Miso Grilled Corn
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Ahhh, grilled corn. It’s kind of everywhere these days, isn’t it? Of course anybody who grew up (or spent time in) parts of Asia or Central/South America knows that it’s been popular there for a very long time, often as a roadside snack. It’s ridiculously easy to make, and because it’s grilled outdoors it doesn’t heat up the house (both biiiiiiig pluses in my books). But I think one thing that’s really launched grilled corn into the mainstream is the fact that you can flavour it in so many ways. This has endeared grilled corn to plenty of people, thanks in no small part to the fact that starchy (i.e. not sweet) corn is particularly common in a lot of the world, and it kind of begs for a bit of added flavour. But that doesn’t mean that good, fresh, sweet corn can’t benefit from being dressed up and grilled, but the key is balance. Sure you want to add and accentuate flavours, but you also want to let the great taste of the corn speak for itself. In order to achieve that, I decided to turn to the Japanese palate.
The corn commonly grown in Japan definitely falls into that starchy category, so the average North American cookout technique (boiled and buttered) doesn’t really do it any favours. It’s often flavoured with soy sauce and mirin, bringing salt and sweetness to bear on the relatively bland kernels. In fact, as the very talented Chef Marc Matsumoto (of the awesome cooking site NoRecipes.com) points out in his miso butter corn recipe, you pretty much have to douse Japanese corn with some kind of sauce in order to make it even remotely palatable. But the sweet corn grown here (in Canada and the USA) for summer consumption is just SO good as-is that it doesn’t need a whole lot to make it spectacular. It’s also (as the name suggests) rather sweet, so I really wanted to compliment it with rich, salty, and savoury flavours. Miso is a wonderful, nigh-magical ingredient that adds a one-two punch of salt and umami, along with its own distinctive and endearing flavours. I used aka (red) miso for this corn, but you could use any number of good miso varieties to play with the flavours a little here. There’s also some ginger and mirin in all that butter, and you get to top it off (should you choose) with spicy shichimi togarashi. It kind of hits every flavour note, and I’m totally in love with it. But my secret ingredient (can you call it that when you publish it for everyone to see?) is a really cool Japanese ingredient called shio koji. There’s a decent chance you’ve never seen it for sale unless you frequently haunt a Japanese grocery store, but let me tell you now, it’s one of those life-changing ingredients.
Shio koji is quite simple. It’s simply alcohol, salt (shio means salt), and rice koji. What is rice koji? I’m glad you asked, imaginary conversation partner! Rice koji is cooked rice that’s been treated with the same species of mold (Aspergillus oryzae) used to ferment miso, soy sauce, rice vinegar, sake, and more. The really cool thing about it is that it contributes salt and umami in a way that allows you to actually use LESS salt in your food. Basically, it tastes saltier than it is, so you can use less salt in a recipe overall. Check out the Recipe Notes below for a bit more information about it.
I love this corn alongside grilled Japanese food, which probably shouldn’t come as any surprise. As you can see from the images below, it’s great with grilled chicken meatballs (aka tsukune, which admittedly are not ball-shaped in this case). It’s also an awesome side to go along with bacon-wrapped shimeji mushroom kushiyaki. But even if you’re not cooking Japanese food, this is a simple, delicious way to put a savoury twist on corn on the cob.
There are lots of different ways to grill corn, varying in terms of both methodology and complexity. I went with a very simple technique that yields a great end result. There’s no pre-boiling, and no wrapping in foil; instead, you simply lay some foil on the grill and cook the corn on top of it. When it’s nearly done, it gets brushed all over with the miso butter mixture. The only downside of this method is that a fair bit of the butter melts onto the foil, but plenty of it stays put to flavour the corn. You can brush the melted butter from the foil back onto the corn (or pour it off of the foil and spoon it over when you’re done), but you don’t need to worry too much about it in the end – there’s plenty of incredible flavour melting into the cobs even if you let some of the butter melt off. I will say this though: keep a close eye on the corn and a big glass of water beside the grill. I tore the foil when I was taking the cobs off of the barbecue and the puddled butter went up in flames. It was easy to put out, but keep it in the back of your mind so you don’t accidentally immolate your corn.
As I mentioned above, shio koji is a really great ingredient that can add both salt and umami (savoury) character to any number of dishes. It can be found in well-stocked Japanese grocery stores, generally alongside miso in the refrigerated section. If you can’t find shio koji, add an extra tablespoon of miso in its place. If you’re a big DIY fermentation fan (yay!) you can actually make your own shio koji too. Here’s a great recipe and explanation from Just One Cookbook. Koji culture can be found online.
Miso is something I’m pretty passionate about, which is why I put together this uber-detailed guide. Whether you’re brand new to using miso, or looking to explore it in more detail, you’ll find a lot to work with there. I use aka (red) miso for this and I love the character it brings, but you could use a great shiro (white) miso for a milder/sweeter taste. White miso would also do a great job of improving the character of somewhat blander corn, so keep that in mind if you end up with a less-than-stellar batch.
I’ve added just a little extra sweetness in the form of mirin, but there are some tweaks you can make if you end up with sub-par sweet corn. You can double the mirin or add a tablespoon of honey or white sugar to the mixture in the even that your corn is on the blander/starchier side.
Garlic, while not particularly common in Japanese cooking, would make another great addition to this butter mixture, either alongside the ginger or in place of it.
If you like the idea of Japanese grilled corn but you don’t eat dairy, you can always baste the corn with an awesome tare sauce instead of miso butter. Tare (pronounced TAH-ray) is the sauce that gives teriyaki cooking its distinctive salty-sweet flavour. My own tare sauce is simple to make but very flavourful, and you can find it along with my chicken tsukune and bacon-wrapped mushroom kushiyaki recipes.
Information is given for a single ear of corn, and assumes that about 3/4 of your butter stays on the corn (the rest tends to end up on the foil on the grill).
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Corn on the cob get's the a delicious savoury-salty Japanese upgrade thanks to rich miso-butter, ginger, and an amazing, adaptable secret ingredient.
- 6 ears sweet corn
- 1/2 cup unsalted butter (115 g) well softened
- 1 tbsp aka (red) miso
- 1 tsp shio koji (see note)
- 2 tsp ginger (10 g) minced
- 2 tsp mirin (or sugar)
- shichimi togarashi to garnish (optional)
Thoroughly combine the butter, miso, shio koji, ginger, and mirin in a bowl and set aside. If it's sunny outside, let it sit beside the barbecue while you work, as it will melt a little bit and be easier to work with. Alternately, you could microwave it briefly or leave it (in a heat-proof bowl) on the barbecue lid for a minute before using.
Shuck the corn and remove as much silk as you can from the cobs.
Preheat an outdoor grill over medium-high heat. If your grill has a temperature gauge, you want it to be around 350 F.
Lay down a sheet of aluminum foil across the grill and place the corn on top of it. Cook for 8 minutes, turning occasionally to cook the corn evenly. If you find the corn is scorching too much, drop the temperature a little and keep the lid open for a bit.
Spoon about half of the softened butter over the individual ears of corn and grill, covered, for an additional 2 minutes. Turn the corn over and spoon the remaining butter over the ears, then cook for an additional 1-2 minutes.
Remove from heat and serve. Garnish with a little shichimi togarashi if you're looking for a bit of a spicy kick.
Shio koji is generally available from well-stocked Japanese grocery stores, usually in the refrigerated section. If you can't find it, you can use double the miso, or use a mix of red and white miso. The taste won't be exactly the same, but it will still work well.