I love grilled corn on the cob so much. Why? Because it’s part of that broad group of foods with natural handles: Bananas! Empanadas! BBQ ribs! Sweet corn is evolutionarily designed to be eaten with your hands, which is, without question, the most fun way to eat.
But who invented grilled corn? Where did it come from? And how can you be sure you’re grilling corn on the cob to perfection? Here’s everything you need to know about this juicy summer delicacy.
The relationship between corn and the Americas goes back millennia to when it was first domesticated by Indigenous people in Mexico, about 6,600 BCE. Though the exact date is unknown, the first iteration of grilled cobs, elote, was also invented in Mexico. The iconic ears, spread with mayonnaise, Cotija cheese, chili powder, and lime, are now sold all over the country (and beyond, often referred to as Mexican street corn) as a portable snack.
Indigenous people taught European colonists to grow this native grain; from there corn spread to pretty much every corner of the globe. In Japan you might find elote-esque, okonomiyaki-inspired cob recipes: grilled corn slathered with Kewpie mayonnaise, yakisoba sauce, furikake, bonito flakes, and scallions. Blackened ears basted with a garlicky soy paste and a sweet chili sauce are a favorite at night markets in Taiwan. And at street carts throughout India, you can get bhutta, roasted corn on the cob seasoned with lime, salt, and chili powder.
There are truly endless ways to customize those charred and beloved kernels. But first: How to cook corn on the cob on the grill so it comes out perfectly every time.
How do I choose the right cob for the job?
The first step on your journey to the best grilled corn recipe is all about selecting good ears of corn at the market. Here are a few key things to remember:
Try to buy locally grown corn. Why? The fresher the cob, the sweeter the kernels. Local corn is more likely to have been recently picked and has definitely spent less time banging around the back of some dusty freight train chugging across the country.
Look for fresh corn husks. Those leafy layers should be green and wrapped tightly around the cob, with none of them breaking or falling off.
Avoid buying corn with dry silk. I’m talking about the straggly tuft at the top of each cob. It should be glossy. Super dry silk is a sure sign of corn that’s past its prime—so is silk that’s too moist and starting to mold.
Feel for ripeness. Run your fingers along the outer husks to ensure the rows of corn kernels seem neat and tight like…little teeth. Whatever you do, please don’t peel back the husks—that’s a serious farmers market faux pas.
Does the variety of corn I buy matter?
You always want to buy sweet corn. The good thing is that, assuming you’re shopping at a store or market for humans—and not a livestock supply shop, which sells field corn for animals—you’re good. Whether you choose white corn, yellow corn, or some hybrid like Silver Queen or Peaches ‘n’ Cream, is all about what’s grown and sold in your local vicinity and your personal preferences.
How do I store my corn before grilling?
Whoa, hold up. Fresh corn loses sweetness and degrades in quality hella fast. So you’ll want to eat your cobs as soon as possible—like, the day you bring them home. Not up for grilling at this very moment? Store them (husks on!) in the fridge for 5 to 7 days.
Okay, okay—I’m ready to grill. How do I cook these suckers?
You have a couple of options here, depending on your affinity for draaama (i.e., grill marks). The good news is that neither of them requires brining (soaking your cobs in salty water), and husking (a.k.a. shucking or removing the green leafy exterior) is totally optional. You don’t need to boil your corn cobs or wrap them in aluminum foil either. Prep time? Unless you’re making a topping for your cooked corn, consider it zero. Here we go:
Option 1: How to grill corn on the cob in husk
For that still-juicy, just-grilled smokiness, prep your grill for medium-high heat. Lay your ears (still in their husks!) straight on the grill grates and cook corn, turning occasionally, until the outer leaves are evenly charred. Depending on your grill model, this should take around 16 to 20 minutes. Want more color? Just loosen those husks slightly before grilling. Don’t sweat it if the leaves get charcoal-colored and brittle—that’s what you want. The leaves prevent the kernels from overcooking while imparting big smoky flavor. Once the cobs are cool enough to handle, you can pull the husks and silk right off.
Option 2: How to grill corn on the cob without husks
If you’re after high-octane grill marks, you should know that you won’t get more than a few spots using the charring method mentioned above. But if you refuse to settle for anything less, follow these steps with husked and silked corn. Make sure the grill is smoking hot, then place corn over the flames and cook the naked cobs (oiled or not is fine) for around a minute per side—long enough to get some color, short enough to retain moisture and c.r.u.n.c.h.
How should I dress my grilled corn?
Now for the fun part. The secret to really memorable corn—the kind that can silence an entire backyard of slippery-fingered humans—lies in what you spread on your grilled ears afterward. While there’s absolutely nothing wrong with brushing your cobs with melted butter, sprinkling them with a little sea salt and black pepper, and calling it a day, mashing some herbs and spices into a stick of unsalted butter to slather tableside keeps things fun and fresh. It should go without saying that salt is assumed in all of these combos:
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