For many years we have dehydrated sweet corn to store over the winter season. Recently I ran across a mention of making chicos which prompted some thoughtful exploration into the traditional ways of preserving green or immature corn. There were some similarities to the native ways and what we had worked out, but the differences were more a matter of adapting to varietal and climatic peculiarities. What follows are my conclusions based on comparisons with chicos, a Mexican tradition, and the Hidatsa and Arikara techniques as explained in “Buffalo Bird Woman’s Garden”.
First off, modern sweet corn varieties are not like the traditional corns. Green or immature corn could be of any type including flour or flint corns. Sweet corn, if they had it at all, would be more like the old fashioned open-pollinated varieties that are difficult to find today. Modern hybrid sweet corns (super sweet, sugary enhanced, etc.) are too sweet and their kernels are too small to work well with the traditional methods. We find them unsatisfactory even using our more modern methods and dislike them even when cooked up fresh. However, we don’t particularly like flour or flint corns in their green stage either as they aren’t “sweet” at all. For us, we prefer the old fashioned varieties, but to each his own taste.
Here’s how the methods compare. Chicos are made by roasting ears in their husks. The husks are well wetted and the ears are piled into a hot masonry oven, the door sealed up until the next day when it’s opened and the contents are removed. The corn is prepared for drying by pulling back the husks and braiding or stringing the ears, which are then hung from the rafter or eaves, the same method as used for “ristras” of hot peppers. The corn stays on the cob until dry and is shelled off as needed.
The methods of the Plains Indians of the Dakotas differed slightly from each other. The Hidatsa picked their corn late in the day and piled it unhusked. The next morning, water was set to boil on a fire, the corn was husked and blanched in the kettle, after which it was placed still on its cob upon a drying stage, an elevated platform exposed to sun and weather. This process took all day to accomplish and the ears were left on the stage for about another day. Then the cobs would be shelled by hand or with the aid of a tool such as a shell. The kernels were spread out on hides on the drying stage and left there until fully dry, about a week or so. The Arikara method differed in that the corn was roasted in its husks in an open fire, then the process proceeded much as the Hidatsa way.
In our method, we pick the corn late in the day, husk and steam blanch it in the evening. The cobs are spread out on our counter-tops overnight. In the morning we use a knife to slice off the kernels, which are then spread into our solar food dryer. Dehydration takes a couple of days. This method most resembles the Hidatsa way except that it takes advantage of modern equipment while still using the sun to do the drying, although protected from direct sun exposure and weather.
I decided to experiment to see if drying kernels on the cob was feasible. The experiments, undertaken in the extreme heat of this summer, had about the best drying weather our solar food dryer could ever encounter. “Normal” summer weather patterns might be even less successful, but I did find that it was possible to dry the corn on the cob using ears of traditional sweet corn with 8 rows of kernels on slender cobs. Fatter cobs dried so slowly that they would probably spoil before finishing. Getting the kernels off the cobs was somewhat problematic. Sweet corn kernels shrivel when dry making them harder to shell than Native field corns. Modern sweet corns have such tiny kernels that this would be an even more difficult task. Completely dry kernels would most likely be a bit easier to shell, but we ended up removing the kernels before that stage to eliminate the wet cobs in order to speed up the drying process. Either way, you end up with whole kernels versus the pieces that occur when they are cut from the cob before drying. If you want whole kernels, this is the way to get them. But be aware that whole kernels take much longer to dry completely than cut kernels due to their cuticle sealing the entire surface, which traps moisture within. A side benefit to drying whole kernels was that the dryer screens were a snap to clean up as there was no sticky corn residue to scrub off. We didn’t experiment with roasting ears in their husks, but according to Buffalo Bird Woman this method results in a drier kernel to start with, so perhaps more success can be achieved if roasting replaces steamed or boiled blanching.
My conclusions are that each method fits well given their place and resources. Mexican chicos dry well on their cobs with no assistance because of the arid climate. The Hidatsa and Arikara were more challenged in the Dakotas in terms of humidity, but were able to work around the weather conditions by removing the cobs and being vigilant about protecting the drying food from rains. Our solar food dryer gives us protection from the weather and accelerates the drying process. Changing the blanching method to roasting may make sense if you are already firing an outdoor oven or a campfire for other purposes, especially if firewood fuel is readily available. For us, steam blanching on an electric hot plate with power supplied by our solar system works well at the time of year when corn is being processed. Given slender, 8 row ears of traditional corn, leaving them on the cob to dry would depend on really good drying weather conditions (at least 2 consecutive days of full sun). Removing kernels from the cob, either before, after partial or full drying, takes time and there did not seem to be a time/labor advantage to any of the methods. The ways you choose may come down to a judgment call and personal preferences on the finished product. I hope these explorations will help in finding what works well for your household.