How to Use Corn Cobs, Silk and Husks
Biting into an ear of butter-slathered corn on the cob is a summer ritual for many of us. Sweet, milky kernels burst with seasonal flavor. I can eat through quite a few ears myself and, if I’m entertaining, can wind up with a significant pile of cobs, husks and silks afterwards. All these corn scraps may look like fodder for the compost bin, but there are actually a lot of uses for those plant parts. Follow these tips to get twice as much out of your corn cobs:
Shopping for Corn
Sweet corn is a true sign of summer, in season between the hottest months of July and September in most areas. When shopping for corn, look for bright green husks, tightly wrapped around cobs that are firm and plump when gently squeezed. Avoid husks with small brown holes, a sign of insects. The bottom stalk-end of the corn should be pale; brown bottoms are likely several days old and not as fresh. The tuft of corn silks at the top should be light brown or gold; skip the black or mushy tassels. And FYI: you don’t need to pull back the husk to check out the kernels inside. Exposing the corn to air causes it to dry out, shortening its shelf life.
Although corn ranks low on the Environmental Working Group’s Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce (it’s #45 on a list of 46, ranked in order of pesticide levels), pesticides are most heavily applied to the outside of the plant, so if you plan to use the whole plant, talk to your grocer or local farmer to learn more about how the corn was grown.
Once you’ve got the corn home, keep it at room temperature if you plan to eat it that day. For longer term, keep the corn from drying out by tightly wrap the cobs in a plastic bag and refrigerating for up to 3 days. If you need to store it any longer than that, blanch the corn immediately after purchasing, then freeze it.
How to Shuck Corn
For most people, eating corn starts with shucking. To get the most out of your cob, you’ll want to separate the different components— husk, silk, kernels and cob.
With this hack, you can shuck the corn without the mess of corn silks going everywhere. First, use a sharp knife to cut the stalk end off the cob, then microwave for 30 seconds to 1 minute. Push the corn out of the husk (like you’d push a popsicle) to reveal a silk-free corn cob. Separate the silk and husks and reserve.
If your recipe calls for corn kernels, you’ll need to cut them off the cob next. To do it, place the ear, stem side down, on a clean, folded dish towel to stabilize it. Hold the ear by the top and, using a very sharp chef’s knife, slice downward, cutting at the base of the kernels. Revolve the ear after each slice, removing the kernels in strips. (This method, using a Bundt pan to secure the cob while you cut, is also pretty genius!) Reserve the cobs, and use the corn kernels for everything from salsa and pasta to corn pudding and cornbread.
If you don’t need the kernels separated, you can also simply cook the corn cobs whole. Just drop the ears into a large pot of seasoned boiling water. Some cooks add sugar or a little milk to heighten the sweetness of the kernels. Cook until the corn is tender but not mushy, 3 to 5 minutes. Rub the cobs with some good butter or leave it bare and beautiful and nibble directly off the cob, salvaging the cob for other uses.
How to Use Corn Cobs
So, now that you’ve prepped your corn, what to do with those reserved cobs? Yes, you can compost them. But there are a few other great ways to get even more use out of them before they land in the compost bin.
Make Corn Stock
Corn cobs have a lot of sweet corn flavor and make a great stock. They also contain thickeners (hello, cornstarch) that will bring body to your final dish. Corn stock couldn’t be easier to make. Place cobs in a large pot, cover with cold water, bring to boil, reduce the heat and simmer for an hour or so. Strain and you’re done! Don’t have enough cobs? (Use about 3 cobs per quart of water.) Freeze what you have until you are ready to boil them. Don’t have an immediate use for the stock? Freeze it until you need it.
Some cooks riff on the basic corn stock recipe a bit. Joe Yonan of The Washington Post, uses the whole shebang — cobs, husks and all — in his stock. The husks add a slightly woody flavor to the broth; deepen the flavor by roasting or grilling the cobs and/or husks first; the caramelization adds sweetness and a bit of warm, caramel flavor to the stock. Others add spices like peppercorns and bay leaf to round out the flavor. Whichever method you use, there are lots of ways to put corn stock to work. Here are some ideas:
- Soups: The stock is amazing in soups. It will up the corn ante in corn chowder.
- Grains: It makes a lovely liquid for boiling grains of all types. It’s especially great for polenta or grits to amplify their corny goodness.
- Risotto: Perhaps my favorite purpose for corn stock is risotto. As a traditionalist, I don’t add cream to my risotto, but the sweet flavor and viscosity of the stock brings an unctuous quality that allows me to game the system just a touch. Any kind of risotto would be great but I am particularly fond of corn and tomato in the summertime, substituting the chicken broth with corn stock.
- Jelly: Corn stock can easily be turned into jelly by simmering it with powdered pectin and sugar.
Use Them for Poaching
For an easy boost of sweet corn flavor, toss a corn cob into poaching liquid for chicken or fish. You can also add cobs to boiling water for blanching vegetables like potatoes and greens.
Use Them for Grilling and Smoking
Completely dry the cobs out in a low oven, then use them as a replacement for wood chips, in a combination with charcoal for grilling, or to smoke meats. They’ll give a sweet, smoky flavor to your food.
Turn Cobs Into Pot Scrubbers
You can also use dried out corn cobs as pot scrubbers. The rough surface can help cut through stuck on food and grease, and you can compost it afterwards!
How to Use Corn Husks
Corn husks are strong, yet biodegradable. They have long been valued across cultures for their usefulness in and out of the kitchen. Here are just a few ways to use them:
- Tamales: Dried corn husks are used to make the classic Mexican dish tamales. The wrappers are soaked to soften them, then stuffed with corn masa paste and a variety of savory fillings such as beans and cheese, stewed pork, chicken or chilies.
- Wrappers: The husks can also be used before they are dried as wrappers for grilled or steamed food, similarly to a banana leaf.
- Grilling Corn: Instead of shucking the corn, some cooks grill corn with the husk on to keep the kernels tender and juicy and give a great smoky flavor. For the best results, soak the corn in cold water for 10 minutes before grilling to keep the husks from burning.
How to Use Corn Silk
Corn silk is a curious thing. Sort of fascinating. Did you know there is one strand for each kernel of corn on the ear? Sort of annoying when it sticks stubbornly to the cobs. (We’ve got a hack to avoid that above!) It’s also packed with nutrients — high in vitamin K and potassium — and is used as an herbal remedy to treat issues including bladder infections, inflammation of the urinary system, inflammation of the prostate, kidney stones and bedwetting. Here’s how you can use your leftover silk:
- Corn Silk Tea: Corn silk tea is popular in China, Korea and other Asian countries, thanks to its nutritional properties. You can make your own by simmering 1 Tbsp. chopped corn silk in 1 cup water. Strain and serve, with a squeeze of lemon if you like.
- Fry it: If you want to get a little fancy, take a cue from the blog Ideas in Food and deep fry the corn silk. They serve the nest-like fried silks with poached eggs (Easter brunch anyone?), but you could use them similarly to fried onions and combine them with green beans, salad or as a topping for casserole.
- Dry it: To preserve the corn silk, dry it in a low oven until it is dry to the touch.
Recipe: Grilled Corn Soup
Sherri Brooks Vinton
This soup is a riff on the Mexican grilled corn dish elote. The corn is first grilled, then the cobs are used to make a flavorful stock for the soup, making the most of the whole vegetable.
6 ears sweet corn
1 poblano chili
3 tablespoons neutral oil, divided
1 medium onion, chopped
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 garlic clove, finely chopped
1/4 cup sour cream, divided
1/2 teaspoon smoked chili powder (such as ancho chili powder or smoked paprika)
1/4 cup crumbled feta cheese
2 tablespoons cilantro, finely chopped
1 lime, quartered
- Fill a stockpot with cold water and soak corn for at least 10 minutes. Meanwhile, preheat the grill to medium. Remove corn from pot and drain excess water. Grill, turning frequently, until husks begin to scorch and corn is tender, 10-12 minutes. Remove corn from grill and set aside to cool.
- Meanwhile, coat the poblano in 1 Tbsp. oil and grill, turning frequently, until charred all over, about 5 minutes. Transfer to a small bowl and cover. When cool enough to handle, remove the skins, ribs and seeds from the poblano and chop.
- When corn is cool, remove the husks and silk and cut kernels off cob, reserving cobs.
- Place cobs in stockpot, cover with cold water and simmer for 1 hour. Remove cobs and boil cooking water to reduce to 1 quart, if necessary.
- Combine stock with half the corn kernels in a blender and puree until smooth. Heat remaining 2 Tbsp. oil in a medium pot over medium heat and cook onion, seasoned with salt and pepper, stirring occasionally, until translucent, 5-7 minutes. Add garlic and cook until fragrant, about 1 minute more. Add the stock mixture, remaining corn kernels and chopped poblano and simmer for 10 minutes. Remove from heat and whisk in 2 Tbsp. sour cream. Adjust seasoning and divide soup between bowls.
- Combine the remaining 2 Tbsp. sour cream and chili powder. Garnish each soup bowl a dollop of the sour cream mixture, 1 Tbsp. cheese, cilantro and a lime wedges.
Poblano, corn and corn stock can be prepared 3 days ahead. Cover and chill.
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Top photo by stevecuk/Adobe Stock.