Ingredient Intelligence

Not All Corn Is the Same — Learn About the 3 Main Types with Our Handy Cheat Sheet

published Jul 15, 2022
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Graphic collage showing different types of corn, including a group of 4 colorful flint corn cobs, popcorn, a bicolor sweet corn cob, and dried dent corn kernels.
Credit: Photo: Shutterstock; Design: Kitchn

Did you know that there’s more than one type of corn? What you use for corn on the cob or elote is different from the kernels that go into movie-style popcorn, which is also distinct from what’s ground into cornmeal. (And of course, corn comes in different colors, like blue corn, as well as different sizes, like baby corn.)

So, how can you determine the right corn for your purposes? And where does all this corn come from, anyway?

How We Grow, Eat, and Use Corn

From heirloom popcorn to shrink-wrapped supermarket ears, all corn has ancient ancestry.

“The only grain native to North America, corn has defined American history since its very beginning,” writes cookbook author Roxana Jullapat in Mother Grains. The earliest known corn cultivation occurred some 9,000 years ago in what’s now Mexico, and corn had spiritual significance for the Mayans.

Since then, corn has become a global staple. In the United States, it’s a culinary favorite as well as a commodity used as livestock feed and to make everything from ethanol to laundry starch. It’s also the most planted crop in the United States, with more than 15.1 billion bushels produced in 2021. 

The 3 Main Types of Corn 

There are three main categories of corn in the United States: dent corn, flint corn, and sweet corn, which contains subgroups like white, yellow, and bicolor corn. 

These categories all contain an array of attributes and applications — edible and otherwise. 

Credit: Photo: Shutterstock; Design: Kitchn

What Is Dent Corn?

Also known as field corn, dent corn gets its name from the shallow indentation that forms on each kernel. It has tight husks and opaque kernels, and is usually harvested after it’s matured. 

Dent corn is starchier and has less sugar than the corn on the cob we eat at backyard barbecues or seafood boils. In the United States, it’s primarily used as animal feed or in the production of ethanol and sweeteners. 

Dent corn can also be wet- or dry-milled and used to make tortilla chips, whiskey, and Southern-style grits. One especially beloved dent corn variety is Jimmy Red, a ruby-hued iteration believed to have been used to make moonshine and embraced by modern bourbon distillers.

What Is Flint Corn?

As its name suggests, flint corn is harder and more durable than other types of corn, with rounder, tougher kernels. Some farmers cultivate crosses between dent and flint corn, and fittingly call them flint-dent or dent-flint corn.

Multicolored flint corn, sometimes called calico corn, is often dried and sold alongside gourds as decorations in the U.S., particularly around Thanksgiving. Those durable ears can last up to 30 years if stored in airtight containers.

Dried and ground into meal or flours, flint corn stars in polenta. It’s also the type of corn that’s typically used to make popcorn.

What Is Sweet Corn?

If you’ve ever shucked ears of fresh, juicy corn, and then cooked it on the cob, chances are it was sweet corn.

High in sugar, sweet corn is harvested young, usually within 21 days after the ear forms its first tassel. It has a short shelf life and is eaten fresh, rather than dried or ground like dent or flint corn. To determine how recently your sweet corn was in a field, once you get it home you can pluck a kernel off the ear and squeeze it between your fingers; if it releases a bit of milk, it’s very fresh.

You can serve sweet corn in all sorts of ways. Cut the corn off the cob and toss the kernels with summer vegetables in a fresh corn salad or veggie pasta salad, or highlight its sweetness in che bap, spoonbread, or slow cooker creamed corn. You can also grill, boil, or cook corn on the cob in the Instant Pot

There are several subcategories of sweet corn, with varying grades of sweetness and flavor profiles. One of the clearest ways to differentiate among all the ears at the farmers market or grocery store is by color. 

White Corn

“White corn has a lot of crazed fans in Eastern Carolina,” Vivian Howard, author and PBS host, writes in her book Deep Run Roots. White corn tends to have a delicate, creamy, minerally flavor. 

While retailers don’t always list the names of types of corn, white sweet corn varieties include Silver Queen, praised for its bright white hue and especially large ears, as well as Silver Choice, Treasure, and Country Gentleman.

Yellow Corn

Yellow corn is arguably the corniest of all the sweet corn. “Deep yellow kernels imply the taste of butter,” Howard writes, and notes that yellow corn has a bolder, more robust flavor than white sweet corn.

Some popular varieties of yellow corn are Incredible, Bodacious Buns, and Jubilee, which is known for its high yield.

Bicolor Corn

Bicolor corn has alternating white and yellow kernels along slim, cylindrical ears. Its plump kernels can have notes of butter, cream, and citrus, and the husks tend to cling tightly to the cobs.

A high-yielding crop, bicolor corn is a favorite of farmers and home gardeners, with varieties like Honey and Cream, Temptress, Cadence, and Nectar