By Marlee Moore
To the untrained eye, sweet and field corn are near-identical. Shuck and sample the ears, and even amateur palates taste the difference.
“Sweet corn kernels are higher in moisture and sugar content,” said DeKalb County farmer Ben Johnson.
That sugar creates a sweet burst of flavor, whether kernels are gnawed off the cob, mixed in summer salads and salsas, or fried in a cast-iron skillet.
In contrast, field corn kernels are starchier with a thick pericarp, or outer coating. Field corn is ideal for corn meal, corn chips, corn oil and livestock feed. Both corn types come in a plethora of colors — yellow, white, orange or even multicolored.
“Generally, the big fields of corn you drive by are field corn,” said Carla Hornady, the Alabama Farmers Federation Wheat & Feed Grain Division director. “Alabama isn’t a big player in field corn production, but a lot of our acreage (about 330,000 acres in 2021) is processed for poultry feed. Sweet corn is planted on a much smaller scale.”
Height is also a visual tell. While field and sweet corn are planted in April, field corn reaches 8 feet or more and has fuller leaves. As the corn matures, cells at the bottom of the kernel start to dry. The kernel shrinks, creating a dent. Some people enjoy “roasting ears,” the colloquial term for field corn they’ll snap off, cook and eat, Johnson said.
Some corn connoisseurs, prefer early field corn cut off the cob that’s cooked and serve as creamed corn.
“You can tell the difference as soon as you shuck the field corn back,” said Johnson, a member of the Alabama Farmers Federation State Soybean Committee.
The entire stalk on field corn will dry and take on a raspy texture and brown color before farmers climb in a combine for harvest.
Months before, shorter sweet corn matures in time for the Fourth of July fresh-produce frenzy. Johnson and his students (he’s also an ag teacher) hand-harvest, bag and sell sweet corn as a fundraiser. Sweet corn should be cooled as soon as possible to prevent sugars turning to starch.
The window for fresh sweet corn is short, but Johnson has a cheat. Cut off both ends of the sweet corn still in its husk. Wrap individual ears in aluminum foil and freeze. Craving corn? Remove foil and cook corn in the microwave or on the grill until tender. Peel off the husk and silks, and enjoy. Slathering butter and sprinkling salt are optional.
“When you cook it with the shuck on, it tastes just like fresh corn,” Johnson said. “It holds the moisture in.”