Food & Drink

Southern Classic: Sour Corn

Makes about 8 cups, or 4 pint jars

If you like sauerkraut, chances are you’ll like sour corn

Photo: Margaret Houston

If you like sauerkraut, chances are you’ll like sour corn.

Although the very notion of sour corn might unsettle some people, the old-fashioned side dish and condiment is nothing more than sweet corn fermented like the chopped cabbage strewn over hot dogs. It has a long history below the Mason-Dixon line, too. Often put up with beans and warmed in sputtering puddles of bacon fat during the winter, sour corn in fact predates the homesteaders who brought sauerkraut to the region centuries ago. Cherokee cooks still serve a soured corn drink to respected visitors and wedding guests, but most modern fermentationists have abandoned the old leave-it-out-and-let-it-happen method in favor of an imported but more reliable technique: lacto-fermentation in a saltwater brine.

“It’s an interesting blending of traditions,” says April McGreger of Hillsborough, North Carolina, whose Farmer’s Daughter pickles and preserves line grocery store shelves across the state. “Europeans seem to have brought over the tradition of brining, but the corn is from here.” She ferments corn by itself and as part of a spicy relish, with chopped onion and peppers. Not only will soured corn last in the refrigerator through the winter, but it also has a bright, salty flavor that makes it as distinct from fresh corn as kraut from cabbage. Use it as a condiment straight from the jar or crisp it up the traditional way, in a cast-iron skillet.


(Yes, fermentation can be intimidating. But if you’re dwelling on worst-case scenarios, consider a favorite talking point of sauerkraut champion Sandor Katz: The USDA has never recorded a case of food poisoning from properly fermented vegetables.)


    • 1 dozen ears sweet corn

    • 1 quart spring water

    • 2 1/2 tbsp. pickling salt

    • Optional spices: Black peppercorns, coriander seeds, chiles


  1. Remove the kernels from the cobs and reserve them in a bowl. Discard cobs.

  2. Combine salt and spring water and mix until salt is dissolved. (It is important that you do not use tap water, which often contains chemicals that can prevent fermentation. Spring water is available in gallon jugs at most grocery stores.)

  3. Add the kernels to a large glass jar or ceramic crock and pour the brine over the top, along with any spices. Keep the corn below the level of the brine using a plate, a smaller jar, or another weight, and check it often over the next 5-7 days. If a white film begins to form across the top of the brine, skim it off. It is a type of yeast that is not dangerous, but can change the flavor and texture of the corn.

  4. When you are happy with the flavor, remove it to clean glass jars and store it in the refrigerator for up to six months, taking care to keep the kernels submerged in the brine.

Adapted from April McGreger of Farmer’s Daughter in Hillsborough, North Carolina