Every elementary school student knows that Native Americans told the Pilgrims about corn and showed them how to grow it. Then, as now, corn was an essential crop and valued for its versatility. From cornflakes to corn syrup to popcorn to ethanol, the plant is woven into our modern culture as much as it was into ancient ones. This article is about another type of corn, one that is unknown to most Americans: parching corn.
What is Parching Corn?
The word parching is from Old English and means to make dry, the way your throat feels on a hot, dry day. Parching corn means not only to cook the kernels gently until they expand and soften, but in this case, it also refers to the corn varieties best suited to this treatment.
Parching corn is similar to popcorn, in that kernels pop loudly when heated. But these two types are different in almost every other way, including flavor. True parching corns are varieties of flour corns, and their kernels are soft and dry when mature. When heated, they expand only slightly, and the seed coat usually splits. Popcorns are flint corns. Their hard, brittle mature kernels explode furiously when heated, expanding in volume.
Parching corns are much sweeter and more flavorful than popcorn and don't need added oil or salt to enhance their flavor. Their sweetness and flavor develop as you chew, so munch them thoroughly. Finally, you can prepare parching corn easily in a microwave oven, then store it in a sealed container for about four months.
The Best Parching Corns
Although any flour corn can be parched, not all parch well, and most don't taste very good. White flour corns all taste bland, and yellow ones usually have a disagreeable aftertaste. Black varieties taste pretty-well, foul. All the great-tasting parching varieties are red or purple or have streaks or spots in those colors. ('Parching Black Cherry', which appears black, is actually a very dark purple.)
The eight varieties described here represent three different flavor classes. The purple ones all have flavors similar to each other but totally different from the reds, which form another class. 'Parching Black Cherry' is in the third class.
Not all red or purple flour corns are great parching corns, however. The best ones become sweet as you eat them, have tender skins, and offer delicious flavors. In addition, they parch quickly and uniformly and resist burning. Native Americans still grow these red and purple varieties specifically for parching.
The Most Versatile Corns
Parching corns may be the single most versatile type of corn. At the milk stage before kernels are mature and dry, they are as sweet as standard sweet corns, and they're very flavorful to eat from the cob or as a side dish. The ears are as beautiful as any ornamental corn, and children love both their brightly colored kernels and their flavors. You can parch dry kernels, or grind them unparched to make an excellent corn flour.
Parching corn would seem to have considerable potential for home and large-scale growers. This corn retains its freshness at room temperature for at least 3 months with no special packaging and no preservatives. Because of its long shelf life, market gardeners could sell it year-round. Possibilities abound on a larger scale, too. After parching, it could be sold like nuts or candy. Because it is so easy to parch in a microwave oven, unparched kernels could be sold in grocery stores like popcorn.
Raising a Crop
Parching corn can grow wherever sweet corn can. First, choose a variety that can mature in the growing season typical for your region. (The growing season is the time between the last frost in spring and the first frost in fall.) If you don't know what is typical for your area, check with a master gardener, cooperative extension agent, or garden center.
In hot-summer areas, short-season parching corns require only 80 to 90 days from sowing seed to full dryness. In cool-summer regions, the same varieties will need more time. Long-season varieties need 100 days or more.
To ensure good pollination and ears packed with kernels, always plant corn in blocks of short rows, not in fewer, longer rows. For instance, 100 feet of corn is better pollinated if planted in 10 rows that are 10 feet long than in 5 rows that are 20 feet long.
If you plant several varieties of parching corn in your garden, put them in separate blocks at least 20 feet apart so that each variety will mostly self-pollinate. Or plant varieties that flower at different times; for example, a block of a short-season variety adjacent to a block of a long-season variety.
A little pollen from other kinds of corn won't have much effect on a block of parching corn. But the flavor and texture of a sweet or supersweet corn will be ruined if it's pollinated by the parching corn.
Grow parching corns in rows or hills, the latter being especially useful if your soil is poor, or if you want to interplant beans or squash.
Spread a 2-inch layer of compost, or about 10 pounds of a complete organic fertilizer (with about 5 percent nitrogen) per 500 square feet, over the planting area. If you live where soil is normally acidic, include dolomitic limestone; if your soil is alkaline, add sulfur. A soil test is the best way to know exactly how much of either to use.
Incorporate Amendments by Tilling or Digging
In my own garden, I use a complete organic fertilizer that is by volume 3 parts cottonseed meal, 1 part dolomitic limestone, 1 part rock phosphate, and 1 part kelp meal. I apply 1 gallon of this mix to every 100 square feet when turning or tilling the soil. I often add organic fertilizer to the rows or hills when planting. Even though plants grow best in fertile soils, parching corns have deep, vigorous root systems, so they're well suited to growing under less-than-ideal conditions. Sow seeds after danger of frost has passed and soil is warm.
Before planting, putin a band of extra compost or fertilizer along the row: 1/2 gallon per 100 feet of row. Sow seeds 1 to 2 inches deep and 4 inches apart. Allow 3 feet between rows. Later, thin plants to 1 to 2 feet apart.
Space the tops of the hills about 6 feet apart in all directions. Work a shovelful of compost or a cup of organic fertilizer into each hill. On each hill, plant about six seeds 1 to 2 inches deep in a 12-inch-diameter ring, then thin to two or three plants when they come up. To interplant pole beans, plant one or two seeds in each corn hill after the corn is 4 inches high. Plant squash in their own hills between the corn or around the edges of the corn patch.
Even the smaller varieties of parching corn benefit from wide spacing, which allows their side shoots (tillers) to grow to nearly the same size as the stalk and yield good ears. Crowded plants set only one or two ears on the main stalk only.
Hinder weed growth by hoeing soil up around the cornstalk (hilling up). Hoeing disturbs, buries, and kills emerging weeds in the soil. The corn appreciates it: Plants will send new roots into the hilled-up soil. Hilling up also prevents the stalks from falling over, or lodging.
How and When to Harvest
To dry well in the field, parching corns need dry weather at summer's end. Because ears of parching corn retain more moisture and resist drying more than other types of corn do, they are more prone to rotting in high humidity. This is why East Coast Native Americans (and the early colonists) grew flint corns. Now, with heated houses and commercial drying facilities, gardeners in most regions of the country can grow parching corns.
If you live where summers are dry, you can mature ears the traditional way, right in the field. Leave ears on the stalks until kernels are fully dry. Where summer rainfall and humidity are common, the ears will likely mold or rot before they dry in the field In this case, let ears develop until they begin to dry. Harvest as soon as kernels are somewhat beyond the milk stage (when pressing on a kernel, it releases creamy white liquid) and slightly hardened. Shuck ears immediately and spread them out in a warm, airy, indoor place to finish drying.
Fully dry ears of most kinds of parching corn are very easy to thresh by hand; wear soft, thin, leather gloves. Break each ear in half, twist the kernels off in bunches, and then rub the loose corn between your gloved hands to separate the kernels from the bits of debris clinging to the base of most of the seeds. To separate the debris from the cleaned kernels, pour the kernels from one container to another outdoors when it is windy, or in front of a fan. Store kernels in glass jars or other airtight insect-proof containers.
Preparing and Enjoying Parching Corn
The traditional method is simply to heat kernels in a heavy skillet over low heat. Don't use oil. Stir the kernels with a spatula as they cook. Traditional parching takes about 5 minutes. Hold a lid or grease screen above the pan to keep the kernels from jumping out. Or, instead of using a spatula, you can cover the pan and stir the corn by shaking the pan on the burner, as with popcorn. If you don't pay close attention, the kernels will burn. Stop the cooking when the popping mostly, but not completely, ceases.
Put about 1/4 cup of plain dry kernels in a single layer in the center of a microwave turntable; cover with a paper plate. Much more or less than 1/4 cup of kernels microwaves poorly. If the oven doesn't have a removable turntable, put the corn in the center of a thin plate and cover with a paper plate. Don't use a heavy covered bowl; it absorbs too many microwaves. Microwave on high for 3 minutes. As with stovetop parching, stop the cooking when most (but not all) of the popping is over, 1 to 2 minutes depending upon variety, moisture content, oven size, and power. Most varieties produce a delicious aroma just as they finish parching.
Uncooked kernels of parching corn don't have to be separated from the cooked batch; they're soft and tasty even when raw.
Parching Corn: My Route to a New Crop
My passion for parching corn began in the fall of 1995 with Alan Kapuler, an enthusiastic plant explorer as well as research director for Seeds of Change. He had grown seven Hopi flour corns that season, and bags of brightly colored ears were stacked all over his living room, seed room, and greenhouse.
"Here, try this one," he said, carrying a cast-iron skillet full of toasted corn over to me. "Some of the varieties are pretty awful fixed this way, but my family really likes this one."
As I looked at the red-and-white-striped kernels, I thought of corn nuts, that hard, tooth-cracking snack food. I took a few kernels, but with low expectations. Surprisingly, the kernels were soft. As I chewed them, they became sweeter, then developed a delicious nutty, rich flavor, unlike anything I'd ever eaten.
I took some corn home and worked out ways to parch it in a microwave. As I ate the delicious treat, I realized this type of corn could become a major grain staple in my diet.
I went to my own collection of corn seeds and began parching samples of many varieties. I soon discovered that the best parching corns were all soft, or flour, corns. Some flint corns, when parched, produced something similar to corn nuts. Other flint corns only partially popped and parched, or didn't cook completely when parched; they were inedible. But all the flour corns parched to make soft, edible kernels. Among flour corns, some parched much more quickly and uniformly than others, and flavors ranged from wonderful to terrible.
My next step was to call the seed companies that had the best selections of flour corns, various members of Seed Savers Exchange, and Mark Millard, curator of the country's biggest corn collection, the USD collection in Ames, Iowa. No one knew much about which varieties would be best for parching, but everyone was eager to help. I soon had samples of about 200 different flour corns to evaluate. Among them I found eight truly superb varieties. However, only three were available commercially.
In the spring of 1996, I located potential corn growers, supervised growing of seed corn, and collaborated with seed companies to add the new varieties to their catalogs.
Now it's up to you to try parching corn. Taste it, and see if you agree with me about this crop's potential.
The 8 Best Varieties of Parching Corn
'Hopi Pink' grows about 6 feet tall, producing 12-inch ears with 14 to 18 rows of red, white, and pink kernels. This variety, available only from Native Seeds/Search, is different from other strains sold under the same name.
'Parching Lavender Mandan', a variety from the USDA corn collection, grows 4 feet tall and produces 6-inch ears with 8 to 12 rows of pale purple kernels. Space plants widely, and they will produce several ear-bearing side shoots (tillers).
'Parching Red Mandan' grows 4 feet tall and produces 6-inch ears with 8 to 12 rows of kernels. Ears are various shades of red and orange, though a few are white or yellow. Plants develop many productive tillers. Note that this variety, from the USDA corn collection through Seed Savers Exchange, is not the same as 'Red Mandan' flour corn.
'Hopi Chinmark' grows 5 feet tall and produces 10-inch ears with 12 to 14 rows of red, orange, and white kernels.
'Aztec Red', a 10-foot-tall Mexican variety, produces 12-inch ears with 10 to 12 rows of purple kernels. Space plants widely to allow room for tillers because the tassel-bearing tillers are essential for pollinating.
'Supai Red' grows 7 feet tall and produces 10-inch ears with 12 to 16 rows of red, orange, and white kernels. Ears are produced only on the main stalk. This variety was bred by Alan Kapuler and the author from Hopi strains.
'Parching Black Cherry' grows 4 feet tall and produces 8-inch ears with 8 to 12 rows of very dark red kernels. This variety, from the USDA corn collection, will be available in the fall of 1997.
'Parching Magenta', bred by Alan Kapuler and the author from Hopi strains, grows 5 feet tall and produces 6-inch ears with 12 to 14 rows of purple to magenta kernels. Space plants widely, and they will produce many ear-bearing tillers.
Carol Deppe, Ph.D., writes, gardens, and breeds vegetables in Corvallis, Oregon. She's the author of Breed Your Own Vegetable Varieties: The Gardener's and Farmer's Guide to Plant Breeding and Seed Saving (Chelsea Green, December 2000; $28).
Photography by Suzanne DeJohn/National Gardening Association.