The Selective Science of Baby Corn

Baby corn, the miniature vegetable that often stars in Chinese stir-fry dishes, is not commonly grown in the United States. Growing and harvesting baby corn is all in the details. Vegetable breeding expert Jim Myers supplies some to Debbie Elliott.

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DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

From little critters to tiny vegetables. For our food moment this weekend, we have some questions about baby corn, you know, the tiny little ears that show up amid the broccoli and bell pepper in your stir-fry. Because it's not widely grown in the U.S., finding someone to talk about the mini crop proved a bit more difficult than we expected.

Not even the good people at the Department of Agriculture in Nebraska, the Corn Husker State, could give us what we were looking for. Then we found Jim Myers, a professor of vegetable breeding and genetics at Oregon State University. He joins us now from his home in Corvallis, Oregon. Welcome to the program, sir.

Professor JIM MYERS (Vegetable Breeding and Genetics, Oregon State University): Well, thank you.

ELLIOTT: So Doctor Myers, please solve this mystery for us. Is this a Lilliputian variety of corn or is it really just baby corn?

Professor MYERS: Baby corn comes from regular corn. It can come from any number of different kinds of varieties, but it's just picked at a much earlier stage, before it's even been fertilized. With corn, what you're eating with a corncob is actually the female part of the plant. There's also a tassel which sheds pollen, and that pollen has to drift onto the silks and then fertilize those individual kernels for them to go ahead and develop, and you're harvesting this corn before that fertilization process has actually taken place. It's like going out and picking an apple before that apple blossom has even opened up.

ELLIOTT: How is it harvested?

Professor MYERS: It's taken just by hand. People come into a field one or two days after the silks emerge and just strip out the ears.

ELLIOTT: Now, wouldn't it be more profitable to wait until the corn is fully grown to harvest it?

Professor MYERS: Certainly in terms of nutrition and what you get to eat. You get much more if you wait till it's mature. But baby corn itself is very profitable. It's very high-priced.

ELLIOTT: Now, in our research we discovered that most of the baby corn that we eat here in the U.S. is actually imported. Where is it coming from?

Professor MYERS: Thailand is a major area of production. That's the main one I know about.

ELLIOTT: And why isn't baby corn grown so much in the United States?

Professor MYERS: Maybe the biggest impediment is all the labor involved. It's a very labor-intensive crop. We have mechanical harvests for full-sized ears but not for baby corn.

ELLIOTT: Let's talk about the taste of this baby corn. I don't find it to be terribly bitter like you would some vegetables that are not fully ripened yet, but it doesn't have much taste at all, really.

Professor MYERS: No, it's got a typical corny taste, but there's no sugar that's been deposited in the kernels yet, so it doesn't have any of the sweetness that we normally associate with something like sweet corn, or the starchiness.

ELLIOTT: So mostly it's just kind of cute but not much nutrition or taste there.

Professor MYERS: Right. It's kind of cute. It adds some interest to the plate of food that you add it to.

ELLIOTT: Now why is it that we can't find this fresh, you know, in the produce section of the grocery store with little baby husks and baby corn silk poking up?

Professor MYERS: Well, it, you can find it in farmers' markets.

ELLIOTT: Oh.

Professor MYERS: Not in your typical grocery store. Baby corn is typically sold in the husk, and my guess is that in a grocery store situation, there's probably more labor than your typical consumer wants to go to. It's much easier to buy a little jar of canned baby corn or something like that than...

ELLIOTT: Than to try to husk a dozen little baby corns.

Professor MYERS: Right. Yes.

ELLIOTT: Jim Myers is a professor of vegetable breeding and genetics at Oregon State University. Thank you for your help, sir.

Professor MYERS: Well, thank you very much.

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