Understanding the distinction between field corn and sweet corn is enlightening because it reveals the diverse uses of corn in our daily lives.
Here’s a quick and easy rundown of the key differences:
- Field corn is mainly grown for animal feed, ethanol production, and as a raw material for processed foods.
- Sweet corn is the variety we consume, known for its high sugar content and delicious flavor.
- Field corn is drier and has a tougher texture, while sweet corn is picked when juicy and tender.
- You can grow sweet corn in your backyard, while field corn is typically grown in large-scale agricultural operations.
- Sweet corn finds its way to our plates, either fresh, canned, or frozen, whereas field corn is processed into products like corn syrup, cornflakes, and ethanol.
I love how effortlessly sweet corn can be incorporated into my meals. Whether I toss it into a salad, sauté it for a side dish, or just enjoy it straight off the cob, it’s delicious and versatile. Plus, sweet corn is incredibly easy to preserve; I can freeze, can, or even pickle it, ensuring I have this summer favorite available year-round.
When I think about field corn, while it might not be my first pick for a dinner side, it’s truly the unsung hero of my pantry. It gives me corn chips for my snack time, corn oil for cooking, and even the tortillas that are essential for my taco nights. It’s astounding how many products in my kitchen start with field corn.
It’s hard to portray the importance of corn in our society accurately. We manufacture many products, some obvious and others interestingly so, using corn. Not all corn is grown equally for the same purpose because when it comes to field corn vs sweet corn, there are glaring differences in these types of maize.
If you live in a rural area of North America, you’ve likely seen fields of corn that seem to stretch on for acres. While you may think that all that corn is the same, it’s not true. Of all the space dedicated to growing corn in the United States, corn farmers use most of it to grow field corn, which is not the same as the canned corn you find at the store or the popped corn at the movies.
As delicious as the regular corn we consume is, field corn holds an essential role in our agricultural society. Keep reading to discover the critical differences between sweet corn and field corn and what we use each of them for.
- Here's a quick and easy rundown of the key differences:
- Types of Corn
- What is Field Corn (Zea mays)?
- What is Sweet Corn?
- Sweet Corn Facts
- How Field Corn and Sweet Corn Grow
- Growing Corn
- When to Harvest Field Corn vs Sweet Corn
- Harvesting and Storing Field Corn and Sweet Corn
- The Difference between Corn and Sweet Corn Cobs
- How We Use Sweet Corn after Harvest
- What Happens to Field Corn after Harvest?
- Commercial Uses for Field Corn Products
- The Taste of Corn
- Cooking with Sweet Corn
- Where Does Baby Corn Come from?
The Difference between Field Corn and Sweet Corn
To consumers, the most significant difference in these types of corn is that we do not usually consume field corn. After harvest, field corn goes through various processes before making it edible for humans. The field corn kernel never reaches your plate, as it holds the potential for many other uses.
Types of Corn
The world of corn is fascinating because there are different varieties, even in the types of corn we consume. There are various corn types worldwide, each serving a unique purpose. The hard popcorn kernels we pop in oil are not the same variety of corn we find frozen or sold in cans at the store.
Sweet corn has high sugar content, and we categorize it based on how much sugar it has. We grow this yellow corn variety for human consumption.
Pod corn is a type of maize that grows small leaves around each kernel. This growth pattern results from mutation, and because of this, we don’t eat pod corn. Native Americans grow and preserve this corn for its religious significance.
Popcorn is likely the most well-known type of corn. These kernels expand when heated, rupturing the outer shell of the kernels and providing us with a bite-sized snack.
What is Field Corn (Zea mays)?
Field corn is the name given to corn grown for animal feed, the production of grain alcohol, or processed foods. Within the category of field corn, there are dent corn, flint corn, flour corn, and blue corn, used to make corn meal. The use of field corn as livestock food is why field corn is sometimes called cow corn.
Flour corn is a type of corn grown specifically for the production of corn flour. This corn grows kernels with starchy endosperm, the tissue produced inside the kernels. The difference between corn flour and corn starch is that making corn starch uses only the starchy parts of the kernel, and making corn flour uses the whole kernel.
Dent corn is identifiable by its dented kernels. After harvest, dent corn goes through manufacturing processes to create food items from whole kernel corn.
Indian corn, also known as flint corn, is a type of corn that grows ears with different colored kernels. While it is possible to grow sweet white corn, we recognize Indian corn for its multi-colored cobs. Some use the dried kernels from flint corn to make hominy or as an ornamental crop.
What is Sweet Corn?
Also known as sugar or pole corn, or even just corn, this variety of corn is grown to eat. It has a delicious flavor due to its high sugar content and is the result of a naturally occurring mutation that controls the conversion of natural starch into sugar.
To achieve the texture and taste we’re familiar with, farmers harvest sweet corn before it reaches maturity. This stage of its growing process is known as the milk stage, because of the milky substance kernels produce when pierced as a test on whether to harvest.
Sweet Corn Facts
The first record of sweet corn dates back to 1779 when Native Americans introduced sweet corn to European settlers. Corn grew in popularity through the 19th century when new cultivars emerged, and the 20th century saw the introduction of hybrids.
Further research into corn shed light on other gene mutations directly responsible for the corn’s sweetness. From here, farmers created new cultivars based on kernel sweetness. By creating hybrids, farmers could control the quality of their corn and disease resistance. No one wants to deal with corn pests and diseases if they don’t have to.
Normal sugary (su) corn has around nine percent sugar content with a narrow harvest window. This corn has a quick conversion rate of turning sugars into starch and limited ability to hold up in storage.
Enhanced corn (se) has increased sugar content, around 17%, with more stable sugar levels than normal sugary corn. Because enhanced corn starts with a higher sugar level, it takes longer for its sugar content to convert to starch.
Shrunken-2 (sh2), also known as supersweet corn, has the highest sugar content, around 35%. This type cannot convert sugar to starch, and because of this, its kernels have a crunchy texture.
How Field Corn and Sweet Corn Grow
One of the biggest differences in field corn vs sweet corn is how they grow. Although it may seem like when you harvest corn determines how you use it, there is more behind these types of corn.
If you come across a field of corn and notice one portion of the land filled with tall lush green stalks while another has smaller stalks, you’ve stumbled upon sweet corn and field corn growing side by side. Field corn grows taller than sweet corn and has fuller leaves.
In the United States, most corn stalks growing tall in farmlands are stalks of field corn. Roughly 99% of all corn grown in the country is field corn, with the remaining space allotted for growing sweet corn or other varieties of corn.
If you want to grow corn, start with a type of sweet corn, as it is likely the most useful unless you’re looking for a new source of livestock food. Choose from a variety of corn companion plants like squash or beans.
Set aside a lot of space for corn plants when growing corn. The average corn plant grows one of two ears per stalk, so growing enough to feed a family requires multiple plants. You can grow corn in a pot but give each stalk its own container.
Corn is a warm-season crop that requires warm soil and full soil to thrive. The time to start planting corn varies, but waiting until May when you grow sweet corn at home avoids the possibility of frost damage.
Keep the soil around your plants moist by watering regularly and mulching to avoid competition with weeds for nutrients. Corn requires many nutrients to grow healthy. Feed your plants with a nitrogen fertilizer after two months.
When to Harvest Field Corn vs Sweet Corn
When it’s time to harvest sweet corn, it’s important to know how to tell if corn is ready to pick – you’re looking for corn silk at the top of the ear. Corn silk is thin fibers that grow from the top of the corn ear to signal that the kernels are ready. The leaves of your ears are green, and the ear itself is still tight against the stalk.
The difference between field corn and sweet corn when it comes to harvesting is that we don’t harvest field corn as soon as we harvest sweet corn. For field corn to hold up to mechanical processing and work as animal feed, the kernels must dry out first. Corn stalks are high in moisture, and as the ears dry, the green leaves turn brown.
To harvest field corn, look for dark brown silks and for the rest of the corn stalk to appear brown as it dies. It’s time to harvest field corn when the ear comes loose from the main stalk and the corn silk points to the ground.
Harvesting and Storing Field Corn and Sweet Corn
To harvest a field corn plant specifically corn used for food products or the creation of alcohol, farmers remove the kernels from the cob. Farmers store these loose kernels until they are ready to be shipped or keep them in a silo for use as animal feed. Some field corn is given directly to livestock to eat off the cob.
To maintain the flavor and juiciness of sweet corn, farmers harvest it on the cob. When these corn cobs reach the grocery store or market, they may still have the silks attached or have them removed for packaging.
The Difference between Corn and Sweet Corn Cobs
If you grow corn at home, you’ll likely find beautiful rows of yellow and white kernels once you bring sweet corn indoors and shuck it. These kernels should be plump with little to no visible imperfections.
The difference between field corn and sweet corn cobs after harvest is that field corn kernels are darker than the pale yellow kernels of sweet corn. These kernels are also recognizable for the dimples in the middle of each kernel.
The lack of a plump appearance means these kernels are dry, and most of the cob’s moisture is gone, giving dent corn its name.
How We Use Sweet Corn after Harvest
Following harvest, there are a few routes that sweet corn goes down before reaching the consumer. Some fresh corn makes it to the local market as is, wrapped in their shucks for sale.
Some farms sell their harvests to companies that specialize in corn processing. Sweet corn makes it into grocery stores as frozen or canned kernels or cobs packaged in plastic in the produce section.
What Happens to Field Corn after Harvest?
Farmers who remove the kernels from their field corn typically store them in silos or bins. Because corn is low in protein and high in starch, it often acts as a supplement for diets built around foraging.
Some harvest field corn before it’s completely dry, shelling the cob and storing the kernels to create ethanol. The grains that remain after the distillation process are sold by distillers as high protein livestock feed.
Commercial Uses for Field Corn Products
When not used for animal feed or to create alcohol, companies process field corn kernels into food products. Some common by-products of field corn include corn cereals, corn syrup, and corn bread.
Many items in the grocery store specify if they are corn-based versus being made with grains like flour tortillas. Not every item created from field corn is edible, as there are manufacturers that create plastics, gels, and adhesives from field corn.
The Taste of Corn
The most crucial difference between corn and sweet corn for consumers is the taste. Sweet corn has a sweet, almost buttery taste when cooked, though it may taste slightly starchy if eaten raw. Pick your favorite way to store sweet corn without fridge. Freeze it, can it, or pickle it for yummy variety.
Sweet corn sold in cans may seem sweeter than frozen corn due to sitting in liquid, but heating frozen corn restores the freshness of sweet corn kernels.
Although we do not usually consume field corn, it is edible. If harvested with high moisture, you can eat field corn raw or cooked. Because sweet corn is so readily available, most do not spend time cooking field corn at home.
Instead, some cook field corn over a flame and roast it. Without the sugar content of sweet corn, roasted field corn has a nutty corn flavor, and its kernels are firm on the outside.
Cooking with Sweet Corn
Though sweet corn contains sugar, if you use normal sugary corn, the sweet taste blends well into various dishes. The more sugar content in your corn, the harder it may be to include it in savory meals.
We suggest using frozen corn over canned to avoid some of the extra additives like salt included in canned foods when using sweet corn. If you only have canned foods, rinse your corn before cooking.
Heat butter in a large skillet before adding one package of frozen corn or three cups of fresh or canned corn. Cook for five minutes until the corn is tender. Reduce heat and stir in your tomato, juice, salt, and cumin. Continue cooking until all ingredients are heated. Remove the skillet from the heat and stir in the cilantro.
Where Does Baby Corn Come from?
Baby corn, sometimes referred to as cornlets, is a cereal grain from sweet corn. Unlike regular sweet corn that we harvest during the milk stage, we harvest sweet corn while it is small and thin to get baby corn. Because of its size, the cob of baby corn is edible and used in stir fry dishes.
When planting corn, farmers sow seeds for a corn variety that produces numerous ears to harvest baby corn. As the plant matures, farmers harvest the second ear from the top. If only one ear is left, it is left to mature for regular sweet corn harvesting.
Once you understand the differences between field corn and sweet corn varieties, you’ll unlikely look at fresh sweet corn the same. Although we enjoy corn in various meals and as a side dish, consider how many by-products we use that contain corn to understand why field corn is vital.
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