Robust corn flavor
Light, fluffy interiors
Ask a Northerner about corn fritters and you’re sure to get, well, an earful: They’ll describe crispy-on-the-outside, tender-on-the-inside dumplings dotted with fresh corn, deep-fried in a pot of oil, drizzled with honey or maple syrup, and served as a sweet treat. Southerners, on the other hand, will talk about fritters formed into patties and skillet-fried in a modest amount of oil. These contain cheese, herbs, and/or chiles and, accompanied by a dollop of creamy sauce, are served as a side dish or appetizer. As a Yankee, I have an affinity for the drenched-in-maple-syrup variety, but for this recipe I decided to focus my energies on the southern type.
To start, I dove into the world of southern corn fritters, researching dozens of recipes before settling on a handful to try in the test kitchen. The results ranged from fragile, barely there patties made with only whipped egg whites and fresh corn kernels to thick, stodgy disks in which corn seemed to be an afterthought. Versions with too many extra ingredients lost their corn soul, whereas those with too few were boring and bland. I wanted just enough batter to hold a patty shape and form a crispy exterior and a tender interior popping with sweet and savory corn flavor.
The first order of business was to order a bushel of corn and get to work on creating a batter that would give me a structurally sound fritter. I began by whisking together an ultrasimple mixture of just 2 tablespoons of flour, a beaten egg, baking powder, the kernels from two ears of corn, and some salt and pepper. The first thing I noticed was that the liquid-y batter just barely coated the corn kernels. I forged ahead, gently frying 2-tablespoon portions in ½ cup of vegetable oil—just enough to cover the bottom of a 12-inch skillet—until all the nooks and crannies of the fritters were evenly golden brown.
The result? Bland, cakey disks featuring one smooth side and a flip side pebbled with overcooked kernels. The thin batter spread too much in the skillet, settling into a uniform crust on the bottom of the fritter and leaving all the kernels exposed to the heat when I flipped it. Without any insulating batter, the bare kernels overbrowned and turned tough and chewy.
For the next go-round, I ditched the leavener since it was contributing to the unwelcome cakey texture. I also bumped up the amount of flour to ⅓ cup, hoping that more would thicken the batter enough to support the kernels and keep them suspended. It worked, but the extra gluten made the fritters slightly tough. To the next batch I added cornmeal; alas, it only made the fritters cornbread-esque.
Then I got a better idea: How about creating a fresh corn puree that might thicken the batter without making the fritters cakey or heavy? I stripped the kernels from two cobs and blitzed them in the food processor into a chunky, starchy puree. I then stirred the puree together with just ¼ cup of flour, an egg, salt, and pepper. Finally, I folded in the kernels from two more ears of corn. Sure enough, this lightly thickened batter fully enrobed the corn, keeping the kernels suspended in the finished fritter. What’s more, pureeing some of the kernels liberated their flavor, boosting the patties’ overall corniness. The downside was that processing the kernels had freed so much of their milky liquid that the fritters were somewhat wet and custardy. To correct that problem, I tried cutting back on the amount of corn puree I was adding, but that resulted in less fresh corn flavor.
Our initial tests taught us that a proper balance of corn, batter, and flavorings was key.
For my next attempt, I cooked the pulp in a skillet to rid it of moisture and lightly brown it, which helped develop complexity. With this concentrated puree, the fritters had soft and tender—not gooey and wet—interiors.
Lightly browning the corn puree had worked so well that I wondered if I should briefly sauté the whole kernels I was adding as well. It would be easy to do right before cooking the puree. Sure enough, this simple step gave the kernels a less sweet, more roasty profile.
I wondered if I could do even more to balance the corn’s sweetness, so I evaluated potential seasonings. I didn’t want to add much, as simple corn goodness was my goal. I found that a couple of tablespoons of grated Parmesan brought just the right salty-umami counterpoint. I also settled on a pinch of cayenne for depth and some minced chives for color and earthy grassiness.
The only aspect of my fritters that I still wasn’t crazy about was their exteriors, which tended toward limp rather than crispy. I knew that adding more flour would only toughen the fritters. Coating them with panko bread crumbs crisped up their exteriors—so much that the coating distracted from the tender kernels. Frying the fritters over higher heat or for a longer period only burned them in spots. I even played with taking the “fry” out of the fritters (the word “fritter” is derived from the French word for frying, friture) by cutting way back on the oil, but that rendered them dry and unevenly cooked.
Finally, a colleague wondered if cornstarch might help. After a series of tests, I settled on stirring 1 tablespoon into the batter. This delivered fritters with a delicate crunch at their lacy edges.
For Crispier Fritters, Try a Little Cornstarch
When our flour-based fritters turned out limp, we solved the problem by adding cornstarch: Its microscopic starch granules hydrate and swell into strand-like shapes in the batter and then swell up further when the batter hits the hot oil. As moisture evaporates during frying, the swollen starch granules lock into place, forming a brittle network with lots of holes. The upshot? Lacier, crispier fritters.
My testing came to a close after I’d created a couple of complementary sauces for my fritters, one of which included a little maple syrup in a nod to their northern cousins. While these tasty corn patties may not be my first fritter love, they’ve certainly earned a prominent place in my heart.