Tips for Handling Crispy Sweet Corn

This graph shows how dramatically corn loses its freshness unless it’s constantly kept cold. (Source: NCSU Extension)

Steve Boehme

We’re all looking forward to having crisp, juicy locally-grown sweet corn! Gardeners who grow their own sweet corn know the joy of harvesting this fresh delicacy right into the cooking pot. There’s nothing tastier! Dripping with with melted butter, salt and fresh cracked pepper, we’d prefer it over any candy.

For those of you without your own home-grown supply, the challenge is finding fresh sweet corn that has been properly handled, since sweet corn loses its sweetness and crispness very rapidly unless it’s handled exactly right. This is why buying it at roadside stands and even the supermarket produce aisle can be a real gamble.

Sweet corn is highly perishable, perhaps more so than any other vegetable, and it can be difficult to tell before buying if it will be ideally crisp and sweet. It must be cooled immediately and thoroughly after harvest, and kept cool until cooking, or it will suffer serious loss of sweetness and tenderness.

Ideally, corn should be picked by hand at dawn. Even then, its internal temperature can be as high as 80 degrees, at which temperature it very rapidly loses moisture, and its sugar changes to starch. The kernel wall toughens and the husk loses its green color.

Sweet corn that’s allowed to sit at room temperature for even one day is a totally different eating experience from fresh, well-cooled sweet corn. If it’s sitting on the table at a roadside stand, or, worse yet, allowed to sit in the sun, it is likely to be mealy, chewy and starchy-tasting by the time it’s served.

The ideal storage temperature for sweet corn is 32 degrees, and the ideal humidity is over ninety percent. At near-freezing temperatures, modern hybrid sweet corn will stay fresh and sweet for up to a week. The key is to rapidly cool the corn as soon as it’s picked, and keep it at a constant temperature just above freezing. Long shanks and flag

leaves, which draw moisture from kernels, should be trimmed. Soaking the ears in ice water for a few minutes before storing them in your refrigerator is an ideal way to rapidly lower the internal temperature, and the extra trouble will reward you with a dramatically crisp, sweet, country gourmet treat.

We’re carrying locally-grown Amish sweet corn at GoodSeed Nursery, picking it up in the morning a few hours after harvest. As soon as it arrives, we stow it in a chest freezer that we’ve converted to run at a constant near-freezing temperature. We’re thinking that this extra attention will pay off with a truly superior eating experience for our customers, many of whom reserve their sweet corn in advance.

Modern hydro-cooling, transportation networks and produce distribution allow supermarkets to offer fresh sweet corn (although we often see it displayed on tables at room temperature), so buying produce from stores with refrigeration is a fairly safe bet. Freshly picked sweet corn from your own garden is the ideal, if you handle it carefully. A good compromise is finding a trustworthy, convenient, reliable source for locally grown fresh produce.

Editor’s Note: Steve Boehme is the owner of GoodSeed Nursery & Landscape, located on Old State Route 32 three miles west of Peebles. More information is available online at or call (937) 587-7021.