Late-Season Corn

Sex is good. But not as good as fresh sweet corn.

How I wish I’d been the one to first state that sentiment, but it was Garrison Keillor whose muse whispered it in his ear. Considering I’m a newlywed, I’m a little ashamed to confess I feel the same, so I’ll simply say that corn on the cob has that effect on people from Iowa.

Still, there are times when it’s tempting to step out on sweet corn.

Each summer there comes a moment when, regrettably, late-season corn loses a little of its luster. It has for as long as I can remember. The corn of my childhood was ample, grown in fields situated a mere 20-second sprint from our porch. Evenings at dusk my brother and I would sit on the back steps and lazily shuck to the mesmerizing drone of cicadas. Minutes after it was picked, we’d lug the corn, sans husks and silks, inside to the waiting pot of boiling water. Then we’d do what most folks do. Which is to say, we ate it straight off the cob. Every single night. A simple ritual that invoked nothing more than salt and sometimes butter yet satiated far more than just our palates. It was perfect. Until sometime in early September. That’s when my sweet corn malaise would set in.

Still does. I swear it’s got nothing to do with me being lulled into complacency by prior abundance. Nor has anything else at the local greenmarket usurped any of my affection. (What, like kabocha squash? Please.) Late-season sweet corn simply has a propensity to be somewhat starchy. One day it will be milky and wildly sweet, the next it’s crushingly, disappointingly bland. Blame it on the vagaries of the earth’s biorhythms.

That doesn’t mean I don’t succumb to its lure, lugging home armfuls this time of year, delusioned and about to be disappointed. I just can’t help myself. As a result, I’ve managed to come up with some coping mechanisms for sweet corn that’s more starchy than sweet, born of necessity, yet, but also the respectful understanding that even deep within tough, unyielding kernels resides an innate corniness. And unlike early corn that just flings its essence at us, with late corn it’s up to the home cook to tease it out.

So say hello to corn off the cob. Lopped off with a sharp knife, even ho-hum kernels take on new potential. I’m not talking about cooking the corn on the cob and then slicing it off. This is a nifty, if not exactly innovative, trick—but it has no business here. It’s best reserved for height-of-the-season corn that’s still insanely sweet and requires only the slightest, if any, embellishment. What I mean is corn taken off the cob prior to cooking and them lent some oomph via being quickly roasted, grilled, or sautéed. That’s when late-season sweet corn can be revelatory. The sugars caramelize, the exterior crisps, there’s even an audible pop. It’s the soft-porn equivalent of corn nuts.

See for yourself. Mostly I just sort of ad hoc what comes next seeing as what comes out of the oven or the skillet is surprisingly versatile. An extra glug of olive oil is always nice, as are quite a lot of things. I mean, here’s where I could blather on about the embellishments I tend to turn to, whether out of practice or whimsy, but being just a bit voyeuristic, I’d rather hear how you fancy your late-season corn off the cob, given your druthers. Care to share?

Off the cob and onto the baking sheet

Carefully slice the kernels from the cob and strew them on a baking sheet. Drizzle with a scant amount of olive oil, toss well, and rattle the corn kernels into an even layer. Place the baking sheet in a hot, hot, hot oven (anywhere from 400 degrees on upwards), shaking the sheet occasionally, and cook until the corn is sizzling just a little. You decide whether to yank the sheet from the heat when the corn is just slightly tinged with brown or to wait until it pops and chars a bit. This takes 5 to 10 minutes or so. Watch it carefully. Drizzle the corn with additional olive oil. Finish with a shake of salt and pepper.

Off the cob and into the skillet

Slice the kernels from the cob and into a skillet, preferably cast-iron. Toss in some kernels and not a lot of butter or olive oil over mediumish heat and let it cook a little, stirring only if you must. It’s up to you whether you pull the skillet from the heat when the corn is just slightly burnished at the edges or you wait until it actually audibly pops and chars slightly, typically 8 minutes or so. Embellish with salt and pepper, if you please.



  1. It’s past mid-October so my late-season corn from the farmers market is truly very LATE! Every week, I think this is it—there won’t be any more corn this week, and, there it is, still for sale at multiple stands. I had my cast iron skillet out for another dish and would likely have gone the baking sheet route, but the skillet was warm and waiting. I used olive oil. Late season corn, check. Cast-iron skillet, check. I didn’t stir, but confess to peeking at a few kernels at the two-, four-, and six-minute marks. At six, the first kernel popped! At eight, I pulled the skillet from the burner. While I let the kernels get too burnished on this first go at late-season corn, I’m definitely game to try going for the more-charred kernels on the next batch! This is a WOW! for corn that’s no longer top-notch, but you still haven’t had your fill of fresh local corn, and I’m fingers crossed for another week of farmers market corn so I can make this all over again next week! If it’s still there, I’m buying plenty—while you might eat one ear of corn on the cob, you could easily eat more when it’s cut and charred this way, so I’ll allow 2 ears per serving, and, if there are leftovers, this would be tasty with a vinaigrette all on its own, or tossed into or atop a mixed green salad.

    1. We’re delighted that you loved this, Elsa! Thanks so much for taking the time to share your experience with us.

  2. One of my favorite ways to make late-season corn is to saute it with onions, garlic, red bell and poblano peppers and to season the mixture with salt and — the critical touch — smoked Spanish paprika.

    Now if I could just figure out what to do with the last of the fat Big Boy tomatoes. I know it’s heresy to have had enough of those, but the little Sun Golds were better.

    1. Thanks, Jean. And I agree, it’s difficult to go back to anything else after having had the Sun Golds. Perhaps a deconstructed gazpacho? I whir my less-than-stellar tomatoes in the blender, strain them, and use the juice as a base for finely chopped red onion, cucumber, bell pepper, even corn off the cob, whatever pleases you. It’s light and refreshing and can be served as-is or as a sort of puddle around some seared fish or made more satisfying with the addition of some rice. Just a thought.

  3. Wonderful and evocative piece—thank you. Back in Rhode Island, we called that late season corn, “horse corn.” But it had to be pronounced correctly: hoss cohn.

      1. Renee – I guess you did not call late-season corn “horse corn”? Did you have a name (other than “late-season corn”)? I have lived away from New England for almost a half-century, but kept my accent (much to my Midwestern wife’s chagrin) The first time my wife met my mother, Mom had misplaced her car-keys and was walking around muttering, “Now where the hell are my car keys!” But my wife asked me, “What are ‘cockies’?”)

        1. I love that story, Phil! At least there’s an actual reason for needing to translate between wife and mother, whereas with most such relationships, things are a little more complicated…

          And no, we didn’t call it “horse corn.” I don’t think we had a name for late-season corn, other than supper. I just relied on a little extra butter come late summer…

  4. Sweet! Very visual story. My late corn-off-the-cob fix starts similarly to yours. Caramelize it in a skillet or in the oven (or even in a grill pan on your Weber if you’ve got it fired up). Cool a tad then stir into homemade guacamole (avocado, minced garlic, jalapeno, lime juice, salt, pepper). Or…start with browned butter. Add corn kernels. A hint of lemon-thyme. Maybe a spritz of lemon if you feel inclined to tone down the richness. Spoon over fish.

  5. Renee, great piece. You take me back in memory to how my grandmother had her way with corn: also sliced off the cob before cooking, then dumped in a skillet to cook (yes, a cast-iron one, perfectly seasoned). But here’s where she parts company with you. Butter. An obscene amount of butter, with just a bit of salt and pepper, and she’d stir it frequently and cook it down until you couldn’t hardly identify a single, discreet kernel. She was a true Southerner and the vegetables (unlike those cooked by my “Yankee” mom) were always soft, soft, soft. And did I mention soaked in butter? I haven’t made her recipe often for just that reason, but it really was late-summer heaven.

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