Corn was the staple diet of pre-Columbian civilizations. Remains have been found in southern Mexico dating back 7,000 years in which traces of meals containing baby corn were identified. Corn was everywhere, from religious ceremonies to jewelry. It was used as currency, as fuel, and as a building material. From Canada to Chile, the Indians grew it and fed themselves on boiled corn. They also knew how to make alcohol from its kernels.
For a long time, corn was known as "Turkish wheat" in Europe, probably because around the time it was first brought into the country, everything from abroad was called "Turkish".
In Quebec, it is still called "blé d’Inde" (or "Indian wheat") in memory of the fact that Columbus set off on a journey for the Indies but actually ended up in the Americas! It was he who discovered corn in Mexico (along with many other products) in the late 15th century. It quickly gained popularity in southern Europe (for a long time it was the staple grain in Italy) before winning over all the other countries.
Sweet corn cobs should contain plump, bright-yellow kernels. If the kernels are slightly brown and translucent, they are past their best.
Corn cobs can be bought fresh when in season; otherwise they can be bought steamed, vacuumed-packed and frozen.
Baby corn is sold either fresh or in vinegar.
Sweet corn kernels are preserved in cans or jars, or frozen.
Corn is processed to make semolina, flour, starch, and popcorn. It is also used to make corn syrup, which is a widely used additive in the food industry.
Corn oil comes from the germ of the kernel.
Fresh or cooked corn cobs should be stored in a cold place, between 0 and 4°C.
Dry kernels, semolina, flour, and starch should be stored in a dry, dark place.
Steam cooked: in the refrigerator between 0°C and 4°C.
Dry kernels: in a storeroom or other dry dark place.
Canned: in a storeroom
Semolina, flour or starch: in a dry, dark place, preferably in a store room in properly decontaminated storage boxes or vacuum-packed.
Corn is a nutritious option. It contains energy-producing carbohydrates and gluten-free protein, and the small amount of fat it contains is rich in unsaturated fatty acids. It also contains lots of fiber, magnesium, and antioxidant carotenes.
However, it does present two problems: it lacks two essential amino acids, and contains a substance that is resistant to gastric juices, which blocks the action of nicotinic acid (niacin, vitamin B3 or PP).
These two problems combined lead to pellagra, a horrible skin disease which, in the past, has taken its toll on populations whose diet consisted almost exclusively of corn.
The disease was never a problem in Mexico because the Aztecs cooked corn with lime, which enabled the nicotinic acid to be release and used. Cortés had exported the corn seeds, but not the right cooking instructions.
Many varieties of corn are grown throughout the world, including:
- Field corn
This has dark yellow kernels and is mainly used by the food industry, which transforms it into semolina, flour, and starch. It is used, among other things, to make cornflakes. Corn oil is extracted from the germ of the kernel and is used to make a specific type of whiskey, bourbon, and some beers. It is also widely used for animal feed.
- Sweet corn/sugar corn
The large ears are covered with kernels that can be white and/or yellow. Cultivated in France since the 1980s, it is picked before it reaches maturity, while it is still very rich in water. This is the type of corn that is sold in cans or fresh on the cob when in season (August, September).
This has very small kernels. Popcorn was first discovered by the Native Americans. The Iroquois loved to pop the kernels on the boiling hot sand during celebrations.
- Vitreous corn
While this type of corn is widely grown in Latin America, Asia, and Africa, it is less popular in Europe. Its hard, smooth grains are used primarily in the manufacture of semolina.
- Dent corn
This is the most cultivated variety in the USA. It is so called because each kernel contains a soft starch that forms a dent along its surface.
- Flour corn
Grown in the Andean region in South America, its soft kernels distinguish it from other types of corn.
- White corn
Although it is grown in Africa and South America for human consumption, in Europe it is only used for animal feed, especially for force-feeding geese and ducks.
- Black corn/Indian corn
This corn has black kernels. It is a variety grown in South America, and is highly atypical.
- Baby corn
This variety produces very small cobs, which are harvested before they reach maturity.
- BT corn
This refers to varieties that have been genetically modified to make them resistant to insect pests during growth. In Europe, GMO products must be labeled as such.