Timing is everything when it comes to picking your corn. There is a short window for optimum picking, so get to know the signs you should look out for and use all of your senses to help you.
What happens to corn as it ripens?
The amount of natural sugar in corn is increased as the kernels become bigger and swollen. Each little kernel is a corn embryo surrounded with sustaining nutrients. As soon as the kernels are full of sugar, starch begins to be prepared to provide nutrients for new plants. Grabbing the corns out of the ground just as this process is occurring will give you the best and sweetest corn. The longer you leave it, the starchier the corn becomes. This also means as soon as you harvest an ear of corn, that sugar will begin turning starchy.
The ears have it
The top tip of your corn is known as the ear. To use the ears to test for ripeness, take a good feel of the end of the corn. An ear of corn that is ready to be picked will have a solid and filled-out tip. It might feel rounded out or firm. In contrast, if it’s not ready it will feel pointy and angular. As you yield more and more corn, you will find that you get a good sense of ripeness simply by feeling. Experienced gardeners might describe the best ears as feeling plump or full.
Another part of the plant to check is the silks, the little tuft of hair that protrudes out from the husk.
The silks also dry up when the ears are almost ready to be picked; they will appear brown and dry. A pale-colored silk indicates more time is needed.
Look at the liquid
Another way to check for readiness is to pop or pierce a kernel and look at the liquid that is expelled. If you see a white or milky liquid, it means that your corn is ready to pick. If the liquid could be described as watery or is clear, your corn needs a bit longer. If the liquid is thickened, you’ve left it too long.
Opening the lid
It might be tempting to just pull or pop open one of your husks, and if you’re really not sure about the status of the corn underneath you can do this. If the kernels look plump, and if their color is a good yellow, the corn is ready for harvesting. The degree of readiness will be the same along the whole corn, so what you see up top will be consistent with the rest of the plant. If the kernels are pale, more time is needed. Also, you should be aware that opening the husk on an ear of corn that is under-ripe might impact it in the long run. Opening it will make it more susceptible to invaders such as bugs and birds.
Factors impacting flavor
Many environmental and varietal factors can impact how sweet your corn will be. Temperature plays a big part. Less sugar is created in hot weather and humidity can stunt growth. The total hours of daily sunshine can be of particular importance as the ears form. Cool but long, sunny days work the best. The type of soil, its nutrients and any supplements you have given the plan will also impact the overall flavor and sweetness.
The final countdown
If you prefer to do things by the book, one method that seems to work out alright in most cases is to check your corn each day for the emergence of corn silk. Once you’ve seen the first hairs emerge, give it a total of three weeks (20 or 21 days) then go in for the pick! Fresh picked sweet corn can be stored for about a week in your refrigerator. If you need to keep it longer, consider freezing for use later in the year.
Picking the corn
To remove husks from the stalk, twist the husk while pulling downward in one fluid movement. This will release the husk from the stalk. To harvest the corn, grab the ear and twist with a downward motion. Some stalks may grow a second ear of corn and will be ready for picking at a later date. Often when an ear of sweet corn is husked, there will be a caterpillar near the tip of the ear and a chewed-up area of kernels. This is a Corn Earworm. If you find this, cut the affected part of the ear off with a knife and cook the rest of the ear- it’s still good.
Time It Right
If you have a choice, it’s a good idea to harvest corn as close to the time you’re going to eat or use it as possible. In fact, you might want to have the water boiling for corn on the cob before you head out to harvest. If you want the sweetest corn possible, try to harvest each ear at its peak.
The loss of sugar is much slower at lower temperatures, so refrigerate corn if you’re not going to be able to eat it right away. If you’re not near a refrigerator and you have some harvested corn, lay the corn out individually rather than making a big pile. This helps keep the individual temperatures down and helps the plants avoid becoming sweaty or overheated. Keep the corn in the shade or even use a damp cloth to keep them cool. The longer you wait before eating, the starchier and chewier your corn will become.
Cook it up
Corn is a versatile vegetable and can be cooked in a number of ways, or added to salads, pastas, risottos and soups. To take full advantage of the unique flavors and texture of corn, simply grill the whole ear and slather it with butter, mayonnaise, chilly powder and spices.
The bottom line: Fresh corn that has been harvested at just the right time is nutritious and delicious. Corn fun to eat even the fussiest of little eaters seems willing to bite into a bit served with dinner.