Meatless Monday: Caramelized Sweet Corn

I’m certain that all of you know that corn isn’t really a vegetable, but is actually a grain.

But in the summer, when sweet corn is young, full of sugary plump kernels, bursting with flavor, we eat it like a vegetable.

And generally in the summer, we eat it on the cob.


Well, it’s more fun that way. Whether boiled, roasted, grilled or deep fried, corn on the cob is a hands-on, messy, joyful summer bundle of gustatory joy that I would never deny anyone. It’s just plain old wonderful.

But sometimes, (not very often) every now and then, you want something different.

And that’s when it’s time to cut corn from the cob and caramelize it.

Yep. Caramelize it.

Cook it in a nice hot saute pan until the sugars brown and the edges get a tiny bit crispy, while the inside of the kernel is chewy, yet still juicy.

Let me tell you, that’s some mighty fine eatin,’ as one of my uncles on the farm used to say. It isn’t as messy as corn on the cob to eat (though getting the kernels off the cob entails a wee bit of mess-making), but it is bursting with flavor.

This version I’m giving you here is vegetarian, made with vegetable broth, but I’ve also made a richer version with beef stock in it. I like them both–the vegetarian version is lighter with a more pure corn flavor–the beef broth gives a darker, deeper flavor, with the meatiness contrasting beautifully with the browned sugars of the corn.

I meant this to be done as a side dish, but you know, if you have some cooked and drained black beans, you could add those, and maybe even a sprinkling of shredded extra sharp or smoked cheddar cheese to make a light but still satisfying vegan or vegetarian main dish. I reckon that if you had some rendered bacon fat sitting in your fridge or you wanted to add some chopped cooked bacon to the dish you could, though it would ruin the corn for your vegetarian and Muslim friends, so don’t do that. Certainly not this close to Ramadan, right?

Suffice to say, this is a versatile enough recipe you could make all sorts of variations to your own taste. The only necessary ingredients are the butter or olive oil, the onions and garlic, salt, pepper, corn and broth. After that, the additional ingredients are up to the contents of your refrigerator, panty, spice cabinet and your imagination.

Let me know what you come up with when you make this–I’d love to hear what goodies you add to this very simple corn recipe.

Oh, and one more thing–use the freshest sweet corn possible. The sugars in corn convert to starch as soon as the ear is torn from the stalk. The more sugar that’s in your corn, the more caramelization you can achieve when you cook it and the better it will taste. If you use starchy corn that’s a week old or more, you’ll have to -add- sugar to it to make it come close to tasting as good as it should. So, avoid that by just using corn that is no more than three days old, if possible.

Caramelized Sweet Corn

1/2 dozen ears corn, shucked and de-silked
2 tablespoons butter or olive oil
1 medium onion, peeled, cut in half and then sliced very thinly
1/4 teaspoon salt
1-2 cloves garlic minced
freshly ground black pepper to taste
1/2-3/4 cup vegetable broth
roughly chopped fresh cilantro, parsley or basil for garnish


Cut the corn from the cob. This is somewhat tricky and a bit messy, and you’ll likely miss a few kernels here and there, but you can do it. My Grandma always did it this way, even when she was freezing corn for the winter, when we processed corn by the bushel, and she never cut herself or anything else except the corn. Eventually, Grandpa did make her a more efficient corn cutter, but that was after I was seven years old or so and she’d been cutting it with a knife before that for something like thirty years.

Basically, you hold the corn on a cutting board or inside a wide, shallow bowl, vertical, with the pointy end in one hand, and the flat end where it attached to the stalk held firmly against the board or bowl. I tend to use a bowl–it keeps the kernels from scattering hither and yon all over the cutting board and countertop and on my chest, when I’m cutting it. But Grandma always just used her cutting board.

Using a sharp knife of any sort you like–I use a chef’s knife, Grandma used a butcher knife and my mother used a paring knife–the shape and type matters less than it’s sturdiness and sharpness–carefully start at the top of the cob, and with a slight sawing motion, cut down the entire cob. This should separate the kernels from the cob. Don’t cut too deeply–you’ll get cob bits–but don’t cut too shallowly–then you leave lots of kernel on the cob. Practice will help you get it right–and you’ll find that depending on the width of your knife blade, you can cut up to three or four rows of kernels off at a time.

Continue around the corn until as many kernels as possible have been separated from the cob.

When you are done, wash your hands and knife well–they’ll be sticky with corn juice.

In a medium sized heavy bottomed saute pan, heat the butter or oil on medium heat until the butter melts and foams or the oil ripples and shimmers. Add the sliced onion and sprinkle well with the salt. Cook, stirring, until the onion is medium golden colored. Add the garlic and cook for one more minute, until the garlic is fragrant and beginning to turn golden at the edges.

Add the corn kernels all at once and turn the heat down to medium low and cook, stirring, until the onions turn deep golden brown and the corn has started browning well around the edges. Add black pepper to taste and keep cooking and stirring, until the corn is showing a great deal of golden brown color and everything smells browned and delicious. (There should also be brown bits of sugar and starch clinging to the bottom and sides of the pan at this time.)

Deglaze the pan with the broth, cooking and stirring, scraping every bit of the browned goodness from the bottom of the pan. Cook, stirring, until almost all of the broth is evaporated, and the corn is shiny and uniformly golden brown.

Garnish with roughly chopped herbs, and serve immediately. Feeds about three or four adults as a good side dish.


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  1. Wow – looks great!!! Have to try this. Do you think it would work with frozen or canned corn? My grocery store never carries good corn on the cob, and the farmers markets have been letting me down this year so far.

    BTW, since I haven’t said it before, welcome back! Was really happy to see you pop up in my feeds again.

    Comment by David — July 23, 2012 #

  2. I don’t know how well it would work, but try frozen corn instead of canned. Canned will likely be too damp, and the fresh taste will be missing with it.

    Comment by Barbara — July 23, 2012 #

  3. Mmm. I have frequently sautéed corn, but never quite that much. And now, I have to ask myself: why not?

    Comment by Laura B. — July 24, 2012 #

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