In Minnesota, fresh roasted sweet corn is as close as you can get to a religious experience, without visiting a church. The grocery stores start trying to fool us in early July with big piles of fresh sweet corn from somewhere else; I suspect New York City.
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I usually let myself get fooled once or twice around the Fourth of July when any good Midwesterner can tell you that corn should be knee high. We all know the pyramids of corn in the grocery store at that time of year aren’t local and that nine out of ten times they aren’t very good either; but what are you going to do when it’s the middle of summer, friends are at the lake, and the one thing missing from a great lunch is roasted corn on the cob.
It’s a different story when late summer rolls around, and there are piles of fresh sweet corn stacked at roadside stands. That’s when whole weeks of dinner start with “what should we have with the corn tonight?”
Like all things people love, there are disagreements over the best way to do it. The main points of debate around roasting corn are whether or not to soak the corn first and whether or not you should undress the corn by peeling back the husk and removing the silk before roasting.
To figure out what works, what doesn’t, and why, we got a bunch of corn and spent an afternoon roasting it on the grill. What we were looking for was a side-by-side comparison of the most popular methods for roasting corn.
We also threw an ear on wrapped in aluminum foil. In our research we found a reference to grilling corn in aluminum foil; personally we’ve never seen this done anywhere and it seemed more likely to attract aliens than produce great corn, but it’s hard to write a piece about the best way to roast corn on the grill without trying as many different ways as you can and we’d like to meet aliens.
Straight from the Grill
What we found was the best cooking time is around 25 minutes on a medium to medium-high grill. The corn we cooked for 15 minutes had a very green, raw flavor to it. We also roasted a piece for 35 minutes; it had a great roasted corn smell to it and very nice flavor for the parts that weren’t completely overdone. The kernels in the overcooked ear had very little moisture and a few parts that tasted burnt.
The basic technique for roasting corn on the grill is easy and involves turning and moving. Turning is simply rotating the corn 180 degrees halfway through the cooking process to make sure both sides cook.
To cook each piece evenly, it helps to move the corn around the grill, making sure each piece spends time on the hotter and cooler parts of the grill. This is especially true when you’re roasting a lot of corn or have a full grill. On most grills, you can move the corn at the same time you’re turning it.
To Soak or Not to Soak
One thing our testing made very clear is that it is a good idea to soak your corn before roasting. Soaking corn involves submerging it in the sink or a large pot of cool water for at least 20 minutes.
In our testing, you could see the difference as soon as you peeled back the husks. The kernels on the soaked corn had a lot more moisture and were juicier when you bit into them, then the kernels on the corn that hadn’t been soaked. This was true for both the pieces that still had the silk on them and the pieces that had the silk removed before roasting.
The method we tested with the most moisture was the piece wrapped in aluminum foil. Since the foil kept all the liquid in there was a ton of steam, which made it hard to handle. The kernels were almost mushy, and it didn’t have the same roasted flavor as the other methods. In the end, we don’t see any reason to waste the foil or the corn; fresh sweet corn already comes with its own built-in cooking container, so don’t foil your corn.
Undress Your Corn?
The question of whether to undress your corn and remove the silk before you roast it is a hard question to answer. On one hand, it is really nice when you take the hot corn off the grill, and all you have to do is pull off the remaining husk and start eating. And, it can be a challenge trying to get all the silk off really hot corn.
On the other hand, once you’ve pulled the husk back to remove the silk it’s very difficult to get the husk wrapped up really tight around the ear again. In our testing the undressed corn wasn’t as moist and as we turned and moved it around the grill parts of the husk started coming loose, letting out steam and creating pockets of unprotected kernels – which meant it didn’t cook as evenly. So this becomes one of those cooking decisions that is about personal preference.
We do recommend using a pair of Ove’ Gloves when you’re handling hot corn. They’re flexible enough that they make it easy to hold and peel the corn as it comes off the grill. We also recommend having a pair of long-handled tongs to rotate and move the corn.
And the Best Way to Grill Corn is…
We learned a lot of things through our testing. Soaking the corn first makes a big difference in how juicy it is after it’s roasted, roasting your corn in aluminum foil is weird and unnecessary, and cooking it for a very long time smells much better than it tastes.
After testing all these different methods, we’ll be soaking our corn and removing the silk after its roasted. As much as we don’t like undressing our corn when it’s really hot, being able to keep the corn nice and juicy and have the ear cook evenly are more important.
Roasted Sweet Corn
In Three Recipes we explore the different ways to make different dishes to try and figure out what works and why. Read more Three Recipe Stories.