It’s a rite of summer, that first juicy bite of too-hot-to-handle corn slathered with butter. As the creamy slick gives way to the kernels’ sweet pop, all becomes good with the world. But after a while, I’m done with plain and simple and am looking to mix things up. I start playing with different ways to cook corn and to flavor it, from boosting that pat of butter with spices and other tasty enhancements to creating boldly flavored and texturally interesting toppings by rolling the ears in things like crunchy breadcrumbs, creamy cheese, fresh herbs, and toasted nuts. Are they messy to eat? Yes. But they’re anything but boring.
Buy it fresh and local
As soon as an ear of corn is plucked from its stalk, its sugars begin converting to starch, becoming tougher and blander, so buy the freshest you can find.
Choose ears that are heavy for their size and have pale golden silks that are nearly damp and, well, silky. Give the cobs a gentle squeeze: You should feel firm kernels all the way to the tip. Resist the urge to peel back the husk to peek at the corn; it may be the best way to see what the kernels look like, but unhusked ears dry out quickly. (You wouldn’t peel a banana before you bought it, would you?)
If you can see samples of the varieties available, know that bigger kernels aren’t necessarily better. Neither is a deep yellow color. Corn naturally hybridizes, so countless options are available. I prefer petite white kernels with a subtle sweetness, but others may favor sugary plump ocher kernels and all the types in between.
Ideally, you should buy your corn on the same day you plan to cook it. Keep the ears in their husks in the refrigerator (cool temps stall the sugar conversion) until you’re ready to cook.
Cook it: grill, poach, or steam
I cook corn a few different ways. I haul out the stockpot when cooking a lot of ears, but I don’t boil the corn because it’s too easy to overcook it. Instead, I poach it, which cooks the corn more slowly. When I want the corn to take on a bit of smoky flavor, I light the grill. And if I’m cooking just a few ears and want them fast, I turn to the microwave.
For microwaving, it’s best to cook only four ears at a time, but if you’re poaching or grilling, you can cook as many ears as your pot or grill can accommodate. Cooking times will vary depending on the size of the cob and its kernels. The best way to check for doneness is to take a nibble. The kernels should be hot and burst with a tender crispness.
Poached in a pot
How: Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add the husked corn, cover, and remove the pot from the heat. Let stand until crisp-tender, about 5 minutes.
Bonus: This method is ideal for entertaining because you can cook a lot of ears at once and then keep them in the poaching water until ready to serve.
Steamed in the microwave
How: Microwave unshucked ears of corn (no more than 4 at a time) on high until the kernels are crisp-tender (you’ll need to pull the husk down to check), about 4 minutes. Cool slightly, then remove the husks and silks.
Bonus: The speediest way to corn nirvana, there’s no need to remove the husk or silks beforehand with this method. Post nuke, the silks come off a little easier, too.
Charred on the grill
How: Prepare a medium-high (400°F to 475°F) charcoal or gas grill fire for direct grilling. Grill shucked corn, turning occasionally, until charred in places and crisp-tender, about 8 minutes.
Bonus: If you’re barbecuing, the corn can be cooked outside along with the rest of the meal, and there’s no boiling water steaming up your kitchen.
Roll your corn in all sorts of good things—panko, ham, goat cheese, almonds—for bold flavors and exciting textures, or boost flavor with tasty compound butters and tapenade.