What do popcorn, aspirin, ethanol, and animal feed have in common? Believe it or not, all of these things are made at least in part from corn. Corn is one of the most useful agricultural products – and one of the oldest in the world.
About 8,000 years ago in Mexico, indigenous peoples began domesticating teosinte, a type of wild grass with hard, sweet green seeds. Over the next several thousand years, Native Americans would breed the plant for its more favorable traits – specifically, its ability to be ground into flour. With the arrival of Europeans in the Americas, corn found its way across the globe.
Today, there are thousands of different types of corn. They can be understood according to five basic categories, each one offering unique potential and uses. Next time you catch a craving for your favorite corn-based recipe, don’t limit yourself to sweet corn only. Mix things up a bit with other corn varieties in the following ways!
The majority of commercially produced corn across the world is dent corn, alternatively referred to as “field corn.” The name comes from the unique indent on the top of this corn’s kernels. This variety of the corn plant tends to have longer, stronger stalks than others to support its relatively larger ears. Additionally, it only has one stalk per plant, which makes it easier to harvest with machinery, an attractive trait for commercial growers.
High in starch but low in sugar, dent corn is not typically the kind you eat for dinner. Instead, the matured, dried kernels are processed for a variety of commercial uses, such as animal feed, plastics, and ethanol. That said, it’s not inedible. Though it’s not the type of corn you’d put on the grill, it is often consumed in its nixtamalized form.
If you’re interested in growing or learning how to use dent corn, you’ll want to brush up on your native Mexican recipes. For example, nixtamalized dent corn is used in masa, the dough used to make tortillas, tortilla chips, and tamales. Aside from masa, it also works well for making elotes (Mexican street corn with toppings like cotija, lime juice and mayonnaise). In addition, the high amount of starch gives it a dense texture when ground into Southern-style hominy grits or cornmeal. You might even consume dent corn if you drink certain kinds of moonshine, whiskey, bourbon, or corn beer.
Thanks to genetic mutations preventing the conversion of sugar to starch, the sweet corn species was born. Sweet corn is harvested in the milk stage, which occurs about 7 to 20 days after the plant begins pollinating, when the kernels are just beginning to show some color. In this phase, the white or light yellow kernels have yet to reach maturity and therefore still contain a high amount of sugar and milky juice. Between your local grocery store and farmer’s market, you can find several subvarieties of sweet corn that differ slightly by color and degree of sweetness.
The resulting sweet flavor is what makes this type of corn the preferred variety for the dinner table. Grill it, roast it, boil it, or even dry and rehydrate it. Add it to salads, grind it into sweet cornmeal, or stir it into your Southern mama’s creamed corn recipe. Sweet corn lends its delicate flavors well to all kinds of recipes!
Flour corn is much like a middle ground between dent and sweet corn. Unlike dent corn, certain types of heirloom flour corn plants grow multiple stalks at once. Yet, the two are similar in that they are most often harvested when fully mature. However, flour corn can also be harvested in the milk stage, like its sweeter cousin.
Flour corn is sweeter than dent corn, but not as much as sweet corn. As a result, flour corn can be eaten fresh off the cob. You can also nixtamalize the whole kernels to make hominy and posole or leave them as is to make homemade corn nuts. Because of its soft starch, it is also an excellent candidate for dehydrating and grinding into cornmeal to use for bread, tortillas, tamales, and pinole. If you ever heard that corn is nearly indigestible – rest assured. Food products made with flour corn are the easiest to digest due to its soft texture.
Have you ever seen multi-colored cobs of corn displayed alongside pumpkins and pinecones during the autumn season? If so, you’re looking at flint corn, also known as calico corn and Indian corn. This picture-perfect variety is primarily decorative, as it contains a shell around the endosperm even harder than that of dent corn. Because of this tough outer layer, flint corn can last an incredible 30 years in storage and will hold up against insects and rodents.
Flint corn can also be used for culinary purposes, if processed correctly first. The kernels of flint corn are always dried first. From here, they can be coarsely ground into cornmeal or grits, finely ground into flour, or nixtamalized to make hominy or masa. Most often, flint corn is dried to a certain moisture level, then heated until the leftover water content steams and causes the kernel to pop. In other words, flint corn makes delicious popcorn!
Last but not least is everyone’s favorite movie munchie. Just like flint corn, popcorn kernels are dried, then heated until the remaining steam causes it to explode, revealing the starchy white endosperm. Add butter, cumin and cayenne powder to your popcorn for a savory snack, or enjoy it alongside chocolate-covered raisins for a sugary kick.
While you still can nixtamalize and grind popcorn to make all the aforementioned delicacies, it is not typically used that way. Other varieties may be better suited to the task. If you’re only using popcorn to make, well, popcorn – it requires little processing compared to the others. All you need is a food dehydrator. Because of this relative simplicity, popcorn is a fantastic choice of corn variety to grow at home.
Whether you are on the prowl for the next interesting heirloom vegetable at your local farmer’s market or making preparations for a home garden, corn is an excellent choice. Its uses are nearly as numbered as its varieties. As long as you understand the purpose to which each type of corn is best suited, you can’t go wrong!
My name is Amy and i’ve been a passionate blogger about life, love and travel for many years. I first started blogging in 1997 and it’s been quite a journey since then. I keep my blog up-to-date on a weekly basis and you can also follow me on my Twitter account here: Hello