Sour Corn: An Appalachian Classic With a Deep Regional History

Its sweet and sour crunch is a welcome addition to summertime meals.

Sour Corn
Photo: Photography: Caitlin Bensel; Food Styling: Torie Cox

Corn is native to the Americas, and is a critical component of Indigenous diets across both the North American and South American continents. It appears in Indigenous diets across the South: The traditional diet of the Natchez people from the Mississippi Valley includes at least 42 different corn-based dishes, for example.

Corn is an important part of Southern Appalachian culture, too, having been cultivated in the region since precolonial times by the Cherokee and used for a range of dishes, including sour corn, a lightly fermented pickled corn.

What Is Sour Corn?

While smoking and drying foods were more common preservation methods, fermentation (using beneficial microbes to preserve and flavor food) was also found. Sour corn is not used for long-term storage, but it does impart a bright, sour flavor to sweet corn kernels and is a wonderful treat on warm summer days.

Sour corn is simple to make, and really highlights in-season sweet corn at the height of freshness. When sweet corn is still sweet, rather than starchy, a light fermentation gives it depth and complexity and a light tang, without a mouth puckeringly sour aftertaste.

To make the best sour corn, get your corn in season, and preferably recently picked (a farmers' market or farm stand is your best bet here), then immediately strip the kernels and start your sour corn.

In just a couple days, you'll be enjoying a delicious relish. Don't throw away the cobs, either: They make a wonderful corn stock, and you can even press the milk from them with the back of a knife to get a sweet-and-starchy treat to stir into your meals.

This recipe comes from my next book, Our Fermented Lives, and is based on several sour corn making sessions over the years with different expert home cooks.

Sour Corn Recipe

There are a few ways to go about making sour corn: You can ferment the whole cobs, cut the cobs up into a few pieces, or you can strip the kernels from the cob and ferment them. The latter works best if you have a small container or jar to work with, but whole cobs or pieces of cobs are great if you happen to have a fermentation crock handy to play with.

Sour corn ferments relatively quickly: I find mine is usually ready to go in just a few days in hot weather, so it's a great choice if you're looking for a fermented side dish with a minimal time investment.

Step 1. Prep the corn

To make sour corn, start by shucking your corn (remove the husks and silk).

Next, pack your shucked corn into a container: Whole cobs or corncobs that have been cut into rounds, can be stacked in a large crock or other food-safe container. If you choose to remove the kernels, place corncob upright in a bowl and carefully run a knife from top to bottom to cut the kernels from the cob. The bowl will catch the kernels, and you can set the cob aside for other uses.

Step 2. Make the brine

Next, make your brine, which is just unrefined salt whisked into room temperature water until dissolved.

For each quart of water, use 3 tablespoons of salt. I like fine sea salt best, but kosher salt, Himalayan salt, or any salt without anti-caking agents, iodine, or other additives will work great. Pour your brine over your corn until it's completely covered.

Step 3. Let ferment

The most important part of fermenting pickles like this is to keep your veggies under the brine. For whole corncobs, you can put a food-safe weight (I use a bowl or a salad plate) inside your crock. Corn kernels, however, are very lightweight and will float to the top of your brine. That's ok! You'll simply stir your corn a couple times a day to keep yeasts from growing on top of the brine.

Cover with a cloth or lid, and let ferment at room temperature. Check daily. Once the corn tastes as sour as you'd like (usually a few days in warm weather, and 5 to 7 days in winter), store it in the fridge.

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