8 Corn-Shopping Tips from Farmers and Grocery Store Managers

published Jul 23, 2022
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Picking out sweet corn can be “a gamble,” says Jenna Untiedt, marketing manager at Untiedt’s Vegetable Farm in Minnesota. And she’s right. Unless you’ve got X-ray vision goggles, it’s impossible to see what’s hidden beneath those husks — unless, of course, you peel them back. And that’s something you really don’t want to do (more on that below). There are, however, plenty of other ways to tell if the corn you’re buying is up to your standards.

I spoke with Untiedt and four other farmers and grocery store managers to learn just what those ways are. They share their expert tips on how to pick out fresh sweet corn — and a few behaviors we should strongly consider retiring. Whether you’re at a farmers market or grocery store, here’s what you need to know the next time you shop for corn.

Credit: Joe Lingeman

1. Don’t peel back the husk.

I’m confident most of us (if not all of us) have read this before. Still, it bears repeating. Why do I say this? Because every person I spoke with brought it up, and for several very good reasons: Not only is it “unnecessary” as one farmer pointed out (there are less damaging ways to tell if the corn meets your standards), but it also “makes it so somebody else isn’t going to pick it up and run home with it,” says Steve Verrill, co-owner of Verrill Farms in Concord, Massachusetts. And in the case of farm stands and farmers markets, he explains, it will draw flies. It can also be hazardous to other shoppers, particularly in grocery stores where people can more easily slip on the tile floors, according to David Dudley, a produce manager at Sprouts Farmers Market.

2. Or worse yet, stick your fingernail into a kernel.

If this sounds gross, it’s because it is. Like peeling back the husk, this too will cause the corn to dry out. (It also means that someone is sticking their nail into your food.) “People think that they can tell the freshness by poking it,” says Untiedt, whose farm produces all the corn that goes to the Minnesota State Fair. “You can do it visually, though. You don’t need to actually puncture the kernel.” For example …

Credit: Getty Images/BRETT STEVENS

3. Look for vibrant green husks and white butts.

“Corn husks that are bright green and tightly wrapped mean the corn was either picked that day or within the past couple of days,” says Martha Abel, farmstand manager at Keller’s Farmstand in Naperville, Illinois. (In fact, every person I spoke with mentioned the color and integrity of the husks.) You also want to check out the butt of the corn, where it’s snapped off the stalk. “You want that to be more on the white side,” says Untiedt. This will also help you identify whether the ears were picked today or within the last couple of days. As the corn ages, that end of the corn will turn more brown.

4. Check the tassel end of the corn. 

All the experts agreed some handling is completely acceptable and even encouraged. The tassel end of the corn is where Molly Siegler, Whole Foods Market’s senior program manager for culinary development, suggests you check first. “That’s often a spot that can be soft or damaged.” When feeling the corn, “the tassel end should be kind of medium thickness and slightly rounded,” says Verrill. “If it’s really fat it’s probably over mature.” 

You should also know, however, sometimes “corn won’t form all the way to the tip,” explains Untiedt, “and usually that’s due to irregular water or drought.” This won’t change the flavor, she explains, just the appearance. Her recommendation? Cut that bit off and eat the rest of the ear.

5. Scope out the color and texture of the silk.

The silk (or tassels) is another key indicator for freshness. “The color of the silk can vary between yellow, gold, or brown and look somewhat ‘puffy,’” says Dudley. Any of those get the green light. What you want to avoid is blackened silk with a slimy texture, he explains. That’s a sign the corn is past its prime. Some wetness is OK, particularly if you’re shopping at your local grocery store. According to Dudley, “silk may be wet because corn is shipped with ice mixed within the box.” 

6. Chat with your farmer.

If you’re buying your corn at a farmers market or a farm stand, Untiedt recommends asking about the sweet corn variety (different varieties of sweet corn are available throughout the season). You can also ask if the farmer will guarantee your purchase. The answer is generally a resounding yes.

7. Leave no trace.

This is more of a manners note, but be mindful of how you’re leaving the display. Whether you’re at an outdoor market or in a grocery store, seeing a messy display can deter shoppers. In addition to partially or fully shucked corn, Dudley will occasionally find a bag full of corn that has been left behind on the produce display. “The leftover bag is a clear indicator that corn has been handled by another shopper.”

Credit: Joe Lingeman
Corn on the Cob

8. Shuck your corn at home. 

Even if the place you shop provides an area for you to husk your corn, the absolute best place to husk your corn is at home. Better yet, shuck it just before cooking. Sure, shucking can get messy, admits Untiedt, but it’s what protects those precious kernels. “The longer you can keep it in the husk, the fresher the corn is going to stay and the kernels aren’t going to dry out.” 

Do you have a tip for buying sweet corn? Tell us in the comments below.