Sometimes the simplest things get complicated. How best to cook corn on the cob? The goal is to end up with hot, butterable corn on a cob you can pick up and eat. Maybe wearing a bib!
We tried three different techniques for cooking corn on the cob: boil water, steaming in an Instant Pot, and cooking in a microwave. There are some advantages to each method.
Far and away the simplest approach is to get a pot of water boiling and drop the shucked corn into it for 5 minutes, lift it out with tongs and serve right away. The advantage is scale: in a big pot, you can cook a lot of corn in a hurry.
Now some die-hards like to spread butter on the hot corn, and while this is entertaining, it is way better to just brush some melted butter on each piece before serving. We melted our butter in a small pitcher in the microwave, at 50% power to prevent the milk components from boiling.
Another popular method for members of the Instant Pot owners cult is to put several shucked corn ears in the Instant pot with a cup of water under the trivet. Then, set the pot to steam under low pressure conditions. We found that 3 minutes in the put made pretty nice corn. The disadvantage is that it takes the pot more than 5 minutes to get that water to a boil and you can only do a few ears at a time in the pot: maybe 4 or so. In our experiment, we used the Quick Release after 3 minutes, rather than letting it cool down in the pot and perhaps overcook.
The corn comes out very well, but you have to clean out the pot when the boiling water pot is simpler to clean.
The third approach is to put the ears in a microwave oven. In this case, you don’t shuck off the husk until afterwards, to keep the steam inside the ear. You cook them for 4 minutes, then cut off the bottom and pull out the corn. This did not work very well for us. Neither of out two trials resulted in “quick release” corn. We had to peel it manually, and when the husk, the corn and the cob itself are very hot, this is very tricky. Further, you really can only do 1-2 ears at a time, reducing scalability.
All three methods produced tasty hot corn: we took a few bites from each and found no obvious differences. However, the microwaved corn is hot through and through, making it difficult to pick up the corn and eat it without burning your fingers. While we tried to pick corn ears that were similar in size, we didn’t succeed: the middle, smallest ear was microwaved, the left one cooked in boiling water and the right one in the Instant Pot.
However, as the corn cooled, we noted that the kernels of the microwaved corn began to collapse and pucker. We repeated this with another ear and found the same result. The water was evidently forced out of the kernels by the microwave heating, and when the corn cooled it was unsightly. While we didn’t notice a flavor difference, the difference in appearance indicates that the microwaved corn could be or seem to be less flavorful. Because of the difficulty in peeling the husks and the puckered kernels, we ranked this technique third, and don’t recommend it.
Among the other two: the boiled and the Instant Pot are about the same, but the open pot of boiling water lets you make far more corn in a hurry for a crowd. We would guess that you could only do about 4 ears at a time in the Instant Pot, and the elapsed time is greater, because once the open pot of water is boiling, you can cook all the corn you want without a reheating step.
We omitted cooking corn on a barbecue grill because the results are so different, but you can, if careful, caramelize the kernels a bit to make very good corn without steaming or boiling.
One thought on “Cooking corn on the cob: three methods”
America’s Test Kitchen offers a different way to boil corn. It can also be used to make a lot of corn. You do have to be a member to get to their site.