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Cooler Corn: A Better Way to Corn on the Cob

Cobs of corn in a beer cooler ready for boiling water.

Update: You can find this recipe — along with about 75 other beer-related gems — in my new cookbook, The Canadian Craft Beer Cookbook.

Every summer vegetable has its season and devoted fans. But peas, asparagus, or zucchini don’t get nearly as much cooking technique attention as corn does. Whether it’s what goes in the water–salt, sugar, and milk are all called for in different recipes–to how long passes between picking the cobs and when they hit boiling water. My newest method simply involves immersing the corn in boiling water inside a standard cooler and that got my attention both because it’s more convenient and more delicious.

The dry heat of a gas or charcoal grill are great for both concentrating corn’s sweetness (by reducing water) and creating flavours that add complexity.  Sometimes, though, the menu doesn’t call for lighting up the grill and getting it started just for eight minutes of corn seems wasteful. On the other extreme that tradition-fraught pot of boiling water can turn an already stifling kitchen into a literal sauna. Whether or not you buy into one of the various water-adulterating schemes the method requires waiting for  a boil and then some fairly exact timing from there.

The recipe is simple: Into a large beer cooler put a bunch of boiling-hot water and the shucked corn cobs. I found I could get about eight to ten cobs into a layer and that about two to three litres of water were needed to cover that layer. The easiest, fastest way to heat that amount of water is to call a couple kettles (especially electric ones) into service. If you only have only one kettle work quickly in batches and don’t worry about the water losing heat before the corn goes in.

Cooked after about six minutes but still perfect after closer to thirty.

Cooked after about six minutes but still perfect after closer to thirty.

As with steak and chili, I anticipate the response at this point will be, “okay, Ort, great gimmick but would you do this again?” And, you know, I think that’s a pretty unequivocal yes for the two usual reasons: the method is convenient and delicious. Summer meals are often enjoyed away from the kitchen stove; around the grill, on the patio or at the beach and coolers travel anywhere. There’s more forgiveness here between properly cooked and overdone because as the corn cooks the water’s temperature drops. I put the corn into the cooler when we sat down and by the time we were ready for it the cobs were cooked, hot enough to melt butter (but not hot enough to need silly handle gadgets), and right there beside the table.

It’s important for safety’s sake that the cooler you use is very clean.  If you’re going to eat food directly from it you want to make sure that absolutely nothing is left behind from that leaky package of chicken or unwashed vegetables you had in there a few months ago. I washed mine well with hot, soapy water and then filled it part-way with a dilute solution of hot water and vinegar for a twenty-minute soak that was followed by a rinse to get rid of the vinegar taste. I think it also makes sense to add the boiling water to the cooler before the corn goes in for an extra level of insurance.

Die-hards who don’t believe that sweet corn has been bred to keep it’s sugar longer will probably at least contemplate dragging a cooler of boiling water into a corn field so that they can shuck the corn right on the stalk and break it off directly into the hot water. Each to their own, I say, and this recipe is easy enough that while that would be pretty obsessive it wouldn’t be that onerous.

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  1. ScottyG says:

    I love the simplicity of this method; one question though, could you do layers of corn and just use more water to insure all the corn was covered. I’m thinking for a large group?

  2. Nicholas says:

    Very well written and conceptualized idea! I totally agree with the concept and love the fact that you reminded people about food borne illness. I can see this working really well and I thank you for opening my eyes to this new idea!

  3. foodwithlegs says:

    Thanks, Scotty. No reason that the recipe couldn’t be scaled upwards. Aim high on the amount of water you use and give the cooler a shake–or open the lid and move the cobs around–at about the three minute mark so that they cook evenly.

  4. janey says:

    People are going nuts over this on some other forums claiming that there’s BPA and stuff and that heating the plastics will cause chemicals to leak out (the Snopes article mentions that too) but I can’t find any actual scientific evidence that simple boiling water will suddenly cause plastic to break down and leak chemicals.

    Just pointing it out. I don’t think you have to worry. It’s not like you’re eating BPA for 20 years by making corn like this a few times.

  5. foodwithlegs says:

    Thanks for the heads-up, Janey. I’m not an expert, but you’re right that this is the sort of thing I might do three, maybe four times a year and each instance is a very short food-water-plastic exposure. Worth further investigation.

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