Types of Corn Demystified: Popping, Grinding, and Sweet Corn

, written by Benedict Vanheems gb flag

Heirloom varieties of corn

Sinking your teeth into a cob of just-picked-and-immediately-steamed sweet corn is one of the soaring high points of the growing season. But there’s more to corn than just sweet corn.

It’s not out of the ordinary to count over 50 different corn varieties in the average seed catalog, including some truly startling head turners: cobs of pearlescent creams, near-black kernels, and eye-poppingly marbled varieties with golds, reds and purples all on the same cob! Then there’s their wide range of uses: sweet corn for eating fresh, corns for drying and grinding into cornmeal or corn flour, corn for popping, and decorative types to add a little visual cheer.

So, let’s peel aside the husks and peer a little closer into the wonderful world of corn.

It’s hard to beat sweetcorn for flavor!

Sweet Corn

Sweet types are the result of a mutation of the standard field corn and are harvested while the kernels are still immature, which technically makes sweet corn a vegetable, not a grain.

You can tell if sweet corn is ready to pick with the fingernail test. Peel back just enough of the husk to expose a few of the plump kernels, then sink a nail into one of them. If it exudes a watery liquid it’s not quite ready, but if the liquid is milky then the cob is good to go. Enjoy sweet corn as fresh as you can, but freeze gluts off the cob before they turn too starchy.

There are many, many varieties of sweetcorn, with hybrid types are usually bred to max out natural sugar levels – ideal if yours is a sweet tooth!

‘Glass Gem’ corn is a type of flint corn usually grown for popping

Corn for Popping

Popcorn types have kernels containing a higher moisture content, which turns to steam when heated. As the steam builds up, so does the pressure, until the hull tears open, enabling the kernel to explode to up to 50 times its original size. Pretty amazing, right?

Popcorn isn’t the preserve of modern movie goers. In fact, they’ve been popping corn in what is today Mexico for at least 5,000 years! Pop this corn onto your seed shopping list and keep this long tradition alive. It’s great fun for younger members of the household – heat whole cobs in the microwave for spectacular-looking popcorn on the cob.

The tiny impressions or ‘dents’ at the top of each kernel give dent corn its name

Corn for Grinding

Golden yellow cornmeal is made by grinding up certain types of dried corn. Cornmeal is often sold as polenta in the UK, but strictly speaking polenta is a porridge made of boiled cornmeal. The American version of polenta is grits, a popular dish in the South that’s cooked using hominy, a pale type of corn, in place of yellow corn.

Cornmeal flour is also the base ingredient to corn chips, tortillas, taco shells and cornbread. Most corn is grown in order to dry and process in some way.

Dent corn is the most common type of corn used for cornmeal, so called for the small but noticeable ‘dents’ at the top of each kernel. Flint corns are super hard – hence the name – and come in a range of colors, making them very popular to use as decorations, though they can also be popped for snacking. And then there’s flour corn, grown in drier regions to grind to even finer texture to give corn flour, which can be used in place of wheat flour.

Hang cobs up whole to dry somewhere airy

Drying Corn

If you're drying your corn and fall is turning damp, bring it under cover to finish drying. Peel back the husks to expose the kernels then tie them up out of the way of direct sunshine in a warm, dry, well-ventilated place. You could also dry cobs on racks. Once they are completely dry, detach the kernels from the cob (rubbing two dried cobs together helps dislodge them) and store in an airtight container.

Have you grown corn for drying or popping and, if so, what did you grow? I’d love to know, so please leave a comment below.

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Show Comments


"In younger years, a family favorite from my garden was a short dark red cob of hull-less popcorn. After harvest, during drying out time, family kept asking “Can we pop it now?” It was called Jap Hull-less, a sweet, tender, small popcorn with very few hulls. Yummm, so good!"
Carol Thorson on Saturday 6 February 2021
"That sounds a bit similar to our 'Strawberry Popcorn' Carol. I bet it was totally delicious and well worth the wait!"
Ben Vanheems on Monday 8 February 2021
"We grew Dakota Black two years ago and ended up with enough popcorn to last until this year. Looking forward to planting it again this year. I read that you can't grow sweet corn near (within pollinating distance) of any other types of corn (eg popcorn) as it will ruin the sweetness. Has anyone found this to be true? I'd love to grow some sweet corn as well, but we don't have the room to really give sufficient space to prevent cross pollination."
Margaret B on Sunday 14 February 2021
"Hi Margaret. I hadn't heard of this before, but reading around it appears to be the case. Grow sweet corn near to popcorn and the pollen from the popcorn could render the sweet corn cob that's produced quite starchy and less sweet. I wonder if you could grow the popcorn around the corner from the sweet corn, or the other side of building or similar. Something that offers an appreciable barrier to wind-blown pollen?"
Ben Vanheems on Monday 15 February 2021
"I have grown popcorn in my backyard garden for the last 7 years. I have used several different seeds, all were a disappointment. Kernels pop up very small, I want the big Kernels. Need help with a good seed. Thanks Rob"
Robert E Brown Sr on Tuesday 25 January 2022
"Margaret B you can also separate varieties by time so they are being pollinated at different times if your growing season is long enough. I squeezed 3 varieties in last summer, one after the other."
Alison H on Sunday 28 August 2022

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