How to Make Spice from Corncob Ashes, Buffalo Bird Woman Style

burning-corncobs-corncob-spiceIf you’re interested in three sisters gardening (beans, corn, and squash) the most comprehensive book on this subject is Buffalo Bird Woman’s Garden: Agriculture of the Hidatsa Indians, which is translated from an older Hidatsa Indian woman named Buffalo Bird Woman.

Buffalo Bird Woman (Maxi’diwiac Waheenee) lived from 1839 to 1932. Hmm, that made her life 93 years long, now there is some longevity. Buffalo Bird Woman was a Hidatsa who lived the traditional life of her people in what is now the Fort Berthold Reservation in North Dakota. She learned and practiced all the traditional Hidatsa skills of growing, preparing, and preserving food. In spite of the many changes in that period of time, Buffalo Bird Woman upheld the traditional ways of her culture. And through this book, her stories and teachings are still available to us today. I was also fascinated by descriptions of the lives and work of women in Hidatsa culture.

I’m a huge fan of the simplicity and elegance of using the three sisters in the garden and I’ve been planting various versions for many years. LOL, initially a lot of my attempts weren’t really that productive. Reading Buffalo Bird Woman’s account really gave me some insights into what I had done wrong, and it has helped me become much more successful.

One thing the book mentions is how Buffalo Bird Woman made an interesting spice from the ashes of corncobs. This year I had a pretty good crop of corn so I decided to give it a try. After shucking, I kept the cobs to try to make the spice myself just to see what it tasted like.

hot-corncob-ashes-corncob-spiceI decided to build the fire on a piece of sheet metal so that collecting the ashes would be easier. I didn’t need that much tinder as lighting corncobs straight from a bic was pretty easy to do.

From the descriptions in the book, I gather that Buffalo Bird Woman actually burned huge piles of cobs – so separating the ashes out was probably a lot easier for them. I didn’t have that huge of a crop. I was actually a bit worried I didn’t have enough cobs to burn. I had two or three big baskets of cobs. But it turned out that was plenty.

Without too much work the cubs burned completely burned down to ashes. I let them cool. And then it was time for the taste test!

It was a little bit strange. It does have a salt-like taste but also another little zing to it. I can’t say I really liked it.

But in retrospect, I am not sure I would like some of our other spices if I hadn’t grown up with them being added to my food since I was a baby.

I wanted to give the spice the ‘ultimate taste test,’ so I asked my family what they thought of it.

My husband diplomatically said, “Well Hon, if I lived in North Dakota and didn’t have access to salt or any other spices, I would probably think this was good.”

My kids weren’t so diplomatic. They responded with “Yuck,” and “maybe not, Mom.”

What Did the Tarahumara Indians Think of this Spice?

corn cob spice in a jarI’ve recently come back from a trip to the Copper Canyons of Mexico, where I spent time with the Tarahumara Indians. I asked several of the groups of Tarahumara Indians I met if they ever made the spice or used it. They said “no” they didn’t make it, but they’d heard of it and were curious about it too. It seems that the Tarahumara had good access to salt and other spices, so they didn’t feel any pressure to make their own spices.

Well I’m keeping a stash of it in a small jar in the spice cabinet and I plan on dipping into it every now and then to see if it’s one of those things that “grows on you.” But honestly, I’m really not sure how I would use this in any of the recipes that I normally cook.

If you have any experiences with this, or any suggestions, by all means please drop me a comment down below. I would love to hear from you.

Marjory

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Marjory


Contributor

Marjory Wildcraft is an Expedition Leader and Bioneer Blogger with The [Grow] Network, which is an online community that recognizes the wisdom of "homegrown food on every table." Marjory has been featured as an expert on sustainable living by National Geographic, she is a speaker at Mother Earth News fairs, and is a returning guest on Coast to Coast AM. She is an author of several books, but is best known for her "Grow Your Own Groceries" video series, which is used by more than 300,000 homesteaders, survivalists, universities, and missionary organizations around the world.


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11 Comments
  • Laura

    Interesting article, thanks. Thinking about using this ash in the garden beds, or for the hens to bathe in.

  • Mike

    Maybe she just meant that the ashes were good to “spice” up the soil around the Three Sister vegetables? Dried corn cobs also are a great to add to wood fires.

  • Eunice Farmilant

    perhaps the odd flavor was due to toxins being released from the finish on your sheet metal. Galvanized metal will release zinc. Making it easier to collect the ashes? Alternatively, you could have used a barbeque smoker—frankly, I would recommend throwing out the ashes…
    Potassium salts are the predominate residue from burning plant materials.
    It is really a shame that basic chemistry is no longer being taught in schools.

  • The salty taste is likely from all the various chemical salts in the ashed. The extra zing could be from the potassium oxide as it reacts with the water in your saliva to form potassium hydroxide which is a basic (alkaline) solution. If you wet your fingers and rub a few ashes between them and find that the result is a slippery solution, this is an indication of an alkaline chemical, in this case potassium hydroxide. I would expect that the ashes are a good source of phosphorous as well, which might also give the zing. If nothing else the ashes, as well as any wood ashes, are good for fertilizer for the p and k of npk (nitrogen, phosphorous, potassium). Don’t waste it, sprinkle it on the garden.

  • Dezri Dean

    Cooking on a galvanized metal is absolutely bad!
    Healthy, old school?
    NOT!
    Galvanized metal when heated gives off toxic fumes and would impart those toxins into the ash!

  • deb h.

    marjory,
    my understanding is that the pith of the cob was dried in a slow oven and ground to powder. it was said to replace baking powder to make things rise a bit.
    that is all i know or have heard about corncobs aside from the nonculinary uses.
    deb h.

  • Den

    Tossing anther word out there.

    In July of 05 I took a class in Denver and after it was over I just started driving west into the mountains. I ended up in Rocky Mountain National Park. It was awesome there, seen some big horned sheep, they said, they looked like a period set at nine on the scale.

    I eventually found a place to camp and set up camp then talked with a couple of guys for a few minutes. I then went looking around and doing a bit of hiking.

    When I got back I seen the guys buying firewood, they pssst at me several times. I looked at them and they were pointing at my campsite.

    Lo and behold there was a huge elk in my campsite licking the ashes inside the fire pit. I do not recall what nutrients I found to be in the ashes. But the elk know for sure and I now know it is a habit for them to do this.

    Food for thought,,

  • martha

    Maybe you could take a small portion and add seasonings to it (like a bit of salt or pinch of sugar) to intensify the ‘ashy’ flavor, since we’re so used to both in most of our foods.

  • gypsy Brokenwings

    I would be VERY careful about what you burnt your cobs on ..it not only could change the taste, but poison you if it’s galvanized!
    The best way is dig a small pit, then a hole area with a tube of some sort (can be hollow branch, ETC)….and another pit on the other side. Your fire will burn long and hot even if it’s windy out …if you feel the need you can line it with cinder block.

  • Daniel Jacobson

    Would combining the corn cob ash, or wood ash, with corn meal make the corn meal more nutritionally beneficial?

  • Trish

    Culinary ash was more than a spice. It was used as a digestif, to create hominy/posole/masa which in turn made the nutrients of corn more accessible. Without culinary ash, corn has created scurvy. One Navajo woman I met used juniper ash in the same way.

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