How and When to Pick Sweet Corn

Harvest and enjoy as quickly as possible!

hand in cornfield grabs ear of corn from stalk

Treehugger / Christian Yonkers

It's easy enough to determine whether a tomato or strawberry is ripe, based on its appearance and texture. But how do you know when it's the right time to pick an ear of organic sweet corn on your small hobby farm or in your vegetable garden?

How to Identify a Ripe Ear of Corn

farmer inspects corn in a large cornfield
Treehugger / Christian Yonkers

While the corn in a supermarket is usually of a consistent size, that's not the case for corn grown at home. Even a small ear may be ready for harvest. To determine whether it's time to pick your sweet corn by mid or late summer, follow these steps.

hands inspect corn seed packet
Treehugger / Christian Yonkers 
  • First, make sure you're aware of the number of days until harvest for your particular variety of corn. Check the seed package or check with your seed supplier to find out. Another guideline is 20 days from when the first tassels appear at the end of the ear of corn.
  • When you look at an ear of corn in the garden, you will see tassels at the end of the ear. These tassels, which include the cornsilk, are the part of the plant that both bears and receives the pollen. When corn is ready to harvest, the cornsilk turns from a light blond color to a dark brown. When the cornsilk is dark brown all the way down to the husk, you can assume that the corn is ready to eat.
  • To double-check the ripeness of the corn, pull back the husk a little bit and take a peek at the kernels. Make sure the kernels are filled all the way from the base of the ear of corn to the very tip of the plant. Rub your thumbnail along the kernels. They should feel tender and squirt a bit of cloudy milk out as you push your nail against them. If the liquid is clear, it's not ripe yet.
  • Hearty corn will have firm, dark green husks. The silk will be dark but held tightly against the ear. You will be able to feel individual kernels through the husk.
  • Keep in mind that a stalk of corn will put out several cobs, and the ripest ones will always be at the top. Start there when selecting cobs to harvest. And if those ones aren't ready, none of them are.

How to Pick the Corn

farmer smiles while grabbing corn
Treehugger / Christian Yonkers 

To pick corn properly, grab the ear firmly, placing your thumb toward the top of the ear and your middle finger closer to the base of the ear. Snap the ear against the stalk and pull upward. That's it! Now your corn is ready to cook and eat.

If you are selling your own home-grown corn at a farm stand, soak the picked corn in lukewarm water until you sell it or use it. Soaking the corn will help keep it fresher.

How to Cook Fresh Corn

shuckin corn over boiing pot
Treehugger / Christian Yonkers

Cook freshly picked corn as soon as possible because, once picked, the sugar in the kernels begins to turn to starch. Within the first 24 hours, corn loses 25% of its sugar to starch. The freshest corn always tastes the best!

boiling corn in pot
Treehugger / Christian Yonkers

Boiling is the simplest and most popular way to cook fresh corn on the cob.

  • Choose a pot large enough to hold the amount of corn you're cooking, plus enough water to fully cover the ears.
  • Get the water boiling before you pick and husk your corn so that it will be as fresh as possible.
  • Pull off the husk and silk. (Apparently it's much easier to do this job if you use a microwave.) Drop the husked corn into the boiling water.
  • When the water returns to a boil, remove the corn and it's done.
  • Eat it however you wish, but it's delicious slathered in butter and sprinkled generously with salt.

You can also grill or bake fresh corn. To do this:

  • Remove the husk or leave it on. If you choose to leave the husk on the corn, soak it in water to prevent burning.
  • If you remove the husk, rub softened butter on the corn kernels before baking or grilling.
  • Grill your corn or bake it at 375 F for 20 to 25 minutes in a baking pan or directly on the oven rack.
  • You can eat the corn right off the cob, or slice off the cooked kernels with a knife to use in recipes, such as salads, soups, or pasta dishes. The cooked kernels can also be frozen for future use—perhaps a delicious taste of summer on a wintry night.
Frequently Asked Questions
  • Does picking a cob encourage growth?

    No. It has no effect on the stalk's growth or output of future cobs. You'd have to keep planting new stalks to maintain a steady harvest.

  • Does corn ripen after it's picked?

    No. If you pick an unripe cob of corn, it will not improve with time, nor will it taste good.

View Article Sources
  1. Sweet Corn.” Louisiana State University Agriculture Center.

  2. Kapu Nuwan U. Sella, et al. Changes in Growth and Cell Wall Extensibility of Maize Silks Following Pollination. J Exp Bot. vol. 61, 2010, pp. 4097-107., doi:10.1093/jxb/erq225