Perfectly Barbecued Corn on the Cob

A couple of days ago, I found myself watching a DVR’d episode of Anthony Bourdain’s “No Reservations” travel-and-food show. This particular episode was set in the Ozarks, where I currently live.

Well, I live in Springfield, MO, the Ozarks equivalent of what New York City is to Upstate New York, or what Anchorage is to Alaska, but without the traffic hassles in the case of the former and moose drinking from your swimming pool in the latter. The show wasn’t concerned with Springfield. Instead, it visited some of the neighboring towns, such as Joplin (pre-tornado, I’m assuming, since that devastation wasn’t mentioned).

The premise of “No Reservations” is that Anthony Bourdain travels around the world, finding exotic locales with exotic foods and experimenting a bit with both. In the Ozarks episode, Bourdain goes fish gigging with the author of “Winter’s Bone” (Daniel Woodrell, who lives around here somewhere), coon hunting with dogs and a bunch of guys who look like they’d be scary to meet in a dark alley, duck hunting with some fellas who had never before managed to cook a duck in a way they liked to eat, and, after all of this, scarfed down some squirrel, venison, and other tasty Midwestern treats.

Toward the end of the episode, Bourdain is in Joplin for a sit-down meal with the members of the band Ha Ha Tonka (which is also a nice park with cliffs and a castle up by Camdenton). Not sure what the meat dish was, possibly venison, but I did notice a big heap of corn-on-the-cob on the platter.

The problem, and what this spiel has been leading up to, is that their corn-on-the-cob looked charred, like they’d peeled off the husks and then just tossed the ears into the coals for a few minutes.

I do a lot of barbecuing here in the New York/Anchorage of the Ozarks, and although I might have burned a few things on the grill, especially when I get distracted by “Jeopardy” or a tractor pull showing on the telly, mostly I manage to cook up pretty darned good corn-on-the-cob.

Here’s how to do it without taking a welding torch to your corn:

You’ll need sweet corn, still in the husk. I get mine from the corner grocery store or from a roadside stand. You can get yours from Wal-Mart, but I don’t recommend it. Their sweet corn, at least this year, has been looking a little peaked (as we say in these here parts — it means ‘sickly’ or ‘yicky’ or ‘bllllarrrggghhht’). What you’re looking for is a plump ear of corn cuddled in a husk that is a clean, light green. If the husk is brown or shriveled, then the growers didn’t use nearly enough experimental fertilizers and pesticides. Find one that did.

A beautiful stack of corn at Wal-Mart

Here's a beautiful stack of corn that actually was at Wal-Mart. In fact, we complemented the employee who'd done the stacking on his corn-stacking skills. The corn looks pretty good, too.

How many you’ll need will depend on how many you’re planning to feed and how hungry they are. In urban areas, I recommend one ear per person. If you’re more countrified (and therefore in need of a heartier dinner), go with three-to-five ears per person. Judge the crowd.

Once you have a bag full of perfect ears, take ’em back home. You can keep them for a day or two, but sweet corn will go bad (the kernels will get all dried-out) if you wait too long.

About an hour before you’re ready to throw them on the grill, break the bottom spur off the ear, along with whatever outer layers of husk it takes with it, then cut the top tassels off. Just typing the word ‘tassles’ makes me recall, with horror, of those hot, searing days of my youth spent de-tasseling corn up in the cornfields of Iowa (okay, there was just the one day and then I quit. Still: horror). Moving on.

Now, VERY CAREFULLY peel the remaining folds of husk down to the bottom of the ear of corn. Not all the way, because you’ll be putting it back here in a minute, so maybe 3/4 of the way. Doing this will reveal a bunch of furry stuff I don’t know what the technical name of is (UPDATE: “silk” — thank you, internet). Pull all that out. It’ll be messy. You’ll need a broom later if you’re doing this in your kitchen.

Push the folds of the husk back up to sorta re-cover the kernels. It won’t be perfect. Do your best. After that, repeat with all the other ears of corn you bought. Once your corn has been suitably prepared to go to the High School dance, put them all in a container you’ve filled with water (no, it doesn’t matter what kind of container, as long as it’s big enough to hold all the ears of corn; heck, use more than one if you have to). Let the ears soak for about forty-five minutes. Shorter will work if you’re in a rush, but at least get ’em damp so that you can say you tried. Longer is fine or even better (I once went to a movie while mine were soaking).

Presumably, sometime during all of this, you’ve fired up your grill. Not your gas grill. If you’re going to use a gas grill, why not just cook inside? Okay, fine, if a gas grill is all you have, then go for it. Me, I like the high carbon emissions of a good old-fashioned charcoal grill.

After the corn has soaked, drain ’em and then put them on the top rack of your BBQ. You want them to soak in the heat like they soaked in the water.

All that’s left now is to let them cook. Fifteen or twenty minutes ought to do it. Don’t forget to give them a quarter-turn ever five minutes or so. A good way to tell when the ears are done is to poke ’em with your finger (or a blunt utensil of some sort, but probably not a golf club). If the kernels are soft, they’re done. If they’re dry and hard, toss ’em out and start over; you cooked ’em too long.

The last step is to pull the ears off the grill, peel off the husks, and serve with plenty of butter, salt, and pepper.


With thanks to Alton Brown and Food Network’s “Good Eats” for turning me onto the wonders of soaking the corn before grilling, thus eliminating the need to keep slathering the ears with butter to keep them moist while cooking.

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2 Responses to Perfectly Barbecued Corn on the Cob

  1. Charles Sides says:

    Is “peaked” pronounced with one syllable or two? When I use it as you used it to describe Walmart corn, I use two syllables. But I’ve never seen it written–only spoken.

    • C. Patrick says:

      I was going for two syllables in that particular usage. The last syllable needed an accent mark, but I was too lazy to go find one. They’re hard to hunt y’know. Wiley devils. Like to hide at the tops of ‘e’s. Plus, you need an accent hunting license.

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