I used to love boiled corn on the cob. It was what I grew up eating, in copious amounts. When I was a growing teenager helping out on the farm, I could easily down three to four ears of fresh corn per meal without a thought, along with helpings of the green beans, tomatoes, potatoes and whatever meat happened to be there, too. It was all so good.
But then, Grandma once made roasted corn on the grill Grandpa built for them out of scrap metal and tractor parts. She had us pull the shucks off of the ears, but leave them attached to the stem below, which she cut long. (She harvested corn with a machete. Yeah, Grandma was a badass.) Then, we meticulously picked the silk off of the ears and she slathered room temperature butter over the ears, salted and peppered them liberally and then wrapped the husks back over the ears, tying them with twine at the top to hold them.
These corn “packets” she then set on the grill directly over hot coals to cook. She turned them often, using the long stem as handles, and while a bit of burning happened to the shucks, because they were green, fresh and filled with moisture, they didn’t go up in flames. Instead, parts would burn through and caramelize the corn underneath.
After about ten or fifteen minutes, depending on how hot she made the fire, she’d pull the corn off the grill, and snip the twine holding the leaves around the cob, and push them back down toward the stem, twisting them around the stem so we had a convenient, reasonably cool “handle” to hold our corn so we could eat it.
I fell in love, right then and there with smoky, fire-roasted corn. She had used older ears of corn for it, so they were a bit tougher and chewier than the milk-sweet corn she boiled, with the kernels so tender they just popped under your teeth, but the corn flavor was stronger in the older ears. Sometimes, she’d use young ears of the field corn Grandpa grew for the cows to roast–in those barely sweet kernels resided the most “corny” flavor ever. A flavor that just burst in the mouth and shouted “CORN!”
Years ago, at the Mountain State Arts and Crafts Fair in West Virginia, I bought Zak an ear of corn roasted on the fire in its husk, along with a bowl of beans and a side of cornbread. (That is soul food for a child born in West Virginia. The only thing missing is a mess of greens.)
He fell head over heels for grilled corn and ever since, that’s been the way he and I prefer to cook it.
But, our technique is different than the traditional grilling in the husk method.
And, it involves a special butter sauce/marinade that is brushed on the corn during its entire cooking time, over and over.
The butter sauce was both of our ideas. it started with Zak suggesting I add honey and salt to the butter we brushed on the ears while they cooked.
That seemed like a perfectly sensible idea, so I did it. And it was good, but there was something missing. The addition of honey tipped the flavor balance too far over into the sweet side of things, but I didn’t want to just add more salt.
So, I took to thinking about something salty that wasn’t just salt.
Soy sauce! Soy sauce not only adds salt, but adds flavor as well, most importantly, it adds umami, that elusive sixth taste that humans find irresistible because it comes from proteins called glutamates, and way back in our evolutionary day, protein was just as important to our bodies as sugar and salt. The “meaty” umami flavor would balance the sweentess of the corn, and would make up for the fact that most of the corn you buy these days is almost always just sweet, and lacks that definitive corn flavor that isn’t just made up of sugar.
The addition of soy sauce to the honey and butter improved the final flavor of the grilled corn immensely, giving it a similar robustness found in the older “roasting ears” of corn my Grandma used to make grilled corn.
But, it wasn’t yet quite perfect. Because the soy sauce had done so well in the butter, I glanced through the Asian pantry shelf and came up with toasted sesame oil. A drizzle of that added that nutty quality that older corn kernels have that younger, more tender and texturally pleasing younger ears lack.
The butter was almost finished. I finally added the tiniest pinches of both Chinese Five Spice Powder and dried powdered ginger to the butter before melting it. The amounts are so tiny that you cannot, especially after the corn is grilled, pick out the individual spices at all–they simply add an indefinable fragrance, a flowery quality similar to the essence that corn husks give grilled corn when it is cooked wrapped in green leaves.
I know, why not just cook it in the husks like Grandma did, then? Wouldn’t that be easier than chasing down spices to give a similar effect? Well, yes, it’s easier, but Zak and I both like the caramelized flavor of grilled corn, and when the kernels are protected by the husks, they don’t brown much, and in fact, steam even more than they grill. It’s a semi-wet method of cooking, rather than the completely dry heat of the grill, and you get different results. Mind you, I like both results, but I do prefer the dry heat, caramelized method of grilling to the semi-moist, somewhat steamed method of grilling or roasting in the husk.
The final version of butter is magical. When you brush it on corn repeatedly while it grills over direct heat, it does something interesting. The corn ends up tasting more like corn than it started out tasting, and it doesn’t taste definably buttery, soy-saucey, salty, honied, sugary, spicy or anything else. It just tastes like the best grilled corn you’ve ever tasted in your life, and once it comes off the grill, nothing needs to be added. It just tastes perfectly balanced and good–fragrant and fresh and delicious, and nothing tastes better. (This includes my Grilled Corn Masala, which until this recipe was perfected, was my favorite grilled corn recipe.)
So, here is the recipe. Please note that the amounts for the ingredients are generally scalable to make larger amounts of butter for larger amounts of corn. This makes enough for a half dozen ears of corn, and so you could double the recipe for a full dozen ears, but please note this caveat: do not try exactly doubling the amounts of dried ginger and Five Spice Powder. Instead, add the normal tiny pinch, and then about half again as much–if you double it straight up to two pinches, you will end up overdoing the spices and they will become noticable. Now, that isn’t necessarily bad, mind you, but it does defeat the purpose of giving the corn an indefinable lovely fragrance that the diners can neither quite place nor get enough of.
Grilled Corn with Secret Butter Sauce
6 ears of fresh, local sweet corn (And yes, we have local sweet corn this early in Athens, from one ingenious farmer who starts her corn early under plastic hoop houses that warm the ground fast and make a very warm microclimate that pleases the baby corn plants.)
3 tablespoons of butter
1/2 tablespoon local honey
1/2 teaspoon to 1 teaspoon (depending on how salty your soy sauce is) Japanese style soy sauce
1/4 teaspoon toasted sesame oil
1 tiny pinch Penzey’s dried powdered ginger
1 tiny pinch Penzey’s Five Spice Powder
Husk and desilk the corn carefully.
Put the butter into a microwave safe mug or small bowl. Add honey, and melt in microwave. Remove from microwave, add soy sauce (taste as you go), and sesame oil, and whisk to combine. To get tiny pinches of the spices–and yes, Penzey’s work better for this recipe–use the tip of a very sharp, dry paring knife. Lightly scoop the spices with the tip of the knife, making just a tiny pile of the spices on the very tip. Tap the knife on the edge of the mug or bowl to drop the spices into the butter, and then whisk to combine.
Prepare your grill for direct grilling. If you use soaked woodchips in a smoker box, or directly on the fire, prepare those as well. (Hardwood chunks make the best fire for this recipe.) Make sure your fire is at least 400 degrees F when the coals are burned down. Set the grill up to be about three inches from the fire.
Set the corn on the grill the so that ears don’t touch each other and baste with the butter, turning the ears completely around with tongs to butter all sides. Close up your grill and cook for two minutes. Open grill, baste and turn corn again, then close lid for another two minutes. Continue cooking, basting and turning every two minutes until corn is done–it takes it about ten minutes to cook through, but it depends on the heat of your fire and the size of your ears of corn.
By the time you are done basting, there should be very little butter left. Remove the corn from the fire, and baste one more time on the serving platter before presenting the dish to your family.
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