Sweeter Sweet Corn

Remember supersweet corn? About 20 years ago, it was touted as the corn of the future. Bred with the so-called shrunken gene, supersweet varieties contain two to three times as much sucrose as normal sweet corn, and maintain that level up to 48 hours after harvest, compared with other varieties, which lose half of their sucrose in 24 hours. It seemed as though every corn lover--s dream had been answered. The breeders had eliminated sweet corn--s one shortcoming: the fleeting nature of its flavor.

But supersweets never really caught on with home gardeners the way they were supposed to. They had--and still have--several shortcomings. The corn requires isolation from normal varieties in the field, and germination is weak. Furthermore, purists argue that it has a saccharine sweetness that doesn't really taste like corn. Yes, it stays sweet, but it's similar to the way that diet cola stays sweet in the can. Perhaps the corn had lost something when it gained its sweet staying power. Maybe it's the ephemeral sweetness and the urgent need for freshness that defines corn. By tempering that, breeders may have removed its very corn-ness.

Whatever the reasons, gardeners, for the most part, ignored the supersweets, even though farmers are planting millions of pounds of it for the supermarket trade, where it winds up on counters beside those cardboard tomatoes.

Supersweet versus Sugary Enhanced

At about the same time that supersweets were getting all the attention, another new type of corn hit the market almost unnoticed. It didn't have a sexy name--it was dubbed "sugary enhanced" (SE). And it wasn't accompanied by astounding claims--it was said to be a little sweeter, and to hold its sweetness a little longer in the field and in the kitchen than normal corn. But it also lacked the isolation requirement and germination problems of supersweets. And, most important of all, it retained the milky flavor of old-fashioned corn.

In those days, I was working on our family farm in upstate New York, where corn was king. We needed to pick it early, often, and consistently. Plant too little at a time, and the "No Corn Today" sign would have to go up. But plant too much, and the corn would harden on the stalk, and end up wasted.

We were pretty particular about our corn. We'd no more sell overripe corn than we would eat it ourselves. Of course the corn had to be fresh, but we also liked it young and with small, tender kernels. So the idea of a corn that could stay sweet and tender on the stalk appealed to us. We started with a small patch of 'Miracle', one of the first SE varieties. It took only one picking--and one tasting--to convince us that it had a place on our farm. The kernels were sweet, but not cloyingly so, and the ears stayed fresh on the stalk longer than regular hybrid varieties. It wasn't long before customers started asking for it by name.

Twenty years later, the farm has passed out of the family, and those cornfields are overgrown with weeds, but I still sow 'Miracle' in my corn patch and try new SE varieties when they are introduced.

Today, there are scores of SE varieties on the market. One of their champions is Bill Watson of Liberty Seed Company, a small firm that supplies farmers and home gardeners from New Philadelphia, Ohio. He grows as many as 80 varieties every year in his trial ground, then opens his fields up to more than 1,000 corn lovers for an old-fashioned corn tasting every summer, where there are more kernels in attendance than at a meeting of the joint chiefs of staff.

Watson estimates that of all the corn seed he sells to fresh market farmers and gardeners these days, only about 1/2 of 1 percent is ordinary corn. The supersweets account for about 8 percent. All the rest is sugary enhanced. The SE varieties are ideal for the home gardener, Watson says, because of their cold-soil vigor, and the way they maintain their good eating quality over a long stretch of time.

If you want to know just how well they keep, Watson will gladly tell you his woodpile story. "In the summer, we have more friends than anybody," he says. "And when they come for dinner, they always expect corn." One weekend the unthinkable happened: He ran out of corn and had to go out and buy some from a local farmer. "I tasted some of his Brand X in his field, and I knew we were in trouble," he says. He bought it anyway, but while he was husking it at home, he spotted a pile of sugary enhanced 'Incredible' that had been sitting in the sun on a woodpile for about a week. "So I husked it and threw it in the pot with the Brand X. And when it was cooked, it tasted better than that fresh-picked corn."

Varieties to Choose From

Not every SE variety will stand that test of time. Watson says that there is a wide range of quality among the 100 or so SE varieties on the market. Here are a few of his favorites (the number in parentheses is days to harvest).

'Frosty' (70) White corn is normally less cold-soil tolerant than yellow varieties, but 'Frosty' rated 4.5 on a scale of 1 to 5 in cold-soil trials; it forms a nice, big, blocky ear.

'Miracle' (78) An old variety, but still one of the best choices for home gardeners because of its shorter stalks--just 5-1/2 to 6 feet.

'Advantage' (64) The earliest yellow variety; fantastic cold-soil tolerance and the best way to beat your neighbor to harvest with a quality corn.

'First Choice' (64) As early as 'Advantage'; above-average cold-soil tolerance.

'Trinity'(69) Just a little later than 'First Choice', but with a better cold-soil tolerance rating of 4 to 4.5 out of 5.

'Lancelot'(80) A real workhorse; huge ears; quality beyond belief; picks very easily.

'Summer Delicious'(90) Seed always sells out; handles cold fall temperatures very well.

Watson says that a single planting of four varieties, ranging from early to late, will give home gardeners a steady supply of corn for four to five weeks. For example, plant 'Trinity', 'Precious Gem', 'Lancelot', and 'Summer Delicious'. In fact, he says a patch of 'Summer Delicious' alone can produce good, sweet ears for up to two weeks in cool autumn conditions.

When to Harvest

Whichever variety you choose, Watson counsels patience. Give the SE varieties a chance to mature fully. "They make up half of their sugar in the last couple of days of maturity," he says. "And they often look ready before they're at their peak. If you pick a few ears and the flavor doesn't knock your socks off, let the corn mature on the stalk a few days. Good things happen quickly with SE corn."

Warren Schultz, Essex Junction, Vermont, is the author of several gardening books.

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