All About Corn


Talk with most any corn farmer and he will most likely argue, should the subject come up, that corn is the most important grain in production today. There is twice as much field corn grown in the US than any other single grain. Aside from eating the kernel itself, corn starch was the first discovered alternate use for field corn. Soon after this, developers learned how to turn corn starch into fructose sugar, the most popular beverage sweetener in North America today which is twice as sweet as regular table sugars. From this humble beginning, literally thousands of other uses for corn have been discovered. This list includes ethanol alcohol, cosmetic and skin care products, drugs, batteries, rubber, beverages, crayons, soaps, absorbent materials for diapers, food additives, biodegradable plastics, food supplements and the list goes on and on. Many believe that corn, more than any other grain during this new century, will be instrumental in feeding the world's ever growing population.

Another name for Yellow Dent Corn is 'field corn.' Field corn is quite a different product than what most North Americans have become accustomed to; sweet corn. Sweet corn, the corn we eat as a vegetable, has a very thin skin. Sweet corn is loaded with sugars which is harvested before the kernels mature. The field corn called yellow dent, has a very thick outer skin that doesn't soften up to the point you can eat it even if you cook it for hours. There's really only two ways to eat it - grind it dry into a meal, or by using a lye, remove the skin and eat it as hominy.

Many years ago Indians soaked their corn for hours in water that had been seeped through wood ashes containing potassium hydroxide. The kernels puffed up which broke the outer shell open. The resulting food had a unique flavor, tasting nothing like corn. Native American cultures have been soaking field corn in wood ash water for centuries to remove the outer husk making the whole kernel - minus the husk - edible without grinding it. This whole hominy was then used in soups and stews, or dried and ground into masa and was then used to make tortillas, tamales or pikki bread. It was also coarsely ground to make hominy grits.

It's fascinating how, knowing nothing about nutrition, natural means have been developed among peoples to get their nutrition from foods. This process of using some type of caustic agent to remove the outer husk of the corn kernel is yet another example. Corn contains enough niacin to prevent it's deficiency disease, pellagra from forming. But it's in an unusable form! However, the lye treatment the natives have been using for centuries to remove the outer skin frees up this niacin so the body can absorb it. It's too bad that Old World descendant Americans living in the Deep South during the 1920s and 1930s didn't learn this simple lesson as so many of them suffered from pellagra during that period of time. Several caustic solutions can be used to remove the husks, turning yellow dent corn into whole hominy. Commercial enterprises presently use common lye, or sodium hydroxide. Quicklime, which is calcium oxide, or slaked lime, otherwise known as calcium hydroxide or pickling lime also works well for this process and adds the nutrient, calcium to the end product.

Yellow dent corn gets it's name from the inward 'dent' on each side of the kernel and is the primary corn used by the large food manufacturers in making a myriad of products including corn chips, tortillas and taco shells. Yellow dent corn has a relatively soft, inner starchy layer which grinds nicely into a powder. The other variety of field corn, called flint corn, of which popcorn is a close relative, has a very hard starchy interior. Popcorn and flint corn can also be ground into a flour but their hard starch tends to shatter rather than mush into a powder. Because of this, the flint type corns make more of a gritty flour.

The cornmeal you buy in the store is also most likely made from yellow dent corn. However, nutritionally speaking, there's a big difference between the corn meal you can buy in the store and freshly ground corn meal you grind yourself at home. There's a couple of reasons for this. In store-bought corn flour or meal, the outer skin (a great source of fiber) and the germ which is loaded with nutrients has been removed. The grain millers particularly like to remove the germ as it contains the oils that quickly go rancid - something they don't want to happen before you get their cornmeal home and used. Unfortunately, it also contains many of the vitamins and minerals that make corn so healthy. And just like white wheat flour, because they have taken so many nutrients out during the milling process, they'll chuck some cheap, un-chelated minerals back in to make it look like the customer is buying a healthy product.

Corn has sometimes gotten a bad rap as not being a very nutritious food. Like the majority of the other cereal grains, corn is low in lysine. And it's marginally low in Isoleucine and the amino acid combination Methionine and Cystine as well. However, if you add just 50 grams of soybeans to 100 grams of yellow dent corn (dry weight) it more than rounds out an adult male's one day requirement for the essential amino acids. For the weight conscious among us, this works out to only 565 calories. Not bad! Corn also contains goodly quantities of many B vitamins and the minerals Phosphorus, Magnesium, Iron, Zinc and the essential Linoleic Acid. Corn's 72% starch content makes it a high energy food. Corn contains adequate amounts of vitamin A, the highest of any cereal grain. It goes almost without mention that corn and legumes (two complementary foods that combine to make a complete protein) have been staple foods for the peoples in Central and South America for centuries and continues to be so to this day.

Corn has been grown by the original peoples on North and South America for 7,000 years. Christopher Columbus brought corn home to Spain. The Pilgrims were preserved by corn the Indians gave them and corn from that time has traveled with us into modern history.

We feel freshly ground corn meal, ground yourself just before baking, produces great results both in flavor and nutrition. Until you've tried freshly ground corn, it will be hard for you to believe there can be such a big difference in flavor. A lot of that extra flavor comes from the parts of the kernel that's not removed when you mill it. Added to this, the air has little chance to oxidize the nutrients in it's whole corn form. When you grind it the same day you bake or cook with it, there's no time for this natural aging process to make your cornmeal stale, unlike what happens as it sits in the grocery store. Whole corn can be coarsely ground to make grits or finely ground to make cornbread, tortillas or chips.

We feel as you learn how to use corn, you'll come to appreciate this versatile grain for the unique food it is - a staple grain, that with squash and beans has kept the early native Americans alive for centuries.

Cornmeal Recipes

The Prudent Pantry by Alan T. Hagan