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Cloyingly Sweet Corn

This is something that's been building over the past decade, and finally taken over. I'm talking about cloyingly sweet corn. Corn that's way too sweet, and has very little fresh corn flavor. It gets by on its impressive, over-the-top, untoothsome sweetness.

I'm finding this is true of corn from major wholesalers as well as from small farms. So my question to any produce gurus out there is: is this a varietal thing? It'd make sense to select for sweetness, since that's what customers like (and I did, too, until it went so over the top). Or is it a climate thing, i.e. climate change in the northeast has resulted in increasingly sweeter corn?

I'm thinking it's got to be the latter; there simply hasn't been enough time for everyone to switch over, en masse, to a new variety. But then, why, then, is it not only overly sweet, but also weak-flavored? I find myself struggling to remember what corn on the cob used to taste like (that vaguely sulfurous/milky quality).

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    1. re: Melanie Wong

      Thanks, Melanie. Depressing, but helpful, to learn that it's widespread and it ain't going to get better.

      I do hear rumors that they found a way to breed actual tomato flavor back into tomatos, so....high hopes.....

      1. re: Jim Leff

        Not about corn, but in the book "The Perfect Fruit: Good Breeding, Bad Seeds, and the Hunt for the Elusive Pluot" by Chip Brantley, he talks about how with fruit breeding, breeders focus heavily on maximizing sugar content. I wouldn't be surprised if corn and other vegetables are similar.

    2. It is my understanding that sweet corn has been bred to remain sweet even after it has been shipped or stored. Regular sweet corn tends to go to starch quickly and loses taste. I suppose that if the corn is inherently sweeter than older varieties, it stays sweeter. What I've noticed about the corn I've eaten in the PNW is the starchy nature of fresh corn. The second batch was both starchy and sweet.

      The corn we got in the Midwest, was usually sweet if eaten within a day of purchase. It could be boiled for only a few minutes before eating and was not so chewy.

      I'm not fond of overly sweet corn either. .

      1 Reply
      1. re: sueatmo

        Good point, suetmo. At the same time I've observed this progression, there's also been a progression of corn staying sweet for suspiciously long periods in my fridge. So it's varietal. Hmph.

      2. Seed corn in the US has been tinkered with for decades, first by the USDA to develop varieties resistant to corn smut, which ironically is now the scarce huitlacoche delicacy. Seed companies developed sweet corn to satisfy American tastes, and Americans like it. It has thinner walls and higher water content, and is less suitable for tortilla making and masa products.

        Try a variation of Robert Lauriston's cilantro rice recipe, but with corn. Cut raw kernels off the cob and sautee with diced jalapeno until lightly carmelized, remove from heat, fold in chopped cilantro and lime juice, serve. It neutralizes a bit of the sweet.

        1. I miss the corn of my youth: the taste of corn with a bit of sweetness. It seems very hard to find corn that tastes like corn in my neck of the woods.

          Selection of varietals is at least a part of it; I don't know about climate change. Around here people clamor for the supersweet varieties. Here is a bit of background (in a somewhat skewed article--really a press release by a university to laud its researchers) http://news.illinois.edu/ii/03/0807/s...

          I'm an alum of Illinois. Maybe I'll send them a note that I'll start making contributions when they start putting corn taste back in corn.

          1. The corn breeders have taken it too far and too sweet. I can't say it's the same today but 20 years in upstate Wisconsin I had the best corn a few times. It was old varieties but grown to perfection in good soils. Go to the rural Midwest and you just might find some of this superior corn. The ears were huge so I think they take more days to grow and farmers want faster (more profitable) growing varieties. Just a theory

            1. A basic article on sweet corn, such as Wikipeadia, should answer you questions. What I recall is that the are 3 main types of sweet corn. The oldest is a natural mutation (su). The big problem with this is that it starts loosing its sweetness right after picking, hence the claim that it has to go from field to pot in a matter of hours. The other 2 types are modern hybrids (se, sh2), which remain sweet for up to two weeks after picking. And along the way I'm sure breeders have selected for yield and increased sweetness (which most consumers want).

              Since most farmers in the USA buy their seed corn from seed corn companies, rather than hang on to a portion of last year's corn, a new variety can spread very rapidly. This is especially true with hybrids that don't breed true (and may even be sterile).

              "Supersweet or shrunken-2 types have four to ten times the sugar content of normal sugar (su) types and with proper handling is able to be stored for up to 10 days"

              1 Reply
              1. re: paulj

                And patented proprietary corn seed is BIG money.

              2. http://www.globalsciencebooks.info/Jo...
                Breeding for increased sweetness in sweet corn.
                Journal article
                It mentions a couple of patents for breading methods, not patents on the corn varieties themselves.

                3 Replies
                1. re: paulj

                  That's a scientific journal. Monsanto is the schoolyard bully regarding corn patents. As I said above, BIG money.

                  1. re: Veggo

                    But don't the Monsanto patents mostly have to do with Roundup resistance? As opposed to sweetness and sh2?

                    1. re: paulj

                      Respectfully, Paul, this side bar which touches on fierce mercantilism is outside the scope of this thread.

                2. If you have a sunny spot to grow your own, you can still plant the old varieties like country gentleman and golden bantam, but given the super sweets' ability to remain palatable (and salable) for a few days, the commercial growers are going to use some of the many available varieties of those.

                  2 Replies
                  1. re: junescook

                    And even Golden Bantam was a novelty back when it was created in the early 1900s (Country Gentleman is about a dozen years older as a variety). Silver Queen was created in the 1950s, IIRC, and now is generally used to cover almost all white corn varieties at the farmstand.

                    Which is another way of saying that trying to overcome the short shelf life of sweet corn has been a mission of farmers and their customers for over a century, and that each generation will live to complain about the lack of Proustian resonance with their liminal childhood memories of sweet corn.

                    1. re: Karl S

                      My grandfather grew Golden Bantam corn and I remember eating it and thinking it quite good. They were smaller ears, if I recall.

                  2. Back in the really old days - which to me, as with most people, means "before I was born" - the corn one ate fresh was called roasting ears, sweet corn, or green corn. By the time I showed up (1941), the cooking-fresh varieties had long ago been developed separate from regular field corn, and one heard "green corn" only from the very elderly. Oddly enough, my Grandpa Owen, whose gardening practices (unlike his social views) were deeply progressive - he'd corresponded extensively with Luther Burbank - had been growing the latest varieties of sweet corn as each was developed, yet kept referring to it as "green corn."

                    I really do not enjoy vegetable gardening, and tending to and harvesting corn was one of my least favorite things to do in ours. Nevertheless, I could see raising a bit of some of the old-fashioned sort just to have that flavor again.

                    3 Replies
                    1. re: Will Owen

                      Color me guilty. Olathe sweet corn is friggin' delicious.

                      1. re: Will Owen

                        Thank you, I've had a mild interest in the term "green corn" and wondered when this usage change.

                        1. re: Melanie Wong

                          I'd forgotten that the term is still current at Mexican restaurants here in LA County. The ones that do offer those tamales - mostly the older touristy ones we CHers are supposed to abhor, like El Cholo and El Coyote - offer them only when fresh sweet corn is in season. Mrs. O and several of her friends adore them; although I will eat one to be polite, the only veggie tamal that blows my skirt up is the green chile/cheese variety. One of my secret sins is a plate of the ones from Trader Joe's on a plate with canned chili poured over. Yum. But I digress …