The Genius Recipe Tapes

How to Turn Corn Into Butter

Episode Summary

Chef and entrepreneur Whitney Wright joins host Kristen Miglore to discuss the corn butter (yes, as in butter made from corn) recipe she learned while working at Per Se, what it was like working with Ruth Reichl, and how her relationship to food has changed now that she's no longer cooking on the line.

Episode Notes

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Episode Transcription

Kristen Miglore (Host): Hi. I'm Kristen Miglore, lifelong Genius hunter. Each week I'm uncovering the recipes that will change the way you cook. This week, I'm speaking with chef and entrepreneur Whitney Wright. We discussed the corn butter—yes, as in butter made from corn—that she picked up while cooking at Per Se restaurant, what it was like working with her food idol, and how her relationship to food has changed now that she's no longer cooking on the line.

Kristen: Hi, Whitney.

Whitney: Hi. How are you?

Kristen: I'm good. How are you? 

Whitney: I'm great. Thanks. 

Kristen: Thank you so much for joining us. Where are you right now?

Whitney: Thanks for having me. I'm in my car in a parking lot in Birmingham, Alabama; I was rushing to get home and didn't quite make it before we decided to start. So here I am.

Kristen: [Laughs] I love it. So tell me, how exactly does corn become butter?

Whitney: How does corn become butter? Well, first I think I need to say this isn't really my corn butter. It is a recipe that I learned when I was working at Per Se on the line when I worked the entremet station there, which is doing a lot of the vegetables. And a lot of the things that kind of accompany the big protein dishes, and corn butter was actually something we made to finish a risotto dish, and so that's kind of where it came from. 

And the short answer is corn is made up of a lot of sugar, and after it is harvested that sugar converts into a starch. And so in the same way if you were making, like, a bechamel sauce or gravy and you made a roux, which is when you combine a fat with a flour and cook it down in the pan to make a starch because that's what thickens the gravy or the sauce later—the starch in the corn does the same thing if you cook it. And so, to make corn butter, you take corn and you juice it. You strain it to get, um, all the kind of husky, um, parts from the kernels out of it. And then you cook it very slowly over low heat and that activates the starch and that thickens it. And then you have corn butter.

Kristen: Amazing. So I hadn't actually thought about that—that the age of the corn might kind of affect how quickly it turns into butter. That's probably why corn is so much sweeter when you first pick it and then it starts to lose its sweetness—

Whitney: Yes! Yes.

Kristen: So it will probably will thicken into corn butter much faster.

Whitney: Yeah, there's kind of an old farming adage. That if you're gonna go harvest your corn, you shouldn't do it until you put the pot of boiling water on, because you want to cook it immediately because that's when it's sweetest. And so, yeah, the longer you have the corn in your house and particularly at it, um—actually, the sugars actually convert to start faster if it's at room temperature, toe high heat. So if it's not refrigerated, the starch conversion will happen quicker.

The older your corn is and the warmer you keep your corn, the more starch will develop and the less sugar will be there. So, um, yeah, if you have corn, that's like just been picked and you're trying to do this recipe, and it's not setting up as quickly or as thick. It's probably because the starches haven't developed—

Kristen: But I imagine Per Se you were using pretty fresh sweet corn and it still turned into butter. So even if your corn is freshly picked, it will still become butter.

Whitney: It will. It definitely will. This started as a recipe at Per Se, and I, kind of, would experiment with it at home; at Per Se we didn't use it like when I would eat this at home. I would, like, slather it on cornbread; I would often use it like a spread on a sandwich spread. So it, you know, it didn’t need to be thicker for those kinds of purposes at Per Se. What we really did was we kind of swirled it into this, like, very fancy—very opposite of the corn butter— very fancy white truffle risotto that we served at the end just to give it, kind of, a little like sweet summer flavor, like we used to say. But anyway, so it wasn't as imperative for our use in the kitchen that it was super thick. But when I was doing it at home, yeah, I didn't I didn't have access to the Per Se corn purveyors at my apartment so my corn is probably little older.

Kristen: Got it. You know, Per Se—you said you served in the risotto. But how was it that you would eat it when you would take it home or when you would make it at home?

Whitney: Well, I first really started eating it, you know, I mean, working in a kitchen is kind of brutal. It's like really long hours, and you're on your feet. You don't have a lot of time to stop and eat. And so it became a habit for me eating it really late night after service when we'd be done. There were certain great ingredients in certain components to dishes that we would have to make fresh every day. And, um, the corn butter was one of them. So I always had some leftover, and so it was always good with some of the bread from the bread station just dipped in it. That would kind of be my like 2 A.M. snack, but it's, you can really keep it in the refrigerator after you make it for I'd say, like 3 to 4 days. I would make it at home—and actually, now that I'm thinking about this, I would actually make it at home if I had corn in the fridge that I like hadn't ended up cooking for, like corn on the cob. And this would, kind of, be something like a recipe that I could do without it. Because if you eat corn on the cob and the corn isn’t sweet, it's just not as good. And so this is actually kind of maybe a good alternative. You've got some old corn hanging out because the starch content will be higher. 

But, yeah, I would use it a lot on, like, vegetable sandwiches almost in place of mayonnaise. It actually makes really great—if you mix it with ricotta cheese or mascarpone—it makes awesome ravioli filling. That's a really good way to eat it. I know you can add it to like an ice cream base and make, like, a sweet corn type ice cream thing for summer. That's kind of a lot of effort, though, and then, yeah, it's just it's just kind of a good summer condiment. 

Kristen: I feel like, well, I love that image of you eating it when you were on the line at 2 A.M.—

Whitney: At 2 A.M.! Sleep deprived, tired and starving…

Kristen: Yeah, that seems so relatable to anyone who has worked in a restaurant before. The kinds of foods that you, you know, sneak throughout your shift to keep your energy up, or at the very end of your shift when you're going to, like, break down your station and everything. Like that—I feel like a very visceral experience comes from that from that nourishing when you're so—

Whitney: Yeah, I think that's right. It's, I mean, I very... I, like, you know, there are lots of things I did it at Per Se over, and over, and over, and over again in terms of, like, dishes we made and ingredients we prepped. But doing, like, the repetition of doing that: kind of cleaning up your station at the end of night, knowing that you're going into menu meeting and trying to find something just that's, like, a little bit nourishing that you know, you're gonna love to eat and be able to sit and have...Like, I seem to remember thinking, more than anything, like, what am I gonna eat? And of course, at Per Se we had the benefit of really, kind of, nice leftovers hanging out a lot, and a lot of it would usually get made into family meal the next day. But anything we could kind of scrounge off our stations we would. 

Kristen: So is there anything else from your time at Per Se that is still with you in your cooking now?

Whitney: I don't... You know, I don't really cook that way at home, ever. I mean, I think just a lot of the basic techniques that you learn in terms of getting really, really good at blanching vegetables or getting really, really good at, you know, peeling apples. There's just so much repetition and what you're doing. I mean, I'm so... I'm pretty much just….like, my basic cooking skills are really strong. 

I think the one thing that I am so grateful to have from working in a restaurant environment, is that I'm really good at cooking and not destroying a kitchen. And I think, you know, you just kind of learn to cook and you learn to clean up as you go and you learn about, like, smart things to do with vegetable scraps and how to, you know, use one pan to do multiple things, and what order you could do that in. And so I'd say one of my greatest takeaways from working in a professional kitchen is just being able to cook really, kind of, like efficiently and cleanly at home. 

Every time I cook in front of my mom, for example, she's like, it doesn't even look like you made anything, like, how did you do that? And I think she always says that, like, one of her biggest impediments, mentally, to cooking is like cleaning up. Afterwards, I said that was probably kind of the biggest thing I left with. 

Kristen: That's a good one. That feeling is so satisfying when you end cooking your meal and know that you don't have a pile of dishes. 

Well, speaking of scraps, was there anything that you would do with the pulp of the corn that you strained out to make the butter? 

Whitney: I don't remember doing anything with that. I mean, a lot of the flavor is in, kind of, all the juice that you pull So I don't know. You know what we did do with it in some places: if you're making stock, it actually works as a really good clarifier. So when you're making a stock, you put in, you know, the bones that you're using or if it's vegetables—it’d be actually great in a vegetable stock—and the corn pulp. Actually, we used to put it in vegetable stock, and I think in chicken stock. And while it's simmering, a lot of the sediment and a lot of the, kind of like, impurities in the chicken bones and things like that will boil up and get trapped in this stuff, and then you skim it off. And so I do remember we had put it into stock a couple of times. 

Kristen: That's so interesting. That's like the traditional egg raft. 

Whitney: Exactly. 

Kristen: That's so handy because I never, ever think about clarifying my stock when I'm at home. I just, like, I'm there for the flavor and not really worrying about how clear it is. But if you want a clean-tasting broth—and I imagine that the corn gives some of its flavor, too—

Whitney: Yeah.

Kristen: That is the one thing about this recipe that, like it feels like you're, you've got all this good matter that you want to do something with… I bet it would be good if you wanted to fold it into, like, muffins or or cornbread or something. 

Whitney: Yeah! Yeah, I've never tried that. 

Kristen (voiceover): This is The Genius Recipe Tapes. We'll be right back. 

Kristen: You know, this recipe also reminds me a little bit of a couple other ways that I've seen corn thickened in this way. Um, there was Yotam Ottolenghi’s fresh corn polenta that I wrote about on Genius Recipes. And I don't believe the corn is strained, so it is a little bit more chunky. And then just this week, I got a newsletter in my inbox from Lukas Volger talking about something he called Corn Tofu

Whitney: Oh, cool!

Kristen: So it was strained as well and thickened with arrowroot starch as well, so it would just be a little bit more set, kind of like silken tofu.

Whitney: Yeah!

Kristen: So I'm curious: have you seen, or have you personally used corn as a thickener in this way? And in other recipes or in other applications? 

Whitney: I mean, I feel like when you're making creamed corn, it's kind of like the same thing. That's why creamed corn is so good and has that, kind of, creamy, thicker texture. I've seen Ottolenghi’s recipe, which is awesome. Something that I have had to get used to—and I could tell you, at first when I moved to Birmingham, Alabama, and I did not grow up eating grits at all—I didn't understand them. Anyone’s grits that I’ve really loved have had a lot of butter in them, and a lot of times, actually, people have put fresh corn in them. And so I wonder if doing that actually kind of changes the texture of them a little bit. And maybe that's why they were a little bit more amenable to me. So I imagined it also has the same effect in some grits recipes that I've seen. 

But I mean, I think you just have to think of it as like, you know, it's like a roux that you're making for a gravy or a bechamel sauce. It kind of has the same principle, and as you heat it up and add it to things that will help thicken them. 

Kristen: Except it's one ingredient—

Whitney: One ingredient!

Kristen: —doing it kind of all on its own. 

Whitney: Totally. 

Kristen: And gluten free, If that's what you're looking for. 

Whitney: That's right. That's true. That's true. Yeah, it's a magic ingredient now that I think about it. 

Kristen: Okay, So back to after Per Se—that was where you first met corn butter and incorporated it into your cooking. But then you brought it to Gilt Taste, and that's when you shared it with the world. So what was, I guess that process—like deciding that you wanted to feature it at Gilt Taste? What was the response like? 

Whitney: So Gilt Taste was this, like, kind of wacky, awesome experimental place job; I ended up there after Per Se. And after I was doing some stuff for The Food Network, um, kind of by happenstance, a friend of a friend hooked me up with a woman—her name was Jen Pelka. She said, we're putting together this great team, I said, okay, I think I'm interested, she said, when can you start? I said, well, I guess tomorrow, and she said, great, I'll see you at the office. And so I walked in, and it was this incredible team of people. The people who were doing most of the editorial content were me, Francis Lam who runs The Splendid Table, Jen Pelka, and then, like my like, all-time idol, I mean, I was starstruck when I saw her, I didn't know she would be there, but it was Ruth Reichl!

Kristen: You didn't know she would be there?

Whitney: No, Jen, Jen didn't tell me that Ruth was involved! Yeah, and so, um, yeah, I was star truck and set in, and we spent the first couple of weeks, like mapping out the editorial calendar. And Ruth and Francis were doing a lot of that. And, you know, Ruth has seen everything, everything, anything and everything in food. I mean, she really is, I don't know anybody in the world who knows more about food than she does. One day, I was talking to Francis about Per Se, and, um, I think someone was talking about corn, and I said,  oh, have you heard about corn butter, and I kind of saw, like, Ruth perk up. And she was like, what? And I was like, Ruth doesn't know what this is! Like, this is gonna be great. 

And anyway, sure enough, I talked about it with her and made some and brought it in. And she said, this is so cool. I've never seen anything like this, like, let's run it. And so that's, um, there were many moments I had like that with Ruth, but this is one of them. 

Kristen: Was the audience response pretty big, too? 

Whitney: Yeah!

Kristen:  And then it came to me through a tip from a reader at the time. 

Whitney: [Laughs] Really? Cool.

Kristen: Yeah! I mean, that's how that's kind of what's fueled the Genius Recipes series all this time, is people seeing things out in the world that impressed them and that they haven't seen before and letting me know about them. So yeah, Food52 community members sent it to me, and I think, I think it came in around the same time that I was about to feature the Fresh Corn Polenta. And so it didn't work on the site at the time, but it was perfect for the Genius Recipes cookbook, which was coming out, you know, a year or two later. 

Whitney: Have you made it a lot? 

Kristen: Yeah. I mean, I haven't made it in awhile, but back then, um, when I was getting ready for the book, it was amazing. 

Whitney: Yeah. What did you do with it? 

Kristen: Oh, my gosh. Well, in the book, we put it on biscuits, which was kind of a perfect fit because we had Shirley Corriher’s Touch of Grace Biscuits in the book. And that was such a simple mini recipe that we included that nested on that page really nicely, and then captured them both together in the book. So that was nice that you could see both of those—but I mean your list that you shared on Gilt Taste, which I actually have here, if you are curious. 

Whitney: Yeah! No, tell me what was the list? 

Kristen: Slather on cornbread or muffins instead of butter. Use it on sandwiches instead of mayo, folded into sautéed spinach with onions, and finished with just a touch of cream for a killer creamed spinach. 

Whitney: Oh, that sounds good. I did not try that, but that's a good idea. [Laughs]

Kristen: It's a great list. There’s more: dribble it onto a hot dog—it will remind you of a corn dog. 

Whitney: Oooh, I love that! [Both crack up.]

Yeah, I'm also like a huge hot dog fanatic, but yes, that's a good idea. 

Kristen: Are these, like jumping back into your memory?

Whitney: They are! I'm, like, vaguely remembering this now.

Kristen: Yeah, I think it's so interesting the path that your career has taken. I'm curious if your relationship with food has changed at all since you're not working with it every day. Do you still love cooking at home in any different way than you were before? 

Whitney: I think since I stopped formally working in food, my relationship with food has improved. Greatly. I think, you know, I mean, I love cooking, I mean, and I'll always love cooking...but there's, um, you know when you're cooking and cooking is like part of your job, um, you know, sometimes you're doing it and you really have to think about it. And for me, why I really love cooking, and why I really appreciate it so much in my life is  that it’s just kind of one of those things that I could get lost in and not have to think about and just really enjoy. And it's something my daughter and I do a lot together. So I think since I've gotten out of the food industry formally—I don't know if I cook more than I used to, but I definitely cook with, kind of, a different mindset than I used to, which is nice. 

Yeah, so food has kind of taken me all sorts of places and right now I'm not at the fund anymore. But, I run a nonprofit here in Alabama called the Athena Collective, that is dedicated to ensuring that women are part of the economic development strategies that are going on in the state. And to kind of coincide with that. I founded a jewelry company early this year called Elia Fulmen, which is jewelry that was designed from empowerment theory. And it's intended to be jewelry that helps empower women. 

Kristen: Thanks so much for joining us to talk about corn butter and all of the other amazing things that you're doing. 

Whitney: Well, thank you for having me. This was so fun. 

Kristen: And thank you for doing it from your car!

Kristen (voiceover): Thanks for listening. Our show was put together by Coral Lee, Gabriella Mangino, Alik Barsoumian, Ayanna Long, and me, Kristen Miglore. You can find all the genius recipes, videos and stories at our site,, and if you have a genius recipe that you'd like to share, please email it to me at I am always hunting. If you like The Genius Recipe Tapes be sure to rate and review us. It really helps. See you next time.