There are two general classes: "Sweet Corn" is eaten fresh, frozen or
canned. "Field Corn" is dried for processing into flour and other products,
and for animal feed. The two primary colors for both classes are White and
General & History
Cultivation of the wild grasses that were developed into corn is thought to have begin in the Balsas river valley, in or around the south central Mexican state of Puebla, about 8700 years ago. There is significant controversy over exactly what wild grasses were developed into domesticated corn, but there was a great expansion of diversity about 3000 years ago. From there modern corn was developed, and continues to be developed to this day. Photo by Jonathunder distributed under license Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported.
The kernels of the wild grasses corn was developed from are very small and
encased in a hard shell. It is thought these kernels were "popped" like
popcorn to make them edible. As better varieties were developed the kernels
could be prepared in a wider variety of ways. Spread was rapid, and by
1300 CE or so it had become the staple crop throughout North, Central
and South America and the Caribbean. European traders spread corn worldwide,
but the United States still produces almost half the world's crop, with
China a distant second.
Different varieties of corn are used for each of these forms, selected for the best characteristics for the specific use.
Sweet Corn - on the Cob
Canned and Frozen Corn
These very immature whole cobs of corn are quite popular in Southeast Asia.
They are easily available canned in North America, most of it coming from
Thailand. It has a lightly crunchy texture and is only a little sweet, but
it has a definite corn flavor. The largest of the photo specimens was 3-3/4
inches long and 3/4 inch diameter at the base.
Details & Cooking.
Popcorn - [Zea mays averta]
Corn Syrup This, and High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS) are industrial sweeteners made from corn by an enzyme and fungus process, generally using genetically engineered enzymes on genetically engineered corn. While I have nothing against enzymes and fungus, the final product may have some serious metabolic problems when consumed. It is currently the subject of great controversy between food activists and food processors. See Health & Nutrition for details.
Corn Oil: This is one of the most common salad and cooking oil in the supermarkets. Tests by Cooks Illustrated showed it to be terrible in mayonnaise but good in salad dressing and highly desirable for french fries. It cannot, however, be used for commercial fries because it is a highly polyunsaturated oil with an oxidation number of 6.2 (vs. olive oil at 1.5 and beef tallow at 0.86 - for details see our Oil Chart). What that means is that when heated corn oil quickly becomes rancid, so feel free to use it for a small batch of fries, but don't try to reuse this oil.
Cornstarch - [Cornflour (UK)]
Pure white starch powder extracted from corn has become the most common
culinary thickener, used especially in Asian recipes. It is not the most
ideal for all applications, having less thickening power than potato starch
and a light corn flavor which can interfere in some recipes.
Precooked Cornmeal - [Harina de
Maíz Precocida, Masa de Arepa, Masarepa (Spanish); Farine
de Maís Précuite (Portuguese)]
Available in both white and yellow (the photo specimen is white) this
product is very popular in northern South America for making Arepas, corn
cakes very popular among all classes in Colombia and Venezuela. The corn
is cooked and dried before grinding, which greatly changes its cooking
properties. It saves tremendous labor by cooks who previously had to
do a lot of pounding to make Arepas. The photo specimen
is P.A.N. brand, made in USA under license from Alimentos Polar
International, of Venezuela.
Hominy / Nixtamal
In the photo, white nixtamal, prepared with lime, was canned, thus it
has been cooked to some extent. The fresh yellow nixtamal on the right has
not been cooked at all and is intended for inclusion in Menudo and similar
soups. Both white and yellow are also sold dried and broken (see Grits below).
For details and more information about the nutritional value of
Details and Cooking.
This corn has been grown in Peru for 7000 years or so, and is popular
from southern Mexico to Chile. The photo specimens (Choclo Entero - "on
the cob") were purchased frozen from a large market in Los Angeles
(Burbank) that specializes in Mexican, Central American and South
American foods. The larger was 7 inches long, 2-3/4 inches in diameter
and weighed 13-1/8 ounces, with kernels about 3/4 inch across. The
Mexican Cacahuazintle is a little smaller. The names after the "|" are
"peeled" (Hominy), for use in Tamales, Pozole soup and the like. This
is traditionally done by boiling the kernels in a solution of water and
lye, calcium hydroxide or another strong caustic, then rubbing off the
peels. This also has the effect of greatly increasing availability of
niacin (vitamin B3) - untreated corn has none in an available form.
This process is called Nixtamalization.
Details and Cooking.
Masa - [Masa Nixtamalera; Masa de Maiz
A dough made from ground Nixtamal (see above), used to make tortillas,
tamales, pupusas, arepas and many other Latin American dishes. It is best
ground from fresh Nixtamal and is available in that form in markets serving
a Latin American community (or at least it is here in Los Angeles). If
necessary, it can be made from Masa de Harina and water. Masa can be made
from yellow corn or white, but the white dominates, except for making
yellow corn tortillas.
Masa de Harina
Grits should be quite coarse, but most sold in supermarkets are nothing
more than coarse cornmeal. The photo sample is quite coarse and was obtained
from an Indian (Asian) market in Los Angeles, but most of the ethnic markets
here have similar grits for their Latin American customers. If you can't find
it, grits suppliers in the Deep South are perfectly happy to export the stuff,
even to destinations north of the Mason Dixon line.
Inca Purple Corn - [Maiz Morato]
This nearly black corn is fully mature and thoroughly dried on the cob,
so it needs to be knocked off the cob and soaked overnight, or ground to
flour, for use. The photo specimens were 5 inches long and 1.8 inches
diameter, purchased from Catalina's Market in Los Angeles, but also
available from Vallarta.
White corn tortillas are generally preferred over yellow except for deep
fried items where yellow corn is preferred. Tortillas are often cut, deep
fried and salted to form "corn chips", an extremely popular snack item.
Note that in the American Southwest and along the northern border of
Mexico tortillas are also made from wheat flour. These tortillas are
less crumbly so can be made large enough to use as wrappers to make
burritos, which are not a traditional Mexican dish, but part
of the US Southwest border cuisine.
Tortilla Chips / Corn Chips
Corn Smut - [Huitlacoche; Cuitlacoche
(Mexico) Ustilago maydis]
North of the Mexican border corn smut is a crop destroying fungus infection to be avoided. In Mexico it is encouraged and harvested as huitlacoche (literally "raven's poop") and used in various dishes. It is considered a very desirable delicacy with a sweet earthy flavor (among other aromatic compounds it contains vanillin).
It is harvested while still immature
because later it will be dry and completely filled with fungus spores.
In Mexico it is almost always used fresh, but some is also canned for
export. Efforts have been made to introduce it into other North American
cuisines, and the USDA has an ongoing experimental program, but so far it has
seen little market penetration.
Photo by stu_spivack distributed under license
Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic.
Protein Deficiency: The most immediate problem for populations dependent on corn for nutrition is that you can't live on corn alone - its protein profile is deficient. For this reason beans must be co-cropped with the corn, as they are protein deficient in a complimentary configuration. The beans also fix nitrogen in the soil to provide a more fertile soil for the corn.
Some time back the Mexican government decided to "help" the Huichol people, who had to work exceedingly hard to keep weeds from overrunning their corn crop. The government provide herbicides, which killed the weeds - and the beans. This resulted in impending starvation for the Huichol people. To overcome this, they sent expeditions to the United States to trade their brightly colored crafts for beans. This introduced not only the crafts, but brought the likes of Don José Matsuwa north and introduced Huichol shamanism into this country (C1).
Naicin Deficiency: When corn was taken from the Americas to the rest of the world, many peoples found it could be grown efficiently with high yield, and their food supply, particularly for the poor, became dependent on corn. This caused a very serious disabling disease called "pellagra" to become widespread due to the lack of usable niacin (vitamin B3) in corn. In contrast, cultures in Central and South America which were similarly dependent on corn did not suffer this disease, due to the way they processed corn. This is discussed in our Nixtamal - Hominy page.
Corn Syrup & High Fructose Corn Syrup: These products, in particular High Fructose Corn Syrup, have displaced sugar as the sweetener used in the industrial production of food in the United States, particularly the production of "junk food" and sodas. The reason is, they are cheaper. The reason they are cheaper is, just as with ethanol, massive subsidies provided by our Congress Critters to keep the farm lobby donating funds to their reelection campaigns.
Health advocates claim that HFCS is worse for you than other sugars and a major cause of obesity in America. The corn products manufacturers claim it is no worse for you than any other form of sugar. A recent study by the University of California concluded it is worse for you. Predictably the corn product manufacturers denounced the study as bunk - without providing any counter study or additional data. See link (C2) and our Sweeteners page.Links