Corn smut is a plant disease caused by the fungus Ustilago maydis. In like Mexico, where it is called cuitlacoche or huitlacoche, corn smut is consumed regularly and considered a delicacy. It began to make its way into the US, where it’s often called Mexican truffle or maize mushrooms.
Although technically a vegetable, its raw texture and flavor are comparable to a mushroom; foraging for this fungus is gaining popularity.
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What is cuitlacoche or corn smut?
Corn smut is the unofficial term farmers give the fungus, while cuitlacoche is the Mexican name. Huitlacoche is the Aztec word where it originates.
All three terms refer to the fungal disease which attacks corn crops. It can affect all parts of the plant growing above ground.
The first signs of a corn smut infection are tumor-like galls, or swells, forming on the part of the plant, most typically the ears of corn. They are greenish-white and spongy in appearance.
As they mature, they turn brown and fill with spores. While not lethal, they eventually rupture, releasing the spores and infecting more plants.
Corn smut is most prominent in warm weather, and spores can survive through the winter in the soil or corn litter, infecting the following year‘s crops.
There is no treatment for corn smut. Spread can be reduced by removing the galls as soon as they form and making sure each fall to clear the corn litter.
There are also varieties of corn that are more resistant to the disease.
Yet while farmers detest corn smut, others seek it out to create delicious dishes.
Can you eat corn fungus?
Yes, you can eat corn fungus (corn smut), and some cultures have been doing it for thousands of years.
Consuming this fungus originated in Central America with the Aztecs, whose main staple was corn, or maize. Rather than wasting precious crops, they figured out these seemingly ruined ears of corn had culinary value.
Native American tribes in the southwest have utilized the fungus in food, such as the Hopi and Zuni.
These days cuitlacoche is synonymous with Mexican culture and food.
Some people in Mexico forage for cuitlacoche in local corn fields during the rainy season, when conditions are perfect for the fungus to grow.
When cuitlacoche is cooked, the liquid inside is released, creating a dark, tar-like substance known by locals as “black gold,” both for its color and the price it fetches at the market.
In the United States, cuitlacoche is starting to become recognized. Some farmers are now growing it, as it earns a higher per-pound price than sweet corn or other edible mushrooms.
Restaurants such as the Rosa Mexicano chain are introducing this earthy vegetable In their dishes, helping it gain popularity in the United States.
Is corn smut toxic in any way?
No, it is not toxic to either humans or livestock. However, be careful to ensure the fungus is corn smut and not another type of fungus.
What does huitlacoche taste like?
Huitlacoche has an earthy flavor, much like mushrooms. It has a bitter tinge with a slightly metallic taste but with a sweet corn aftertaste.
The flavor is strong, and like most unique foods, it can take some getting used to.
Some people report not liking it at first but then developing a taste for it after time, much like cilantro.
How do you eat huitlacoche?
Huitlacoche has been popular in Mexican and Native American dishes for centuries. It is high in protein and lysine, an essential amino acid. It can be consumed raw or cooked.
If using it raw, think of it as a mushroom and toss it in whole, or use your hands to tear it into smaller pieces carefully.
Cooking with huitlacoche has endless possibilities. It can be substituted for meat in vegetarian dishes but also complements chicken, beef, cheese, and other vegetables. It can be added to salads, soups, quesadillas, enchiladas, sauces, tacos, tamales, and poblanos.
You can purée or sautee it with onions and chiles until it becomes a thick, black pulp that can be spread on a tortilla or crepes or used as a sauce for enchiladas, steak, or ravioli.
Experimental chefs are even adding huitlacoche to dishes like mac and cheese and desserts such as ice cream and flan.
How do you harvest cuitlacoche?
It can be challenging to find cuitlacoche growing naturally, as most corn in the United States is grown on large plots of land and sprayed with chemicals.
Your best bet is organic farms or growing your corn. If you are fortunate enough to live where sweet corn is grown without sprays and pesticides, the rainy season is the best time to forage for corn smut.
Corn smut is more likely to grow in areas where the natural cycle of the corn has been disturbed, such as by weather or predators.
Look on the edges of the field where deer tend to nibble or for areas damaged by floods, hail, or other severe storms.
Also, check for insects and grubs, as they will burrow into the ears of corn. Holes in the husk often signal they’ve beaten you to it.
If you find corn smut growing, look for ears of corn dry to the touch. The galls should be gray in color, plump, and firm to the touch instead of mushy.
Pull the husk down and check the lower kernels if galls at the top look overripe.
How to store corn smut?
Once you remove the galls from the plant, wrap them in the newspaper, and put them in the fridge for 2-3 days to store.
Cuitlacoche should be processed within that time frame, either by cooking into a dish or preserving through freezing, dehydrating, or canning.
Freezing corn smut is the fastest and easiest way to keep it for future use. Put the kernels in a sealed bag, and store them in the freezer.
You can use them frozen or thaw them first.
Can you grow huitlacoche?
Huitlacoche is typically foraged as it occurs naturally, but it can be grown by artificially inoculating the plant.
Before pollination, use previously harvested huitlacoche spores and mix with water, then soak the corn silks in the mixture.
Water and fertilize for optimum growth.
Galls will form within two weeks if inoculation was successful.
If you can’t find fresh huitlacoche, it can be bought at Mexican food specialty stores or even online on sites such as Amazon.
It may be sold in a jar, can dried, or frozen. It isn’t nearly as good as freshly foraged, but it will do if it’s the only option.