Elote: Sweet Corn on Steroids!

By: Tim Bean

I admit, I don’t trust a Hoosier that doesn’t love sweet corn.

I spent many summer hours as a kid shucking ears of corn from my grandfather’s garden, but it was work I actually enjoyed. After shucking the ears, we’d toss them in a huge steel pot and boil the ears, pulling them out after eight or ten minutes. Most we would freeze, slicing the kernels from the cob and then storing them in Zip-loc bags dated with black Sharpies, but there was always a healthy pile of corn-on-the-cob for lunch.

No dainty cob holders for us. An authority in dining etiquette once called corn-on-the-cob “one of the most difficult foods to eat gracefully” but that’s part of the fun. No trick to it: slather on butter (REAL butter), sprinkle a little salt and a lot of black pepper. Three ears of corn and a tall glass of milk…that’s as good as it gets. To this day, I prefer sweet corn to the finest prime ribeye.

I experimented the other day in cooking sweet corn in the form of elote, a popular Mexican street food. It’s one of the prettiest foods I’ve ever seen, the piled spices and grill char contrasting beautifully with the milky yellow of the corn. 

An elote vedor in Tijiuana

To convey how good the elote tasted, just imagine me saying this in the resonant bass of Barry White: Oh…DAMN…

I tried about a half-dozen combos before I dialed it in. Here’s my preferred concoction:

Four ears of corn 

3 Tbs. mayo

2 Tbs. sour cream

1/4 C. lime juice (fresh!)

1 tsp. paprika

Pinch of chili powder

Pinch of salt

First, soak that corn in cold water for at least an hour. The water works as a catalyst for heat, essentially boiling the corn from the inside. If the ears are too dry, they’ll go up like kindling.

Mix the mayo, sour cream, lime and paprika and setting them aside. I tend to mix refrigerated ingredients and let them sit covered for thirty minutes. Easier to spread that way. Don’t let them sit too long though, otherwise they get soupy.

If you must use corn holders (where’s the fun in that?), I’d suggest wooden skewers. They work just as well, they’re inexpensive, biodegradable and you don’t have to keep track of them. Best of all, if you soak them in water first, you can skewer the corn before grilling, giving you a little handle for your elote as you cook.

Grilling corn is more preference than process. The abundant starch in corn makes it easy to char, especially if you’ve got a propane grill (as a former meat cutter, I am a wood charcoal man. Cherry, hickory or oak). Don’t walk away from corn while cooking it either. Stepping away for a minute often turns into five minutes and soon you’ll be left with a pile of smoldering cobs. Timers are always useful.

THAT’S a good char!

Cook the corn over indirect heat, lighting only one side of the grill to low and keeping the corn safely away from the flame. Four minutes is plenty. Then move the corn over the flames, making sure to keep it low, and cook until you have a gentle char on the kernels. Charred is not burnt!

Spread the mixture over the corn using a small spatula. Some like to really pile on the toppings, but I think too much takes away from the sweetness of the corn. I prefer coated to saturated. Another idea: let your guests coat the corn themselves. Once the corn’s coated, sprinkle on the salt and chili powder to taste. Be careful, because salt and chili powder can easily overwhelm any dish. Then…


This was my first foray into elote. I’m sure some of you have a bevy of tips and tricks. If so, I’d love to hear them. I’ve always viewed recipes as more suggestions than dogma. What’s the point of cooking anything if you’re not willing to tweak it here and there, even something as simple as corn-on-the-cob?

Another way to eat elote, but a little dainty for me…