I fondly remember an August tradition from my childhood, when much of the family would converge at my grandmotherís home in rural Iowa. For an entire week, my cousins and I helped Grandma preserve the daily haul of sweet corn until we had frozen enough corn for all of our families to enjoy throughout the coming year. If you have never frozen your own vegetables, this would be an excellent first project!
(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on August 29, 2008. Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to respond to your questions.)
Many people who have never preserved their own vegetables find the idea intimidating, and are surprised at how easy it really is, and how little equipment it takes. In fact, you probably already have almost all of the equipment you'll need in your kitchen, with the possible exception of freezer containers. Here is a basic list.
Laundry baskets, dishpans, or boxes for the corn
Sharp knife (I prefer one with a thin blade, like a fillet knife or long steak knife, rather than a wide chefs knife)
One large pan with sides for each person cutting from the ears (I use 9 x 13" pans or roaster pans)
Large pots to boil water in (I use Dutch ovens or pressure canners)
Tongs to remove corn from boiling water
Containers to freeze in (Pint-sized freezer boxes, disposable freezer containers, plastic freezer bags)
Permanent marker, labels, washable crayon, or grease pencil for labeling, depending on what kind of container you chose
Large spoon, ladle, cup, or rubber scraper to transfer the corn to the freezer container
If available, a tool called a corn cutter, though this is certainly not necessary. A knife will do just as good a job, but may take slightly longer. See link below.
Involving the Kids
If you have children, I highly recommend putting them to work along side you. Depending on the age of your children, you may be surprised if you ask them where their food comes from. I teach preschool and younger elementary children, and find they often say that food comes from cans, or the grocery store, or the cupboard. Even preschoolers can help with freezing corn, though not with cutting it from the cob. My cousins and I thought it was great fun, and my own kids love to put in a lively CD and tackle a huge box of ears of corn. Older kids might be grudging at first, but there is something so satisfying about bringing a job to completion, and seeing (and tasting!) the final product. Every time you pull a package of corn from the freezer, they'll remember, "I helped with that!" You'll be imparting a valuable life lesson about the importance of the food we eat, as well as a healthy work ethic!
Choosing Fresh Produce
To begin with, the corn you choose is very important. If you grow your own, I recommend picking it a little on the young side, on the same day you plan to freeze it. If you are selecting ears at a Farmers' Market, long, straight ears are preferable. Try piercing a kernel with your fingernail; if it is milky and liquidy, it is perfect! If the kernels are large and seem starchy and solid, it is too old and past its prime for preservation. Dry, crackly husks are also a sign that the corn is not freshly picked. I made the mistake one year of freezing corn that was past its prime, and the results were predictably disappointing.
Personally, my garden space is limited, and growing sweet corn would eliminate room for many other vegetables that give a greater yield for the amount of space they take to grow. I know a local family that grows sweet corn to sell, so I arrange in advance to pick up a large batch for freezing. This provides advantages for both the grower and I: she guides me as to what varieties are best for freezing, and can pick a large quantity specifically for me, without depleting the stores available to sell that day.
How Much Corn Do I Need?
I have a family of four, two adults and two children. Corn is one of our favorite vegetables, so I plan on serving it about once a week. Since my children are 7 and 9, their patience for all-day work is limited. I tend to do my freezing in two separate batches, of about 8 dozen ears each (16 dozen total each year). I package my corn in pint-sized freezer boxes; each pint box provides four half-cup servings, the generally accepted portion size for vegetables. I know not everyone craves corn the way this born-and-bred Iowa girl does, but hopefully these general calculations will give you an estimate of how much you need to buy/pick to produce the quantity you'd need for a year. Here is a simple formula to decide how much you need:
(Number of people in your family) x (number of meals you want to serve corn) = how many ears of corn you need total
For example, I have 4 people in my family, and want to serve corn about 50 times in a year (almost once a week), so my calculation would look like this:
4 x 50= 200 servings, which equals roughly 200 ears, or 16-17 dozen.
The ears I buy are long and full-kernelled, so 16 dozen is about right for my family. If the ears are small, you may need a few more.
Shucking, or Husking, the Corn
Your first step, once you have the corn, is perhaps obvious: you need to do what my grandma referred to as "shucking" the corn. Simply put, this just means removing the husks (leaves) and silks (hairy strands) around the ear of corn. I've found that I can remove almost all of the silks and husks in two main pulls, by parting it like hair at the tip and pulling down each side. My kids don't have quite the strength in their hands to do it in two steps, and pull 2-3 leaves at a time. I prefer to do this outside, as those sticky silky are a pain to clean up afterward! This year the heat index outside on "freezing day" was around 107o Fahrenheit, however, so we set up a husking station in the kitchen. Our set up is something like this: we each sit on opposite ends of a large garbage can or box, which we will later empty into the compost bin. The cobs will later go in this box, too. To my left is a basket of freshly picked corn, and to my right an empty laundry basket to receive the freshly shucked ears. Once I get into a rhythm, I can shuck around four to five ears a minute! You can usually just snap off the extended stalk at the base of the ear, which will make them easier to fit into your pan of water later. If it won't snap off readily, a sharp butcher knife and cutting board may be necessary.
Washing and Blanching the Corn
Once your ears are shucked and relatively silk-free, put a large pot of water (or two, if you have them) on the stove, and begin to heat it to a boil. While your water is heating, give the ears of corn a good wash in the sink to rinse off any remaining silks and any creepy-crawlies that were lingering among the kernels. Once they are all clean, this is a good time to fill your sink with fresh cold water, so you can immediately plunge the corn into cold water to stop the cooking process after blanching.
Place a good-sized batch of ears into the boiling water; how many depends on the size of your pan. I used my pressure canner this year, and could fit about 16 ears per batch. In previous years, I've used a pair of Dutch ovens, so I could keep two smaller batches going at once. Leave the corn in the boiling water for about six minutes. I put the lid on loosely, so the top ears that tend to float are thoroughly steamed, as well. This important step is called blanching the corn, and destroys the enzymes that lead to food spoilage. Stop the process by removing the ears from the boiling water and plunging immediately into the cold water in your sink. If you are working alone, you may prefer to blanch all of your corn before moving on to the next step, so you can discard your boiling water and not add more heat and humidity to your kitchen than necessary. If you have help, one person can blanch and chill the corn, while another starts cutting the corn from the ears. I add a tray of ice periodically between batches, rather than emptying and refilling my sink, to avoid wasting precious water.
Cutting the Corn from the Cob
You may be most familiar with whole kernel corn, the type available in cans and freezer bags at the grocery store. My family, however, much prefers what we call "creamed corn," though no cream is involved! Creamed corn is juicy, tender, and sweet, with a slightly soupy consistency. Because of this, you will want to cut the corn off the cobs into a pan, such as a 9 x 13 cake pan or a roaster.
There are two easy options for removing the corn from the cob. One is to use a very sharp knife. Place the ear of corn with the larger end downward in the pan, at about a 45 degree angle (or whatever is comfortable). Starting at the top, hold your knife blade parallel to the cob, nearly flat against it, and cut off the kernels in a downward sawing motion. Depending on how deeply you cut, you may get long strands of connected kernels, which my family refers to as "chains of corn." These are easy to break apart, though my kids prefer to pick them up connected and pop them into their mouths! Continue to cut downward from tip to base, turning the cob until you've cut all the corn off. Be careful not to cut too deeply, or you may end up with hard bits of cob in your corn. For whole kernel corn, cut as close to the cob as possible without knicking the cob itself. For creamed corn, cut the tips off the kernels, cutting no deeper than halfway through the kernels, in this step.
Now there is a very important second step, before you discard the cob, especially if you cut shallowly the first time. This time, holding the cob exactly as above, hold your knife perpendicular to the ear, so only the sharp edge is against the cob. Scrape downward along the cob, just as if you were shaving it, to remove all the luscious milky juices. At this point, you will understand why you cut into a pan, rather than onto a cutting board! Once you've removed all the milk and kernel hearts, the empty cob can go into your collection of waste, to go either into the garbage or the compost! If you want to compost it, the cobs will breakdown more quickly if you chop them up a bit. I don't mind waiting, however, so I just chuck the whole lot in my bin!
The second option, which is safer if children are assisting you, is to use a cutter designed especially for this purpose, such as the one at the top of this page: Lee's Corn Cutter
I'm sure other companies manufacture similar products; I mentioned this one because it is the brand I have used for years. There are several options to adjust the cut, from full-kernel to creamed corn, and it minimizes the likelyhood that you or a young helper might gouge into the cob, or your fingers, with a sharp knife! The cutting blades are quite sharp, so even using this cutter is not without some risk. However, I am a firm believer that children learn best by doing, and that all life involves some level of risk. I'd rather they learned to handle blades safely under my supervision, than to sneak out behind the shed with a pocket knife and then be afraid to tell me if they sliced themselves!
The process for using the corn cutter is similar. I rest it against the edge of the 9 x 13" pan, with only the top end extending outside of the pan,and then slide the ear of corn down the cutter, pressing lightly to slice off the tops of the kernels. After going all the way around the cob quickly this way, I repeat, pressing a little more firmly, to "milk" the cob of the liquid, just like with a knife. The corn cutter is faster than using a knife, though you then have to deal with storing it the rest of the year! My sons have both used the corn cutter successfully since they were about 5 years old. This is the first year that my older son, now 9, has had the manual dexterity to cut it off using a knife. If your children are involved in this project (and I certainly hope they are!), you will have to judge how ready they are to try using the knife. The trickiest part is learning how to hold the ear so that your fingers are not near the portion you are cutting!
If you have young helpers, you might want to use two 9 x 13" pans. An adult or older child can cut the corn from the ears, then pass the full pan to a younger child to package into freezer containers. If you have several helpers, the process can go quite quickly, with one person blanching, another one or two cutting, and a third packaging into containers or freezer bags.
Packing into Containers
Once your corn is all cut off the cobs, the main bulk of the work is done. My family of four eats about 2 cups at a typical meal, so the pint freezer boxes, readily available at most stores that carry canning supplies, are ideal for us. They stack easily on top of each other, and fit well into the door of our freezer, as well as stacking efficiently on the regular shelves if I run out of space in the door. Be sure to label the contents; you'd be surprised how similar creamed corn and applesauce look through the opaque walls of a freezer box! Some people like to use removable labels or specialty pens for freezer containers. I have found that the washable crayons my kids used as preschoolers work great. They are easy to read, and wash off readily in soapy water. My grandmother always used a grease pencil, but I hate trying to scrub the oily residue off before reusing the lids. Freezer boxes are a fairly environmentally-friendly option, as you reuse the containers for years, and once you've made the initial minimal investment, there is nothing more to buy for packaging. They generally come in packages of 4-5 boxes for less than $2. You can also use the freezer-safe disposable storage containers, especially if you have a larger family or want to freeze in larger quantities. They are available in 3.5, 4, and 5 cup sizes. I'd recommend square cornered containers, rather than round ones, to make the most of your freezer space. I know some people prefer to freeze in glass jars, to avoid using plastic products, but I shudder to think of the mess if one is accidentally dropped, and I think the square boxes are more space-efficient.
Another popular option is to use resealable plastic freezer bags. If you use this option, I recommend labeling the bag with contents and date before filling them. Most freezer bags have a strip that can easily be written on with a normal ball-point pen. If not, a permanent marker will do the trick. Cuff the top of the freezer bag to the outside, to prevent creamed corn from getting into the zipper, and measure the corn into whatever quantity you like. Remove as much air as possible, as exposure to air can cause freezer burn, flavor change, and general quality reduction. When I use this option, I remove the air, seal it, and then distribute the corn into a thin, even layer across the whole bag. I stack 5-6 deep in several piles on a large cookie sheet, and place it in the freezer. Once they are solid, they stack easily, and can be stored either flat or on edge, or even in a box or wire freezer basket. Simply thaw slightly in warm water and slide the whole portion from the bag. My mother-in-law, who also freezes creamed corn, prefers to squeeze all the corn into a small cylinder area at the bottom of the bag, remove the air and seal, and freeze in a more solid chunk. She says they stack easier on her freezer shelves, and are less likely to cascade out when you open the door, than if you have a stack of flat bags. I've done it both ways, and have seen no difference in quality, so the decision is entirely up to you!
As you spoon the corn into the containers, try to include some of the milky liquid in each. If you are using rigid containers, leave about half an inch of headspace between the surface of the corn and the lid to allow for the corn to expand as it freezes, so your lids won't pop off and leak messy corn all over your freezer. Try not to trap much air under the lid, however; it should bow slightly inwards, rather than bulging outwards, before you freeze them. If you are using freezer bags, remove as much air as possible. Don't fill it absolutely to the zipperline, or it will split when the corn expands. Both the bags and the plastic rigid container are prone to breaking if dropped once they are frozen.
Here are the results of our first batch of corn. We purchased 8 dozen ears of corn. Our yield was 16 pint boxes, plus four boxes containing about 3.5 cups for when we have guests, for a total of about 46 cups of creamed corn. If your ears are larger or smaller, your results will, of course, vary. Perhaps best of all, my kids and I spent a day together, away from the TV and computer, and they learned some valuable lessons about where food really comes from. I hope they gained more of an appreciation for the food they see on the table, and some wonderful memories to share with their own children when the time comes. And I hope you gained the confidence to try this yourself, in your own kitchen, and see how delicious the results can be!
(Other than the excellent picture of Peaches and Cream sweetcorn at the top of the article, which Melody graciously allowed me to use, all photographs are my own.)
About Angela Carson
I was bitten hard by the gardening bug when I was just a child, and have been doing my best to infect as many people as possible ever since! I particularly have a passion for spring bulbs and home-grown vegetables, which I am teaching the next generation how to preserve. My two sons have obviously inherited my interest in growing things, and my husband is starting to see the benefits of less lawn to mow, as long as he doesn't have to do the work of digging up new beds for my latest schemes!