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August/September 2014

Getting to Know: Corn Products

The United States produces 32 percent of the world’s corn—three times as much as any other nation. With all that corn, it’s little wonder that we use it in so many ways.

The United States produces 32 percent of the world’s corn—three times as much as any other nation. With all that corn, it’s little wonder that we use it in so many ways.

Popcorn

Kernels of popping corn consist of a moist, starchy center sealed inside a tough, dried hull. Whether you use a microwave, air popper, or stovetop, heating the kernels softens the starch and turns the moisture into steam, which increases pressure inside until the hull pops into a “flake.” For the best results, we prefer stovetop popcorn. Try our recipe for Parmesan-Pepper Popcorn.

Cornstarch

This thickener is made from the dried, ground corn endosperm (which contains starch and protein). When using it to thicken sauces, we first mix it with liquid to form a slurry; otherwise, the cornstarch will clump. We’ve found that cornstarch, when added to marinades, can also be used to protect lean meats like pork from overcooking; it helps form a protective sheath around the meat that insulates it from high temperatures.

Corn Syrup

Don’t confuse corn syrup with high-fructose corn syrup—a much sweeter product that is used in processed foods. Corn syrup, which is about 45 percent as sweet as sugar, is very thick and doesn’t crystallize like maple syrup or honey, which is why it’s often used in candy making. We use dark corn syrup to add deep, sweet flavor to our Southern Pecan Praline Pie.

Bourbon

In order for whiskey to be called bourbon, its fermented grain mash (which also includes wheat, rye, and malted barley) must be at least 51 percent corn and produced in the United States. The mash is mixed with water and yeast, fermented, distilled, and then aged in charred oak barrels that impart lots of nuanced flavors. Bourbon can be a great addition to sauces and marinades, as in our recipe for Smoked Bourbon Chicken.

Corn Oil

A relatively modern invention, corn oil was refined for cooking in 1910 and introduced to the commercial market as Mazola in 1911. While the oil is bleached and deodorized, some trace amounts of flavor compounds remain, giving room-temperature corn oil a mild corn flavor that doesn’t meld well in mayonnaise or vinaigrettes. Heating changes the compounds, however, making corn oil a good choice for sautéing and frying.

Sweet Corn

While most corn produced in the United States is grown to maturity and sold as a grain for livestock, milling, or human consumption, sweet corn is harvested in its immature “milk stage” while the kernels are smooth, plump, and filled with a milk-like juice; then it’s cooked and eaten as a vegetable. New varieties of “supersweet” corn have made it less important to cook corn as quickly as possible after harvesting.

Hominy

Hominy, an essential ingredient in posole, is dried corn that has been soaked or cooked in an alkaline solution of water and calcium hydroxide to remove the germ and hull; it has a distinctive flavor and soft, almost chewy texture. The resulting kernels are large—about twice their original size. Hominy is a great addition to soups, or use it in bean salads. Try hominy in our version of posole.

Cornmeal

Cornmeal is ground processed corn kernels and can be yellow, white, or blue depending on the type of corn. Stoneground cornmeal has a rustic, coarse texture due to the rough grinding surface of stone; compare this texture with the fine, uniform grind that comes from the smooth steel rollers that companies like Quaker use. We like the clean flavor and “fine sand texture” of Arrowhead Mills Organic Yellow Cornmeal.

Polenta

Italian polenta is a porridge made with water or stock and coarsely ground cornmeal. You can buy imported “polenta,” but you’ll often pay twice as much as you would for medium or coarsely ground cornmeal, which is the same thing. We are not fans of the bland instant and quick-cooking dried versions. Try our mostly hands-off oven recipe for Easy Baked Polenta.

Grits

Another form of ground cornmeal, grits usually have a coarser grain than most packaged cornmeal. Some large-scale cornmeal producers use the same corn to make grits and cornmeal, while artisan companies might use softer dent corn for grits and tougher flint corn for cornmeal or polenta. We love the “nice chew” and “intense” corn flavor of Anson Mills Pencil Cob Grits.

Masa Harina

The ancient Aztecs invented masa harina, and their basic method is still used today: Corn is heated in an alkaline solution containing calcium hydroxide (the Aztecs used limewater or ash) and then rinsed, dried, and ground. Then it’s dried again and ground into the fine powder known as masa harina or masa seca. This process enables this variation of cornmeal—the main ingredient in corn tortillas—to form a malleable dough when mixed with water.