Corn is one of the most popular and most consumed grains around the world. Despite its popularity, very few people actually know and understand the full anatomy of this ancient versatile ingredient.
So, what are the different parts of corn?
Read on to learn about the history of corn, parts of corn, their nutritional value, uses and more!
A Bit of History
Corn, also known as maize, is a domesticated cereal grain that was been around for over 10,000 years!
This delicious vegetable has become a staple ingredient in many parts of the world including Africa, both North and South America, and Europe. Around the world, people get roughly 19.5% of their calorie intake from corn alone!
This intake can be obtained from virtually any corn-based product including syrups, alcohol, flours, or oils.
There are six major types of corn species including dent corn, flint corn, popcorn, flour corn, sweet corn, and lastly, pod corn. Each of these types of corn has their own unique characteristics and are thus used in different ways.
The sweeter corn varieties are mainly used for human consumption as-is. For example, you would use sweet corn fresh to garnish a dish or to use them in a salsa or salad.
Field corn on the other hand (which includes varieties like dent corn, flint corn, and flour corn) is usually used to make animal feed or to make corn-based food products for people.
These products include anything from cornmeal, corn oil, or even bourbon.
The Different Parts of Corn
So, now we get to the good stuff! Corn actually has a ton of parts, some of which are usable in food in different ways.
There are naturally different varieties of corn and each species can grow to various lengths.
This height can be anywhere from 5 feet all the way to 15 feet!
Regardless of which variety of corn you have, they all have the same basic anatomy. The corn plant itself consists of roots, a stalk, husk, silk, leaf, tassel, and the most well-known part, the cobs.
Let’s start at the very base of the plant, the corn roots. Corn roots grow in two sections: the crown roots and the prop roots.
These roots are carefully managed to ensure the plant doesn’t put all of its energy into root growth instead of its grains.
Crown roots are what help feed water and nutrients to the plant. These roots grow underneath the soil and help anchor the plant as well.
Prop roots, also known as brace roots, grow just on top of the soil and provide added support to the plant. These roots don’t really add nutrients.
The stalk, as with many other plants, is the main body of a corn plant. The stalks have arguably the most important functions for the plant.
Mainly, it helps transport nutrients, water, and oxygen (essentially energy) throughout the plant.
It takes nutrients from the roots and transfers them to the leaves and cob while taking energy from the sunlight from the leaves to the roots. And so the process continuously goes up and down to grow a healthy plant.
And naturally, the stalk also provides a strong support system that holds the weight of the rest of the plant. And especially, the heavy corn ears.
Nodes aren’t necessarily a massive noticeable part of a corn plant, but they are extremely essential. A node is a specific area on the stem (or stalk) of the plant that initially looks like a tiny bump.
This bump eventually develops into a leaf, root, corn ear, or tassel. These nodes essentially help form and shape the corn plant.
An ear of corn is the structure that contains the actual kernels. There is a lot of debate regarding which parts exactly are included in this definition, but it is mostly defined in two ways:
- The hard center part and the kernels surrounding it
- The hard center part, the kernels, and the husk and silk that surrounds it
For today’s purposes, we will refer to the ear as only the yellow kernels and hard center inside.
The kernels are all attached to the hard core and are essentially the seeds (also called the fruits) of the plant. They have one main function and that is to make another corn plant!
However, as you already know, corn kernels are the parts that we use in food and to create corn-based food products. One ear of corn roughly has 16 rows and about 800 kernels in total.
Each kernel consists of endosperm, germ, pericarp, and a tip cap.
The tip cap is a relatively unknown part of a kernel and is basically attached to the point of the kernel.
It is attached directly to the cob (the hard inside) and helps transfer water and nutrients. The tip cap isn’t covered by the pericarp and contains fiber.
A pericarp is also called a fruit wall and is what covers and helps protect the entire kernel. This protective layer naturally functions as a barrier that helps maintain the kernel’s moisture levels and nutrients.
The pericarp consists of about 91% fiber.
Then you get the germ; this is the only living part of a corn kernel and is very often referred to as the embryo of the kernel.
The germ contains all of the corns’ genetic information, the vitamins and minerals, and the enzymes—basically everything the plant needs to grow!
Then we have the endosperm which is roughly 82% of the kernels’ dry weight. The endosperm is packed with starch and is the most used part of the kernel.
The husk (or corn hull) is the leafy green part that covers the ear of corn. It functions as a protective layer against any outside elements like animals, insects, weather, and dust.
Corn ears can be sold with or without the husk, which is why there is sometimes confusion about exactly what is defined as an ear of corn.
Corn husks are a very popular, but less well-known, edible part of corn and are used in many cuisines to wrap ingredients and add flavor.
The silk is a hollow-like tube that comes from the ovary of the corn ear. The silk can be recognized by the long brown strands coming out of the top of each ear and that grow towards the outside.
Each kernel has its very own strand to help with the pollination process (or more to help the likelihood of getting pollinated).
Corn plants have between 16-19 leaves on their stalk. Roughly 5 leaves fall off before the plant tassels.
These leaves are long and generally tend to grow upward and outwards, creating a very large-looking plant.
The leaves are an essential part of the plant that catches the sunlight and where photosynthesis takes place.
Tassels are the male part of a corn plant that contains pollen. It grows at the top of the corn plant and looks like fine fingers.
Pollen is essential to help fertilize the ovaries of corn and create new corn. This pollen sticks to the silk and moves to the ovaries.
So, now that you have a more in-depth understanding of literally every part of a corn plant, let’s look at how they are used in food and other products.
Not all parts of the corn plant should be eaten, not necessarily because they are poisonous, but simply because they are not appetizing to eat.
Some parts (like the husk, leaves, silk, and tassel) can be very stringy and tasteless. The core (hard inside) can be very tough and sometimes even have a soapy, bitter, or altogether flavorless taste to it.
Corn Leaves and Husk Uses
These two parts are considered to be interchangeable when using them in cooking. As we have mentioned, corn leaves grow on the stalk and are large semi-thick leaves that absorb sunlight to make energy.
Husks are large leaves that protect the corn cob from outside elements.
These leaves and husks can either be used raw (also called “green” which means they are still fresh) or dried.
Green corn leaves and husks are used to wrap food inside them before they are grilled. This essentially acts as a parcel that will help steam the food inside.
The moisture in the fresh leaf prevents any food from drying out while simultaneously adding a slightly sweet corn-like flavor.
These leaves are also commonly used as feed for animals like cows or pigs.
Dried corn husks and leaves arguably have more uses because they are much easier to find compared to their fresh counterparts. In Mexican cuisine, dried corn leaves are used to create a traditional and extremely well-known dish, tamales.
Alternatively, you can use them to add fiber to your diet, as a type of tea leaf, as a flavoring in meringues and creams, or as a simple wrapper for food.
Corn Silk Uses
Corn silk is mainly used as a medicine. Many people use it to help with health problems such as high blood pressure and cholesterol, diabetes, kidney stones, inflammation of the prostate or urinary system, and for bladder infections.
We want to however state that there isn’t enough research regarding these claims that can prove the effectiveness of corn silk to help with these issues.
Corn Stalk, Tassel, and Root Uses
These parts of the corn plant don’t have many uses and can mainly be used as compost, for decorations, or animal feed.
As compost, they can help replenish the soil with nutrients that will ensure it doesn’t become barren.
Corn Kernel Uses
The kernels are naturally the most edible part of the plant. These kernels can either be eaten raw, cooked, or preserved.
Because most vegetables are cooked before being used in a recipe or even eaten as is, it is automatically assumed that corn also has to be cooked, but it actually doesn’t!
Now we are not saying that we are the biggest fans of raw corn; however, it is completely safe to eat and contains the most amounts of nutrients of all forms.
The only thing you absolutely have to do is choose the freshest possible corn for the best flavor and texture.
Raw corn adds a crunchy texture to your food and can be used in salads, as a garnish, or as a type of corn salsa. We love corn and cooked bean salsa or a traditional Mexican salsa with raw corn instead of charred or blanched.
If you prefer cooked corn kernels, there are hundreds of different methods you can use! The most popular ones include charred corn, boiled corn, or steamed corn. You can also roast corn and even deep-fry the kernels!
Each of these preparation methods yields completely different results and has completely different health benefits (or lack of them).
The final way in which corn kernels can be prepared is by pickling or preserving them. Creamed sweet corn or simple corn kernels in brine are two of the most common forms of preserved corn you will find.
This is also an excellent method to add other flavors by means of adding herbs and spices.
Corn is also used to make corn flour or starch, popcorn (a delicious snack), and high fructose corn syrup.
Besides the most obvious use of corn being for human food, other non-sweet varieties of corn kernels can be used to make biofuel and bioplastics.
Let’s start with the nutrition of corn kernels. One thing we do want to say first is that the more corn is processed, the more nutrients it loses.
That is why raw corn kernels will arguably be the most nutritious, followed by steamed and then boiled forms.
As soon as you add sugar, salt, or oil to add flavor the nutrients become less and less.
Corn kernels are considered a nutritious ingredient and contain a ton of fiber, minerals, and vitamins. Most of these nutrients are contained inside the germ while the carbs are mostly in the endosperm.
One cup of sweet yellow corn contains about 177 calories and 41 grams of carbs.
The carbs come from all the starch that corn has. It also does have some protein, fat, and fiber in it. It is high in vitamin C, B1, B9, magnesium, and potassium.
Corn kernels do have some health benefits including:
- May benefit eye health because of high lutein and zeaxanthin levels
- May prevent digestive issues like diverticular disease
It also comes with a few potential downsides and health risks such as:
- The possibility of increasing your blood sugar levels
- Can prevent weight loss
- Corn crops can be genetically modified
Because you don’t consume any other part of the corn plant, there is virtually no research on the nutrition of those parts.
There have been claims that certain parts of corn, especially corn silk has numerous health benefits, but again, we wouldn’t recommend using it until you have consulted with your doctor.
How Corn Can Be Prepared
Corn is a very versatile ingredient and can be prepared and used in many different ways. Of course, you can eat corn raw, but if you prefer cooking it, here are a few ways to do so and exactly how.
- Fill a large pot with water and bring it to a boil.
- Once boiling, add the ears of corn (preferably without their husks) and allow them to simmer for roughly 10-15 minutes or until the kernels have been fully cooked.
- Remove the ears of corn from the boiling water and set them on a chopping board. If you want individual kernels, cut them off the cob while still hot. If you prefer almost slices of kernels, wait for the ear of corn to cool completely.
- Add some water into a pot. You can either place a steamer wire inside the pot (that will raise the food above the water) or simply cover the pot with a bamboo steamer (like this one from Amazon).
- Add the corn to the steamer and cover it with a lid. You can steam corn inside the husk or remove it completely.
- Allow the corn to steam over medium heat (simmering water) for roughly 10 minutes or until the kernels are fully cooked.
- Remove the husk from the corn completely otherwise it will catch on fire.
- Charred corn is best done over a direct flame like a gas hob, open fire or blow torch. Simply hold the corn over the flame until it slightly begins to char. We would also recommend first briefly boiling or steaming the corn to ensure it is fully cooked before it is completely charred.
If you are using dried corn leaves or husks, we would highly recommend soaking them before using them on direct or extremely high heat. Dried plants and fibers have a tendency to catch alight and will then burn any food inside them.
You can simply place them in hot water for roughly 30 minutes, then remove them and wrap them around your food.
Corn leaves can be used to wrap fish, make tamales, or make a variety of other traditional foods.
If you’re interested in seeing all the different parts of the corn, check out this highly informative video from the folks at Kansas Corn STEM!
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