When cooking fresh sweet corn for one, nothing beats the microwave: a single ear, in its husk, goes in at full power for three minutes. The husk traps steam, giving the kernels such an intense corn flavor and juiciness that butter is almost (almost) unnecessary. But for a crowd? You have more options.
Take, for example, the technique I came across this summer, which is inspired by how I usually cook my hot dogs and sausages. First, I heat a grill, adjusting the gas or coals so that there is a warm and a cooler side. I grill my hot dogs over direct heat to char them, then transfer them to an aluminum pan filled with sauerkraut (or other moist toppings) that I continue to simmer on the cooler side of the grill, where they remain plump and juicy. This allows diners to eat at their own pace (avoiding that tepid tray of wrinkly francs on the picnic table). The same technique—using a tray full of salted honey butter glaze instead of sauerkraut—works great for grilled corn.
I like this method for a few reasons. The first is taste. One problem with sweet corn is that soon after the corn is harvested, the sugar begins to turn into soft, mealy starch. This is a problem that scientists have been working on for more than a century, identifying several gene mutations responsible for producing corn with a significantly higher sugar content than typical field corn, as well as growing varieties that retain their sugar longer. But even super sweet modern varieties with names like Honey ‘N Pearl or American Dream start losing sugar after a week or so in the fridge.
The same genes that make corn extra sweet also reduce its ability to retain moisture: Sweet corn tends to dry out unless you eat it right after cooking or take measures to retain the moisture. In side-by-side testing, I’ve found that the common advice of soaking corn in a saltwater brine only makes this shrivel worse because kernels lose moisture through osmosis.
My cooking technique solves both problems. While the grilled corn sits in the simmering liquid (a mixture of water, honey, butter, and salt) and turned occasionally, the moist cooking environment keeps the kernels plump and juicy. At the same time, the water in the pan slowly evaporates, reducing the honey and butter to a glossy glaze that enhances the corn’s natural sweetness without becoming sticky. In addition, it will cost you time to grill your burgers or asparagus on the now released hot side of the grill while the corn stays at the right temperature.
The honey butter base is also widely customizable. A pinch of smoky, mild gochugaru and a pinch of chopped chives or parsley are an easy addition to the honey, but it doesn’t have to stop there. You can whisk in a few tablespoons of miso paste and a dash of soy sauce; add a mountain of chopped fresh garlic and a tablespoon of Calabrian chili paste; stir in the zest and juice of one lemon and finish with a generous amount of coarsely ground black pepper. Or you can season the glaze with a tablespoon of sambal oelek (or other fermented chili paste), a squeeze of lime and a shower of finely chopped coriander leaves. Any of these combinations will improve even supermarket corn that’s been in the crisper drawer since last Wednesday.
In a world optimized for flavor, I would plant stems of American Dream on April 17, so that their 78-day ripening period coincides exactly with July 4. I would have the grill ready and a crowd gathered in the yard just as the corn is reaching maximum maturity to minimize the time between harvesting, cooking and eating.
But in the real world, I rely on smart, practical cooking techniques that guarantee delicious results, no matter how well I plan. If the corn has the highest ripeness, the sweeter.
Recipe: Honey Butter Grilled Corn