Kitchen Gardening

How Do You Know When to Harvest Sweet Corn?

The day will come when you'll find yourself looking up at corn stalks which are now taller than you and wondering if the time is right to snap those ears off for tonight's dinner.

Corn silks shrivel up after they've been pollinated. Photo by Stereogab under the Creative Commons Attribution License 2.0.

The day will come when you’ll find yourself looking up at corn stalks which are now taller than you and wondering if the time is right to snap those ears off for tonight’s dinner. Well, here are the clues you need to make the big decision. First of all, what do the silks at the top of the cob look like?

Are they brown, dry, and shriveled? Or are they still pale yellow and shiny? After corn silks are fertilized by the tassels at the top of the stalk, they’ll shrivel up as the ears mature. This happens about three weeks after the silks form. The corn kernels become ripe just about the same time as the silks become brown and shriveled.

To be sure you don’t pick an ear before its time, you may want to check the kernels themselves. Make a small cut vertically into one of the ear’s husks. While you do want to get to the kernels – keep the cut small so that you don’t inadvertently make it easy for pests to sneak in.

Now, choose a kernel that’s a few down from the top of the ear because those teeny top ones sometimes never fill out; so you could be fooled. You’re looking for tight, filled out corn kernels. Use your fingernail to puncture a kernel. The liquid inside is going to tell you a lot about your timing. If the liquid that comes out is very clear and watery, they’re not ripe yet. If you can see through the liquid and yet it looks milky – the corn is perfect for picking. And if the liquid is completely opaque (you can’t see through it), you’ve waited too long.

After a season or two of guessing and testing, you’ll get very good at gauging your corn’s ripeness just by looking at the kernels. Because you have about three days after they become ripe before the sugars in the kernels turn to starch, seasoned gardeners have traditionally practiced cooking corn as close to harvesting as possible. but some of the newer supersweet varieties have made that less of a worry.

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