THEY KNOW SOMETHING ABOUT COOKING CORN IN MEXICO
Along with hot dogs and burgers, nothing says “all-American summer” quite like corn on the cob. It’s served at everything from fried chicken dinners to clambakes. Given how much we love corn on the cob, it’s surprising that the rest of the world isn’t on board. In much of Europe, fresh corn is something you feed farm animals, not people.
But Americans aren’t totally alone in our fondness for corn on the cob. One of Mexico’s most popular street foods is elote asado: corn on the cob grilled until it’s intensely sweet, smoky, and charred, and then slathered with a cheesy sauce spiked with lime juice and chili powder.
If you’re accustomed to boiling and buttering corn on the cob, Mexican street corn (as it is sometimes called) will be a revelation. Today’s supersweet corn can seem like dessert. But on the grill those sugars brown and become more complex-tasting and the smoke balances out the sweetness. As you might expect, for maximum char the corn is stripped of its husks before grilling.
What happens after the ears come off the grill makes Mexican street corn even more appealing. A creamy, zesty sauce coats the kernels and restores some of the moisture lost during grilling. Best of all, that tangy sauce is the “glue” for the piquant cheese sprinkled over the ears. (Think of the cheese as taking the place of the salt Americans use at the table.) This is one messy dish to eat—invest in corn cob holders or be prepared to lick those fingers—but what a way to celebrate summer.
WHY THIS RECIPE WORKS
Lose the Husks
The goal with Mexican street corn is a cob with smoky, just charred kernels, so we remove the husks and oil the cooking grate well to prevent sticking. We oil the corn too, which also guards against excessive drying. To punch up its flavor, the oil is seasoned with chili powder and salt. We often pretoast spices like chili powder to deepen, or bloom, their flavors. No toasting is necessary here, as the chili powder will bloom right on the grill.
Concentrate the Fire
Grilling corn without the husk does put it at risk of drying out—sometimes well before the kernels char. The solution? Build a half fire, where all the coals in a full chimney are arranged over half the grill. This hotter side provides intense heat that will quickly char, but not dessicate, the corn. If you have a gas grill, simply turn all the burners to high and cook the corn with the lid down—you’ll achieve the same results.
The tangy sauce is paramount to this style of corn. Authentic recipes typically call for crema (soured Mexican cream) as the base, while some recipes call for easier-to-find mayonnaise. Mayonnaise adds an appealing richness but for the hallmark tang, we cut some of the mayo with regular sour cream. American sour cream is thicker than crema, which is a bonus because it helps create a sauce that clings more readily to the corn.
A Cheesy, Well-Seasoned Finish
Cheese is another important and flavorful component to the corn’s coating. While you might be able to find the traditional queso fresco (a fresh, mild cheese) or Cotija (a drier, saltier more pungent aged cheese) in some markets, you can also substitute dry, tangy (and readily available) Pecorino Romano. Further season the sauce with cilantro, lime juice, and garlic, along with a little chili powder for lip-smacking heat.
Brush the corn with chili oil before grilling and toss with a creamy, cheesy sauce before serving.
Mexican-Style Grilled Corn
- 10 minutes to husk and silk corn (light grill before starting)
- 10 minutes to prepare cheese mixture
- 10 minutes to oil and grill corn
- 1 minute to toss grilled corn with cheese mixture
- Grill brush and paper towels to ensure grill grate is clean and oiled
- Long-handled grill tongs for oiling grate and turning corn
- Sturdy rubber spatula for tossing grilled corn with cheese mixture
Substitutions & Variations
The recipe is traditionally made with crumbled queso fresco (a mild fresh cheese) or Cotija (a drier, saltier, more pungent aged cheese). If you can find either cheese, feel free to use it in place of the pecorino Romano. Finely crumbled feta is another decent substitute.
If you prefer the corn spicy, add the optional cayenne pepper.
- 1½ ounces Pecorino Romano cheese, grated (¾ cup)
- ¼ cup mayonnaise
- 3 tablespoons sour cream
- 3 tablespoons minced fresh cilantro
- 4 teaspoons lime juice
- 1 garlic clove, minced
- ¾ teaspoon chili powder
- ¼ teaspoon pepper
- ¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper (optional)
- 4 teaspoons vegetable oil
- ¼ teaspoon salt
- 6 ears corn, husks and silk removed
- For a Charcoal Grill : Open bottom vent completely. Light large chimney starter filled with charcoal briquettes (6 quarts). When top coals are partially covered with ash, pour evenly over half of grill. Set cooking grate in place, cover, and open lid vent completely. Heat grill until hot, about 5 minutes.
- For a Gas Grill : Turn all burners to high, cover, and heat grill until hot, about 15 minutes.
- Meanwhile, combine Pecorino, mayonnaise, sour cream, cilantro, lime juice, garlic, ¼ teaspoon chili powder, pepper, and cayenne, if using, in large bowl and set aside. In second large bowl, combine oil, salt, and remaining ½ teaspoon chili powder. Add corn to oil mixture and toss to coat evenly.
- Clean and oil cooking grate. Place corn on grill (hotter side if using charcoal) and cook (covered if using gas) until lightly charred on all sides, 7 to 12 minutes, turning as needed. Place corn in bowl with cheese mixture, toss to coat evenly, and serve.
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