rest of the ear.

5. Determine the color and silk texture.

Silk (or pom poms) is another key freshness indicator. “The color of the silk can vary between yellow, gold or brown and appear somewhat ‘puffy’,” says Dudley. Any one of them gets the green light. What you want to avoid is blackened silk with a slimy texture, he explains. This is a sign that corn is past its peak. Some humidity is OK, especially if you shop at your local grocery store. According to Dudley, “The silk can get wet because the corn is shipped with ice mixed into the box.”

6. Talk to your farmer.

If you’re buying your corn at a farmer’s market or farm stand, Untiedt recommends asking about the variety of sweet corn (different varieties of sweet corn are available throughout the season). You can also ask if the farmer will guarantee your purchase. The answer is usually a resounding yes.

This is more of a good manners note, but be aware of how you leave the screen. Whether you’re at an outdoor market or a grocery store, seeing a messy display can put shoppers off. In addition to partially or fully shucked corn, Dudley will occasionally find a bag full of corn that has been left on the rack. “The remaining bag is a clear indicator that the corn has been handled by another buyer.”

8. Shell your corn at home.

Even if where you shop provides space for you to shell your corn, the absolute best place to shell your corn is at home. Better yet, scale just before cooking. Sure, the chipping can get messy, admits Untiedt, but it’s what protects those precious grains. “The longer you can keep it in the husk, the fresher the corn will stay and the kernels won’t dry out.”

Do you have a tip for buying sweet corn? Tell us in the comments below.

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