Steaming Corn with a Steam Traction Engine

By Pete LaBelle
July/August 2000
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Can you steam corn on the cob? Yes you can! And you may want to, because you can use your steam engine to do so!

Steam tractors were originally built for vigorous work in the fields, huffing and puffing as they did their duty, but they do an admirable job cooking corn-on-the-cob. Most of us have been to shows where they steam corn-on-the-cob, and have tasted the great flavor of it. This is what I have learned about the technique of steaming corn with a steam engine.

The first thing to find is a container. This can be most any metallic can of sorts, like a garbage can, 55 gallon barrel, or a beer keg. I started with a new galvanized garbage can, and that worked fine for several years. I later found a similar sized stainless steel can at a salvage yard and retired the garbage can. As corn volumes expanded, not one, but two stainless steel 55 gallon barrels have joined my "kitchen." I can get about 120 ears in the smaller can, and 300 in a 55 gallon drum. Whatever you use, know what used to be in it. Some chemicals these days, even though dried out, can be reactivated when wet and get into the corn, so beware. Clean and scour the container, then steam it for an hour or so prior to its maiden voyage. A proper lid is not necessary, as a piece of cardboard or plywood works fine. Whatever you decide to use as a container, drill a hole at the bottom to let out the condensate. The corn needs to be steamed, not boiled. For the hose, I was able to put my hands on a used steam hose. There will be no pressure carried in the hose, so all it needs to be able to do is stand up to the heat. Real steam hose is in the $3-4 per foot range. You only need enough to get from your steam valve to the bottom of your can, but longer will work, too. I have a designated valve on both my engines for this hose. This "corn valve" is normally opened to way when steaming.

To set up, set the can on a couple 4" timbers to keep it up off the ground, as the hot bottom will kill the grass. Where the hose lays will also kill grass, so you may want to support the hose on some planks also, that is, if you have grass worth protecting.

Turn the can so the drain hole is on the lowest side, then place another short plank under the hole so dripping condensate has a chance to coo before it hits your grass. If you opt to cook on pavement, the corn juice will stain it for several months afterwards Be mindful where you put the can irrelationship to your engine, so the plume of steam does not obscure the view of your engine.

Take the hose and connect it to the "corn valve" on your engine, then put the other end into the can, making sure it lays flat on the bottom. I usually put a couple pieces of a 2 x 4 board on the bottom of the can so the corn doesn't lay directly on the bottom. I'm not really sure they're needed, but it keeps the cobs from sitting in any puddles.

The best corn to use has been the Peaches and Cream variety, but any good sweet corn works well. Make sure it is ripe, and it needs to be in its husk. Gently dump, not stack, the corn into the can so as to allow good circulation around the ears. It does cook down 10-20%, so if the can is a little over-full, it will settle in. Cover the can with a lid. Do not attempt to make it pressure tight! 

Turn on the steam so that after a minute or so, a rich plume of steam is billowing out of the can. Too much will not gain you anything, as the interior will only get as hot as the temperature of the steam. I usually keep the steam pressure up around 50-90 pounds, and use 5-15 gallons of water during this period.

Length of time to cook seems best around 40 minutes, and it can be kept warm on a trickle of steam for about an hour afterwards. We've tried cooking for less time, but the corn just doesn't quite get done any sooner than 40 minutes. This time period is the same for one or 300 ears. Besides, this is a great question and answer period for any spectators. While cooking, I always idle the engine so people can see it up close.

After the time period is up, turn off the steam and remove the lid. A pair of heavy rubber gloves keeps the hot moisture from getting to your hands while you unload. Pick the ears out one at a time, or dump them into a container. The ears are very hot at this point. Steam is around 345 degrees Fahrenheit at 100 psi, so watch your fingers (don't forget to tell the corn eaters this also!) With the gloves still on, you can feel around the top of the ear, and with little practice, peel the husk like a banana in one quick motion. The silk mostly falls off. Leave the husk still attached, as it will cool quicker than the cob and makes a good handle.

Now, most people head for the butter, salt and pepper at this point. I recommend to most that they might not want to. I'm not sure what the steam does to the corn, but it brings out flavors and sugars that normally are not there when it is boiled, micro waved, grilled, or cooked over a camp fire. If you still need to butter the corn, the best way is to fill a coffee can full of hot water, then pour in some melted butter, which floats to the top. Dip the ear in the can, then add spices to taste. A less messy way is to roll it in bricks of butter, or use squeeze bottle margarine.

I have been cooking corn with both of my steam engines now for eight years. It started with a party at home, a couple local organizations and church picnics, then the engines came to work for company picnics. I have taken my little steamer to work with me for five years now, and my employer has paid the trucking fees and firewood costs to bring my 15 HP Buffalo Pitts to work for the last two years. As the groups of people grew, the need for the second barrel and hose surfaced, my employer absorbed those costs for me. This past August, I cooked 1650 ears of corn in two hours using both 55 gallon barrels and two steam hoses. My coworkers loved the engine, and more so loved the corn.

Once you start cooking corn, you will get offers to cook at other occasions trust me. I refuse many of them, because the few I do are kind of special and I enjoy doing them. Besides, you may need a license and be inspected by the local health department if you get too serious. One needs to be careful of turning your hobby into work.

I have a blast steaming corn and I'm sure you will too. Feel free to write me with any questions.


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