This tall cereal plant has an inner stalk with long, drooping leaves and strong jointed stems that support large ears. Each ear is covered in rows of edible kernels that are protected by threads called "corn silk" and then encased in a husk.
The most popular variety for eating is sweet corn, a hybrid specifically bred for increased sugar content. Commonly prepared as a fresh vegetable rather than a grain, corn is delicious boiled or grilled "on the cob" or cut and added to chowders, salads, dips and side dishes.
In addition to being a popular food, corn is the foundation for many other products, including bourbon, corn flour, cornmeal, cornstarch and corn syrup.
Throughout Europe, corn is known as "maize," a derivative of the early American Indian word mahiz. But before settlers came to the New World, Europeans had never seen the food. The crop is native to the Western Hemisphere and most of today's production still occurs in the Midwest and Plains states of the United States.
Horticulturists developed the two most popular varieties of sweet corn, commonly known as “corn on the cob.” Yellow corn (Golden Bantam) has large, full-flavored kernels. White corn (Country Gentleman) has kernels that are smaller and sweeter. A third variety, peaches and cream corn (also called butter and sugar), is a hybrid of both yellow and white. It is not commercially grown and usually only found at local markets.
Corn can also be purchased canned or frozen. Tiny baby corn, popular in Thai and Chinese recipes, is available in cans or jars.
Other common varieties of corn include dent (primarily used for commercial syrups, starches, oils and cereals), the multicolored flint (used for making hominy, masa harina and polenta) and flour (grown solely for the production of corn flour).
The peak season for fresh corn is May through September. As soon as an ear of corn is picked, the sugar begins its gradual conversion to starch, which lessens the corn's sweetness. Therefore it's important to buy corn as soon after it's picked as possible, preferably at a farmer's market, roadside stand or produce market where turnover is quick.
Look for ears with bright green, tight-fitting husks. The silk should be fresh and dry, and golden brown in color. The kernels should be plump and milky and come all the way to the tip; the rows should be tightly spaced.
Refrigerate fresh corn in a plastic bag for no more than one day.