Gross-looking corn smut a traditional Mexican culinary treat | TribLIVE.com
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Gross-looking corn smut a traditional Mexican culinary treat

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Jessica Walliser
This ear of corn has been infected with the corn smut fungus. This edible fungi is a darling of Mexican cuisine.

We always grow a nice big patch of sweet corn in our backyard, but this year some of the ears have some kind of growth on them. Our neighbor said it was smut, which is a type of fungus apparently. The growths are gray and deformed. They look really gross. What can we do to keep this fungus out of our corn patch in future years?

The growths you describe are indeed most likely to be formed by a fungus known as corn smut.

While corn smut may not be the most appetizing-looking fungus out there, in many cuisines, it’s a true delicacy. Rather than trying to fight this fungus in future years, you may want to try cooking it up instead.

The corn smut fungus (Ustilago zeae or U. maydis) infects corn plants early in the season via damaged plant tissue. As the fungus matures, it goes on to form the bluish-gray, swollen galls you describe as “growths.”

It’s a surprisingly common fungus where corn is grown, and like other fungal organisms, it thrives during wet years. That may help explain why you’re seeing so much of it this season; our wet spring and early summer led to many fungal issues in the garden.

These fungal galls can occur on the leaves, silks and tassels of the plant, but they’re most highly prized as edible fungi when they’re found on the ears themselves. The organism causes the corn’s kernels to swell and discolor. Connoisseurs of the corn smut fungus recognize its distinctive appearance immediately.

Known in Mexico as huitlacoche, this fungus is sold fresh, canned or dried. The flavor is often described as earthy or smoky. In fact, many farmers south of the border intentionally inoculate their corn fields with corn smut spores because they can get a far higher price for infected ears than they can for the corn itself.

The corn plants are sometimes infected with the fungus by intentionally wounding the plant and brushing the wound with the spores, or by injecting a spore-infused liquid into the immature cob.

Culinary darling

Huitalocoche is used in many traditional Mexican dishes and is sometimes called the Mexican corn truffle. It’s also becoming a darling of a handful of U.S. chefs looking for something unique to add to their menu.

Here in the U.S., most farmers consider corn smut to be a pest that affects sweet corn yields. When they see it, most farmers remove and destroy the infected cobs before the spores can spread, but those “in the know” may sell it to local chefs or dine on it themselves.

If you want to enjoy the corn smut growing on your homegrown corn, pick it when it starts to soften, but before the skin opens and the spores emerge. It should feel kind of spongy when it’s ready for harvest.

Cook corn smut within a day or two of harvest, and if you must store it, keep the entire infected cob in a paper bag in the fridge, but for only a few days. To eat this fungus, pull the galls off the cob and cook them like mushrooms.

Try adding them to omelets, tacos, quesadillas and even your favorite mac and cheese recipe. You might be surprised to find a new favorite!

Horticulturist Jessica Walliser co-hosts “The Organic Gardeners” at 7 a.m. Sundays on KDKA Radio with Doug Oster. She is the author of several gardening books, including “Attracting Beneficial Bugs to Your Garden,” “Good Bug, Bad Bug,” and her newest title, “Container Gardening Complete.” Her website is jessicawalliser.com. Send your gardening or landscaping questions to [email protected] or The Good Earth, 622 Cabin Hill Drive, Greensburg, PA 15601.

Categories: Lifestyles | Home Garden
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