Taste It, Don't Waste It: Corn Husks and Cobs

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 woodchip through quite a few ears myself and, if I'm entertaining, can wind up with a significant pile of cobs, husks, silks and stalks. Such detritus might look like nothing more than fodder for the compost bin - but there are a lot of uses for those plant parts. And a lot of ways to taste it, not waste it! 

Corn Shucking 101

To get the most out of your fresh sweet corn, you will need to separate it into its components; husk, silk, kernels and cobs. It's easy to do. Pull the green fibrous husks from the tassel end of the ear down to the stalk end and tear away. Next pull off the stringy silk strands and set them aside. 

Now you have two choices. You can cook the corn as is. Just drop the ears into a large pot of boiling water, perhaps seasoned with salt. Some add sugar or a little milk to heighten the sweetness of the kernels. Cook until the corn is tender but not mushy - about three to five minutes in my book. Rub down with some good butter or leave it bare and beautiful and nibble directly off the cob, salvaging the leavings for other cob uses. 

Or, if the idea of using cobs that have had detour to the dinner table does not appeal, you can cut the kernels off the cob. 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 down the ear, just at the base of the kernels. Revolve the ear after each slice, removing the kernels in strips. Now you can use the corn kernels in your favorite recipe and have cobs that that are right and ready as well. 

How to Use Up Corn Cobs

Got a lot of corn cobs leftover? Here are some ways to use them up. 

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 dish. Corn stock couldn't be easier to make. Just place your cobs in a large pot, cover in 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 to make it worth your effort? You can freeze them until you are ready to boil them up. Don't have an immediate use for the stock? You can freeze it until you need it.

Some cooks riff on this basic recipe a bit. Joe Yonan, Food and Dining Editor of the Washington Post, uses the whole shebang - cobs, husks and all in his stock. I imagine the husks bring a slight vegetal note to the broth. You can deepen the flavor of your stock by roasting the cobs until they begin to brown. The caramelization will bring added sweetness and a bit of warm, caramel 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 your corn chowder.

Grains - It makes a lovely liquid for boiling grains of all types. But use it for polenta or grits to amplify their corny goodness.

Risotto - Perhaps my favorite purpose for corn stock is in risotto. As a traditionalist, I don't add cream to my risotto. But the sweet flavor and viscosity of the stock bring 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 that is often called for with corn stock. Lobster risotto with a creamy corn base is simultaneously luxe and homey.

Jelly - The stock can easily be turned into jelly by simmering it with powdered pectin and sugar and canning it using the Boiling Water Method.

Pipe for smoking or bubble blower - Corn cob pipes used to be a common vehicle for smoking tobacco. But the same method can be used to make a sweet little bubble blower. All the corn fun, none of the smoke.

Fire starters - Let your cobs dry in the sun and they will make excellent fire starters when the chill of autumn rolls in.

Using Up 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: 

Tamales - Dried corn husks are used to make the original Hot Pocket: Mexican tamales. The wrappers are soaked to soften them and then stuffed with comforting corn masa paste and any of a variety of savor fillings from beans and cheese, to stewed pork, chicken or chilies. 

Wrappers - The husks can also be used before they are dried as wrappers for grilled for steamed food in the same manner that one would use a banana leaf.   

Grilling Corn - Keeping corn on the husk when grilling keeps the kernels tender and juicy but still gives you that great smoky flavor. For the best results, soak the corn in cold water for ten minutes before grilling to keep the husks from burning. 

Rolling Paper - The tender inner husks can be dried and used as cigarette rolling papers.

Baby Dolls - Dry the husks to make charming little dolls. The corn husk figures make a charming addition to fall decorations or the Thanksgiving table. 

Baskets - Corn husk baskets are a sweet project to do on those rainy summer days. 

What to Do with Corn Silk

Corn silk is a curious thing. Sort of fascinating - did you know that there is one strand for each kernel of corn on the ear? Sort of annoying when it sticks stubbornly to the cobs from which you are trying to remove it. It's both of those things and more: 

Medicine - Corn silk is powerful medicine. It is used to treat bladder infections, inflammation of the urinary system, inflammation of the prostate, kidney stones and bedwetting. It is also used to treat congestive heart failure, diabetes, high blood pressure, fatigue and high cholesterol levels. 

You can buy corn silk capsules at natural food stores. You can also make a tea from the silk. Simply trim away any witling ends and steep the strands in hot water. Strain and serve, with a squeeze of lemon if you like. 

You can also dry the silk by laying trimmed strands in the sun for a day or so (be sure to bring them in overnight to avoid being dampened by dew). Store in a cool, dry place and use for up to one year. 

Corn Stalks and Leaves

Corn stover is the stalks, leaves and cobs that remain in field after the corn harvest. While generally not considered good eating for humans, it is still rich in nutrients that can be turned back into the food chain. 

Fertilizer - Many farmers believe the best and most economical use of corn stover is to turn it back into the soil where it serves as a fertilizer and protects against wind and water erosion. 

Forage - Some ranchers prefer to let their cattle graze over the harvested fields. They forage on the spent corn plants and deposit their own manure in the fields, which enriches the soil. 

Fodder - The plant material can also be fed to the cows as fodder. The stalks, leaves and cobs are chopped into smaller pieces and offered to the animals as part of their diet. 

Bedding - The plant material, particularly the cobs and husks, are very absorbent and are often bailed for later use as for animal bedding. 

Fuel - As gas prices increase, corn stover is being explored as an attractive biomass for use in the production of ethanol

Corn Silage

Animals that need to be fed over the winter, particularly in the northeast where there is no access to pasture, are often fed silage. The plants are chopped and stored in facilities that are carefully controlled to allow the plant growth to ferment. The process keeps the plant matter from rotting and provides a source of energy for ruminant animals when fields are fallow. Corn crops that have failed due to weather conditions can also be turned into silage. 

Corn Fungus

Huitlacoche, aka corn smut, is a fungus that turns golden corn kernels into bulbous grey growths. Many farmers despise it, seeing it as a ruinous development if it hits their crop. But chefs, and increasingly eaters, love it for its earthy, luxurious flavor. In culinary circles, it is sometimes referred to as "Mexican truffle." 

How to Source Corn

Just a quick note about buying corn:  When you are planning to use the whole plant, it is particularly important to look for a supply that is well-raised to avoid exposure to toxic applications. While those chemicals may be present in every cell of the plant, they are often most heavily applied to the outside of the plant - so exposed husks and silk will be particularly exposed to high levels of toxins, as will you.

Genetically Modified sweet corn is relatively new to the market but is working its way into the food supply, so that is something to look out for as well if you are trying to avoid such products in your diet. Look for ears that are labeled "organic," "non-GMO," "IPM," or have a conversation with your grower about the methods they use to produce their sweet corn. 

Recipe: Grilled Corn Soup

This soup is a riff on "elotes," Mexican grilled corn. Because you need to grill the corn and then make the stock from the kernels, I prefer to use it as an "up-cycle" recipe. It will put any leftover corn to good use and give you the window of unattended cooking time to simmer the stock. 

Ingredients:

6 ears sweet corn

3 tablespoons neutral oil, divided

1 Poblano chili

1 onion, diced

Salt and pepper

1 clove of garlic, minced

¼ cup sour cream

½ teaspoon smoked chili powder (such as Ancho chili powder or smoked Paprika)

¼ cup crumbled feta cheese

2 tablespoons cilantro, minced

1 lime, cut into quarters

Method:

Soak ears in a large pot of cold water for at least ten minutes. Meanwhile, preheat the grill to medium (you can hold your hand over the fire briefly). Remove corn from the water and drain off excess water. Grill, turning frequently, until the husks begin to scorch and the corn is tender, about ten to twelve minutes. Remove the corn from the grill and set aside to cool.

Meanwhile, coat the chili lightly in oil and grill, turning frequently, until charred all over, about five minutes. Remove the chili to a small bowl and cover to allow the chili to steam. When cool enough to handle, slip the skins, ribs and seeds off of the chili. Dice the remaining flesh cover and refrigerate until ready to use (can be made up to three days ahead). 

When the corn is cool enough to handle, remove the husks and silk, as described above, perhaps using them as suggested. Cut the corn away from the cob. Put the corn in a small bowl, cover and refrigerate until ready to use (can also be made up to three days ahead). 

Put the corn cobs in a large pot, cover with cold water and simmer for one hour. Strain the spent cobs. Measure the cooking water and boil to reduce to one quart, if necessary. (Can be cooled, covered and refrigerated for up to three days.) 

To make the soup, combine half of the corn kernel and the stock in a blender and puree until smooth. In a medium sauce pan over medium heat, sauté the onion, seasoned with salt and pepper, in the remaining oil until translucent, about five to seven minutes. Add the garlic and sauté until fragrant, about one minute. Add the stock mixture, remaining corn kernels, and diced Poblano and simmer for ten minutes to allow the flavors to blend. Remove from the heat and whisk in two tablespoons of the sour cream. Adjust seasoning and divide the soup between four bowls. 

Combine the remaining sour cream and chili powder. Garnish each bowl with a tablespoon of cheese, a dollop of the sour cream mixture and a sprinkle of cilantro. Serve with lime wedges.