What Baby Corn Is, and Why It’ll Never Be Like Baby Carrots

published Jul 26, 2016
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Usually, food items in miniature form automatically generate oohs and aaahs. If baby carrots have taught us anything, it’s that cute and small veggies sell. But baby corn has never been able to capitalize off of its itty-bitty size. We’re taking a closer look in the baby corn cradle to figure out just why.

What Is Baby Corn?

Baby corn is basically corn that’s harvested when it’s immature and before it’s pollinated — almost right after the silk starts to appear. The result is a product that doesn’t carry the same level of starches and sugar — and one might argue, flavor — that full-fledged adult corn does. It’s often relegated to the role of adding color and visual interest to stir-fries, which is where most of us have encountered it. We aren’t seeking out the canned stuff because it’s been processed and, as a result, often feels soft to the point of unappealing in comparison to the sweet snap of a freshly shucked ear of corn.

Baby corn is mostly grown in Asian countries (Thailand in particular), and not something you really encounter in a supermarket or farmers market. Aside from the lack of market, it’s labor-intensive and highly perishable. So where exactly is the demand coming from? In some cases it’s chefs.

Top Chef alum Marcel Vigneron serves it in a dish called “Unicorn” at his restaurant, Wolf, in Los Angeles. It’s a combination of bone marrow, uni, baby corn, cojita, chiles, cilantro, and chipotle.

Fresh baby corn is intense before we even get it into the kitchen; it has to be harvested by hand, not by machine, in contrast to those ears of corn we’re all familiar with.

That seems to jive with what Robert Schueller, the produce guru at Melissa’s Produce, says. The company will carry fresh baby corn on request. “But food service and retailer requests for fresh baby corn are really very few and far between,” he says. When they do obtain it, it comes from Mexico; Vignernon buys his from MJ Produce in Mexico. It’s highly perishable and doesn’t travel well — another reason why you more often see it in cans or jars.

Then there’s the question of taste, which can’t really compare to a mature ear of corn. “It tastes very different,” Schueller says, which is to say it doesn’t taste like much at all. As for the canned stuff? “You can find that usually next to the water chestnuts and bamboo shoots — all those old-school stir-fry ingredients.”

The Vegetable Nursery: Baby Corn and Baby Carrots

When talking about baby veggies, one can’t help but think about the more successful counterpart: baby-cut carrots. True baby carrots are smaller carrots, grown before the root reaches its mature stage; they are just as the name suggests. Baby-cut carrots, on the other hand, do not grow naturally that way. Necessity is the mother of invention, and this particular product is the spawn of just that.

Most of us don’t think twice about all the pre-cut, pre-processed, and pre-packaged items in the produce aisle. According to Schueller, baby carrots were the gateway veg for the value-added world we live in; cut and bagged salads also dawned around this time. But baby-cut carrots came about because in 1986 California carrot farmer Mike Yurosek couldn’t sell his carrots to buyers because their sizes were far too irregular, malformed, or just plain ugly.

Rebecca Lewis, the nutritionist for the meal delivery service HelloFresh, describes how Yurosek engineered a solution to his problem. “He put the carrots through a green bean cutter, chopped them into two-inch pieces, and then put them through an industrial potato peeler to peel and shape them,” she says. Three baby-cut carrots come from about one “adult” carrot. These miniature carrots were an instant hit in lunch boxes and crudité platters across the country, providing a much-needed boost to a flagging carrot industry. Baby-cut carrots created a demand for something people didn’t know they wanted or needed.

“About 90 percent of carrots are weird-looking, and less than 10 percent make it to the fresh market,” says Schueller. Everything else is repurposed elsewhere — bagged, canned, frozen, and myriad other carrot-related uses. And yes, that includes the transformation into baby carrots. At least three-quarters of them, says Lewis, come from Bakersfield, California. After a few decades of producing this carrot, however, most baby-cuts are coming from super-sweet larger carrots and not necessarily only carrot cast-offs.

Check Out Our Baby Carrot Tour: How Baby Carrots Are Made

The irony of the baby-cut carrot is that this super-convenient product is the result of farmer sustainability. However, at the end of the day, it doesn’t really taste much like a farm-fresh carrot anymore, once it’s been whittled and washed in small amounts of chlorine and shipped halfway across the country. And there doesn’t seem to be much that’s sustainable about harvesting baby corn, even though chefs such as Vigneron economize and use the entire husk.

As for whether baby corn — fresh or processed — is trending, who knows? “If you’re sniffing around for a trend, I see no trend. It’s like lotus root. It looks cool in a stir-fry, but there really isn’t much of a flavor profile,” says Schueller.

Baby-cut carrots may present the opportunity for a bit of eye candy on the plate, but unlike its full-grown counterpart, it cannot be called nature’s candy by any stretch of the imagination. The sweetest, most bite-sized veggie by any measure is an actual baby carrot — the kind that is harvested small, as opposed to run through a green bean cutter and whittled down into something else. These legit baby carrot are a favorite of farm-to-table chefs. However, there is an heirloom variety of a diminutive carrot you may encounter at farmers markets called Thumbelina carrots. Aptly, they’re about an inch or so long and wide and stubby, like a thumb. They’re naturally sweet and hard to resist.

As for baby corn, it may seem cute at first, because of that whole mini factor, but don’t be fooled — that cuteness belies a veggie that’s just plain creepy. Baby corn is simply not meant to be harvested at that stage; it’s not a sustainable vegetable when served fresh, and who wants canned veggies when fresh counterparts are so far superior? But taste is paramount, and baby corn just simply doesn’t have the taste and, therefore, will never be as snack-worthy and desirable as baby-cut carrots.