As a child on my grandfather’s north Florida farm, shucking corn was second only to eating it. The margin, bear in mind, was very thin. Because, really, how many harvest acts are as satisfying as peeling back a still-moist, bright green husk and brushing off the translucent silks to reveal the rows of yellow pearls inside? And what we shucked, we ate.
In the Deep South, where my grandparents and most of their kin grew up, corn—both sweet and field varieties—is the workhorse of the kitchen pantry. Field-ripened and milled into grits, it is a breakfast mainstay; ground even finer into meal, it’s fashioned into cornbread, like the flat, griddled version my grandfather taught us to use for sopping up precious pot likker.
But in no other form is corn more beloved in this region than creamed. It is most often served with a spread of deeply flavorful vegetables, maybe a roast or a ham, and a skillet biscuit or two with home-canned jam and cane syrup for dessert.
Every year, I read a few new recipes for creamed corn, and each time, my blood boils a little. Some are quite good (Gourmet’s Creamed Corn or Creamed Corn with Basil come to mind), but none represent authentic creamed corn the way I’ve come to understand it. The moment I see an ingredient list calling for cream, milk, or a five-minute cooking time, I wonder why my family’s arguably purist method doesn’t get more attention.
The version of creamed corn I grew up eating—favored by cooks in Alabama, Georgia, and the Florida panhandle—was born both of frugality and ingenuity; the technique was a way of coaxing every bit of goodness out of a few humble ingredients. Cream was a luxury far too valuable to be tossed with abandon into a dish that would cream itself if only given the time. With a little patience, stirring, and a steady addition of water, corn kernels will break down to a milky consistency and then thicken into a chunky purée that is both luscious and simple.
No later than a couple of days after harvest, scrape the kernels from several ears of corn (early field corn will cream the most willingly, but any traditional sweet variety like Silver Queen or Jubilee will also work well) into a bowl. The scraping is essential; without sufficient corn starch in the mix, you’ll end up with slush. Shave only the very tip of the kernels off with a sharp knife; then, using the dull side, scrape as much of the pulp and milk from the cob as you can. (You can also use a stainless steel corn-cutting tool.)
Transfer the corn and its juices to a large, heavy saucepan with a pinch of salt, and pour in enough water to cover by about an inch. Bring the mixture to a simmer over medium-high heat, stirring constantly, until it begins thickening. As the corn absorbs water and starts to swell, add spoonfuls of hot water, a little bit at a time, until the corn no longer absorbs water and reaches a thick, risotto-like consistency. Then cover, reduce heat to low, and cook at a bare simmer for 10-15 minutes. Stir in a little butter if you like, but do NOT add cream.