Tips and tricks for grilling husk on or off, removing corn silk, and other vital steps for grilling this ultimate summer side.

By Marie Viljoen
August 05, 2020
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What is plump with summer sweetness, arranged in neat rows, and pre-packaged in its own sheath of leaves? What is so good to eat that you forgive it for getting stuck between your teeth? Corn, of course. Held in the hands and nibbled methodically, row by row, or bitten off in unruly chunks, the appearance of the first local corn on our tables means that summer is at full tilt. And with warm days and nights comes the pleasure of grilling, with good smoke-smells drifting across backyards and rooftops. Why not combine these two great things? The epitome of summer eating is corn cooked on the grill, so bring on the barbecue—it brings out the best in those gorgeous ears.

Kate Sears

There are three ways to go in terms of grilling corn, each with some exquisitely nuanced variations. The big question is whether to shuck or not to shuck (closely followed by whether to soak or not to soak). We'll help you decide which route to go.

Leaves On

The wonderful thing about the encasing leaves around each ear of corn is that they are effectively a built-in steamer (just think of tamales!). If you keep your corn naturally wrapped while it grills, the moisture from the kernels is trapped and cooks them. If you choose to leave them this encased from start to finish, the result will be straight-up steamed corn—a purist's approach.

Now you must decide how many leaves to, er, leave. The more leaf layers over the ears, the more protection they receive from scorching heat. But the thicker insulation will also mean your corn takes longer to cook. It is fine to pull off some of the tough outer leaves, but keep a layer of two-to-three between the heat and the kernels. Only peel the remaining leaves back and remove the silks when you are serving the fragrant ears. The kernels will be pale and moist, and will appreciate a simple topping of good butter.

Here comes the variation: Because it can be messy pulling off the silks once the corn is cooked (and you may end up with a few minorly burned fingers), you may want to remove them before cooking. If you don't mind, and also appreciate the extra nutty flavor that the silks impart during the grilling process, skip this paragraph. But if you would like to indulge friends or save yourself from the silky mess, start by peeling back the husks, but still leave them attached. Now, pull off the corn silks, and then fold the husks back over the entire ear again (a bit like pulling socks on and off). Because you have removed some insulation, it's now a good idea to soak these prepared ears in water before you cook. Dunk your corn in a water bath for at least 10-30 minutes before placing them on the grill.

Leaves Peeled Back During Grilling

Exposing corn kernels to a kiss of fire caramelizes the sugars in the kernel. The distinctive flavor is addictive. Proceed as above with respect to the corn silks—remove or don't remove, as you prefer (and soak the corn if you do the latter). Either way, start your corn off on the grill protected by a few layers of leaves. After they have browned on all sides and the kernels are turning tender, pull back the husks to expose the interior to the grill or the heat of the coals. Continue to cook until browned in places. Serve with your favorite fixings (for instance butter; microplaned Parmesan and black pepper; butter, sambal oelek, and fish sauce, as shown above; or chile-lime salt). 

Leaves Off

If leaves seem too high maintenance or if you've bought corn that has already been shucked, foil is your friend. Cooking ears of corn in a foil package has the advantage of allowing you to add herbs or spices which infuse the kernels with flavor as they sizzle over the flames.  Lay each naked ear of corn on a rectangle of foil, drizzle with olive oil, or smear with butter, then season with salt and fresh herbs (oregano is especially good), seal tightly, and cook until tender. Serve in its package so that when you open it the fragrant steam becomes part of the quintessential summer pleasure that is corn cooked on the grill.

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