There are benefits and drawbacks to each method of grilling corn. Here’s everything you need to know.
In my life, I’ve had three major corn epiphanies. My most recent experience was when my younger sister demonstrated the best and quickest way to prepare fresh corn on the cob indoors. Before that, a college friend demonstrated how to throw whole corn in the husk on the embers of a campfire and have it emerge blackened on the outside and perfectly steamed in the middle, rather than burning to oblivion.
The first, however, was the most crucial.
*Microwave a whole ear of corn that hasn’t been shucked. Three minutes in the microwave You are welcome to eat it now that it is perfectly cooked.
It occurred during a first-grade field trip to a farm in upstate New York, where the students boarded a tractor for a tour of the corn fields. As we rode by, I recall the farmer plucking an ear from the stalk and passing it to Daniel Powell**, who took a bite, rolled his eyes a little, and then passed the ear to me. If it hadn’t been for the one crystallizing moment that followed: I bit into that corn and tasted for the first time what 100 percent fresh-off-the-cob corn can really taste like, all of this would have been lost, packed away in some rusty cabinet in the attic of my memory. Sweet, juicy, and flavorful like an apple.
It exemplifies the first step toward truly excellent grilled corn: Begin with the freshest corn you can find. Corn sugars undergo enzymatic reactions that slowly convert them into blander, mealy starches as soon as they come off the vine, whether you start with a yellow, white, or bicolor variety. Though producers are working hard to create corn that is not only sweeter off the stalk but also stays sweeter for longer (the Wikipedia entry on sweet corn varieties is fascinating), the best way to get tasty corn is to buy it as local and fresh as possible—preferably picked that morning and sold at a farmers market or farm stand—and to cook it as soon as you get home.
Let’s start with the type of grill you’ll need. If you prefer charcoal, take a look at our list of the best charcoal grills under $500.
So, what’s the best way to cook corn on the grill? I frequently employ three different approaches, each with its own set of benefits and drawbacks. They’re right here.
Method 1: In the Husk
The second epiphany, ah, good old epiphany number two. Grilling corn in the husk is simple and delicious, and it comes with a handy built-in handle—just fold the husk back to reveal the steamed corn inside. Some people recommend peeling back the husk, removing all of the silk, and then folding the husk back into place, but I find this to be too much trouble. When you shuck it after cooking, simply peel back the silk along with the husk.
If you want to go all out, peel back the husk, remove the silk, and spread some flavored butter on top before folding it back. This has the advantage of making your corn appear magical, but it doesn’t offer much more in terms of improved flavor or cooking qualities than simply rolling the cob in flavored butter after cooking.
How to do it: Place the corn in the husk directly on top of the hot coals and cook, turning occasionally, until it is steamed through to the center, about 15 minutes (you can peek and rewrap the corn to check if necessary). The corn can also be grilled on a rack above the coals while still in its husk. The outside should be pitch black, but the inside should be steamy and damp. Allow the corn to cool slightly before removing the husk and silk, rolling it in flavored or plain butter, and serving.
Advantages: It’s incredibly simple to prepare. No other work is required other than purchasing ears of corn and hauling them out to the backyard or campfire. It also produces tasty corn with grassy undertones from the husk.
Disadvantages: It can be a little messy to eat (the blackened husk gets on your hands), and it can be difficult to tell when the corn inside is fully cooked. There will be no charred or grilled flavor from this method.
Method 2: Foil-wrapped
The process is very similar to the in-the-husk method, but there are a few differences in how the corn is finished.
Shuck the corn and discard the silk and husk. Wrap the corn in heavy-duty aluminum foil, flavored butter or oil inside, if desired. Grill, turning occasionally, until the corn is fully cooked, about 15 minutes, directly on hot coals or on top of a grate set over the coals.
Benefits: It’s very simple to serve—just pull the corn off the cob, set it aside, and serve. The foil will also keep the corn warm for a long time, making this an excellent method for large gatherings or buffet-style service. Flavored butter inside the package, like in-the-husk corn, is a neat trick, but it doesn’t produce significantly better results than simply coating the corn in flavored butter after cooking.
It requires a lot of prep work, such as shucking, cleaning, and rewrapping.
Method 3: Naked Grilling
Of course, that’s the corn, not you. This is my preferred method of grilling corn. It results in corn with charred, browned, nutty bits that really make it taste, well, grilled. And isn’t that what this is all about?
How to do it: Shuck the corn and clean it. Don’t worry about catching every last stray silk strand; they’ll just burn away on the grill. Don’t make the mistake of brining your corn. Place the corn directly over a very hot fire and grill for about 10 minutes, turning occasionally, until it’s charred and cooked through. Serve with flavored or plain butter and salt right away.
Advantages: It’s quick and easy, and it allows you to keep an eye on the corn as it cooks. It also results in a lot of smoky, charred, grilled flavor.
In comparison to corn steamed in the husk or foil, the corn won’t be as juicy.
We may not be able to agree on the best way to grill corn, but while we’re arguing about it, let’s eat a delicious ear or two, okay?