Field corn needs to be processed before it can be eaten, unlike sweet corn which can be eaten right off the cob. To prepare field corn for eating, you need to remove the tough outer kernel and grind the starchy insides into cornmeal. The most common ways to process field corn are nixtamalization, drying and grinding, and alkaline cooking. With some time and effort, field corn can be turned into delicious masa for tortillas, cornmeal for cornbread, or hominy for soups and stews.
What is Field Corn?
Field corn (Zea mays) refers to corn that is grown primarily for animal feed, ethanol production, or processed food ingredients like cornmeal, corn syrup, and corn oil rather than direct human consumption. It differs from sweet corn in that it has a higher starch content and lacks the sweetness of sweet corn varieties.
There are several major types of field corn including:
- Dent corn – Most common type with a depression (“dent”) at the crown of each kernel
- Flint corn – Harder outer kernels, popular for cornmeal
- Flour corn – Softer starchier kernels good for corn flour
- Popcorn – Smaller hard kernels that pop under heat
- Pod corn – Each kernel enclosed in its own husk
Since field corn kernels are surrounded by a tough outer layer and contain more starch than sugar, they are not palatable eaten directly off the cob. The kernels need to be processed first to make the nutrients available for human consumption.
Why Can’t You Eat Field Corn Raw?
There are a few key reasons why field corn needs to be processed before it can be eaten:
- Tough outer kernel – Field corn has a tougher outer hull compared to sweet corn that is difficult to chew and digest.
- Less sweetness – It contains less natural sugars and more starch so it does not taste sweet when raw.
- Nutritional availability – The starch in raw field corn is less accessible to our digestive system.
- Food safety – Raw field corn may have higher levels of mycotoxins from fungi.
Processing methods like nixtamalization, drying and grinding, and alkaline cooking help to remove the outer hull, unlock the starch for digestion, and make the nutrients in field corn available for absorption when eaten.
Common Ways to Process Field Corn
There are a variety of traditional and modern methods for processing field corn to make it suitable for human consumption. Here are some of the most common ways field corn is prepared:
Nixtamalization is a process originally developed in Mesoamerica in which field corn kernels are soaked and cooked in an alkaline solution. This loosens the hulls from the kernels and partially gelatinizes the starch inside. After cooking, the hulls are washed off and the kernels are ground into masa which can be used to make tortillas, tamales, and other products.
Drying and Grinding
One simple way to process field corn is to let it dry completely and then grind it into cornmeal. Drying reduces the moisture content so the kernels become brittle and can be milled into a fine powder. The cornmeal can then be used to make cornbread, corn tortillas, polenta, or other dishes.
This method involves boiling field corn kernels in a solution with an alkaline ingredient like ash, lime, or baking soda. The alkali helps soften the hulls and alter the corn’s nutrition profile. After cooking, the corn can be ground into masa or dried for hominy or cornmeal.
Less common ways to process field corn include popping it like popcorn to make it expand, fermenting corn kernels to make an alcoholic beverage, or sprouting the corn to eat fresh corn shoots.
Making Masa from Field Corn
One of the most popular uses of processed field corn is to make masa which is then used to produce tortillas, tamales, and other Mexican dishes. Here is an overview of how to make masa from field corn:
- Select dried field corn and remove any damaged kernels or debris.
- Soak the corn in water with pickling lime (calcium hydroxide) for 8-12 hours to loosen the hulls in a process called nixtamalization.
- Rinse and wash the corn thoroughly to remove any remaining hulls.
- Grind the nixtamalized corn into a wet masa dough using a stone grinder or corn mill.
- Knead the fresh masa with additional water until it reaches the desired consistency.
- Form the masa into tortillas, tamales, or other dishes as desired.
Making masa requires patience but provides a nutritious corn product that can be used in many traditional Mexican and Central American dishes.
Masa Nutritional Benefits
Nixtamalization helps increase the nutritional value of corn by:
- Making niacin more bioavailable
- Adding calcium from the limewater
- Retaining antioxidants like beta carotene
- Increasing protein quality by releasing amino acids
Masa and masa-based foods like tortillas are an important nutritional and cultural staple in Mexico and other parts of the Americas.
Making Cornmeal from Dried Field Corn
Grinding dried field corn into cornmeal is a popular processing method in America and Africa. Here are the basic steps:
- Start with completely dried field corn kernels.
- Remove any debris like husks, cob pieces, or damaged kernels.
- Grind the corn into coarse pieces using a mill.
- Continue grinding until it reaches the desired texture – fine for corn flour or slightly coarser for polenta or grits.
- Sift the cornmeal to remove any large remain pieces.
- Store cornmeal in an airtight container until ready to use.
Cornmeal can be used to make cornbread, polenta, mush, cornbread stuffing, and various other dishes. It provides nutrients like carbohydrates, fiber, protein, and vitamins A, B, and E.
Traditionally corn was ground by hand using mortar and pestles or stone querns. Modern commercial production uses hammermills or stone burr grinders powered by electricity or gasoline engines. Hammermills produce a finer texture good for flour while stone grinding results in a slightly coarser meal.
For home DIY cornmeal, you can use:
- A manual stone mill or hand grinder
- A mechanical burr mill
- A high power blender for small batches
- A coffee grinder for very small batches
The consistency of the grind can be adjusted based on the desired use from a fine flour to coarser grits or polenta.
Making Hominy from Field Corn
Hominy is field corn that has been cooked and soaked in an alkaline solution to soften the kernels and make them swell up. It can be eaten as a side dish or used in soups, stews, or casseroles. Here is an overview of the hominy making process:
- Soak dried field corn in pickling lime (calcium hydroxide) water for 8-24 hours.
- Pour off the limewater then rinse and wash the corn thoroughly.
- Cook the corn in fresh water until tender, 1-3 hours depending on variety.
- Drain then cool the hominy before use.
The advantages of this alkali soaking process include:
- Makes the corn easier to grind once dried
- Removes the hulls
- Improves the flavor and aroma
- Increases nutritional bioavailability
Hominy can be frozen or canned to preserve it. Try it in soups like posole or served as a side dish seasoned with salt and pepper or other spices.
Hominy provides nutrients such as:
- Vitamin C
The niacin in hominy is more bioavailable than unprocessed corn. It also contains antioxidants like beta carotene. Serving hominy provides vitamins, minerals, and other beneficial plant compounds.
Other Uses for Processed Field Corn
In addition to the methods described above, processed field corn can also be used in other ways:
Very finely grinding field corn creates corn flour that can be used for breading foods or as a substitute for other grain flours in baking.
After an enzymatic process that breaks down corn starch, field corn is used to produce various corn syrups like light corn syrup and high fructose corn syrup.
Corn oil is extracted from the germ of field corn kernels and used for cooking or making margarine and other processed foods.
Wet milling of field corn separates out the starch which is dried to make cornstarch used for cooking, baking, or as an edible glue.
Feed and Ethanol
The majority of field corn grown is used either for animal feed or ethanol biofuel production rather than food uses.
How to Cook with Processed Field Corn
Once you’ve turned field corn into masa, hominy, or cornmeal, here are some tips for cooking delicious dishes:
- Make corn tortillas by pressing masa into thin rounds and cooking on a hot comal or skillet.
- For tamales, spread masa dough into corn husks then steam or boil to cook through.
- Use masa harina flour for cornbread, tortilla chips, and empanadas.
- Serve hominy seasoned with salt, pepper, and butter or cheese sauce as a side dish.
- Add cooked hominy to soups like posole, chicken soup, or minestrone for heartiness.
- Make casseroles by baking hominy with green chiles, cheese, and meat in a dish.
- Bake cornbread, corn muffins, or cornmeal cake.
- Use as breading for frying chicken, fish, or vegetables.
- Cook up polenta by simmering cornmeal in broth or water.
- Make a hot breakfast cereal by boiling cornmeal in milk.
Get creative with processed field corn dishes! With its versatility and nutrients, field corn can play many delicious roles in your kitchen.
Though field corn needs processing before eating, traditional methods like nixtamalization, grinding, and alkaline cooking unlock its nutrition and allow its use in many dishes. Converting tough inedible kernels into masa, cornmeal, or hominy through soaking, cooking, and grinding makes field corn’s carbohydrates, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants available for our bodies. Beyond nutrition, processed field corn also provides a way to make beloved cultural dishes from masa tortillas to cornmeal mush. With some time and effort, field corn can be transformed into a tasty and sustainable food source.