A delicious corn salad you can make in a flash! This Mexican Street Corn Salad (Esquites) is made with fresh sweet corn kernels, a chili powder, lime-spiked creamy sauce, cotija cheese, red onions, jalapeños and cilantro. It’s tangy, fresh, quick to throw together and certain to become your new favourite corn salad, ever.
Fresh summer corn is something to celebrate the second it hits the stands. So crispy, sweet and juicy, the grilled, or boiled cobs need only a sprinkle of salt to be extra blissful. But when I need to jazz up our cob situation a little, I make elotes. A super popular Mexican street corn that is sold slathered with a cheesy, creamy, slightly spicy, lime-flavoured sauce. It’s absolutely addictive and everyone that tries elotes goes crazy for it.
Another way you will find elotes served in Mexico is with the kernels off the cob, smothered in the same sauce and served in salad form. This salad-form version is called esquites and it is as delicious as elotes, and a lot less messy to eat.
Mexican Street Corn Salad Recipe (Esquites)
This recipe for esquites is adapted from the fabulous cookbook Nopalito: A Mexican Kitchen. You take the same main ingredients — crema, lime juice, chili powder, and cotija cheese — and add them to corn kernels that have been grilled, or sautéed in a skillet. The addition of minced garlic, red onion, jalapeño, and scallions is optional, not entirely traditional, but really delicious. Fresh cilantro, in my opinion, is a must. The result is a delightfully tasty salad that is super quick to make and just as addictive as the cobs.
The Nopalito Mexican Street Corn salad is made by cooking the corn kernels in a very hot skillet, then smothering them in the sauce. To dirty one less pan, I like to grill the cobs, then remove the kernels. Both methods will yield slightly charred corn kernels that are irresistible when dredged in the creamy, tangy sauce, so do what works best for you.
Ingredients You Will Need
This Mexican Street Corn salad is all about celebrating sweet fresh corn so do your best to get corn that is still in the husk when you buy it!
- Fresh Corn on the cob – For this recipe, you will need about 6 ears of corn. It may seem like a lot, but trust, there will be no leftovers.
- Crema – This condiment is the Mexican version of sour cream. It’s slightly tangy, a little thicker than sour cream, but not as thick as crème fraîche. If you can’t find it, simply mix equal parts sour cream and mayo, or mix crème fraîche with lime juice until the consistency is thinner. If you live in the Kitchener-Waterloo area, you can find crema here and here. Note that it is not labelled “Mexican crema” Just “crema”.
- Lime juice – I go heavy on the lime juice which is pretty essential to add lots of bright flavours to the salad.
- Garlic, red onions, & scallions – All lend sharp, delicious flavours to the salad. Note that these ingredients are not often found in authentic esquites. However, I love them in this salad so I always include them.
- Cotija cheese – Until recently, I could not find cotija cheese anywhere near me. Now that I have, I can’t stop adding it to everything. It’s crumbly, salty, and crazy good. If you can’t find Cotija, go ahead and use feta instead.
- Cilantro – For herby freshness and goodness.
- Tajín or Chili powder – I actually use a bit of both. If you aren’t familiar with tajín, it’s a seasoning mix of chili powder, dehydrated lime, and salt that you really need in your life. We shake this addictive Mexican seasoning over watermelon, eggs, tacos, margaritas, popcorn, and just about everything you can think of.
- Smoked paprika – Optional, but just a smidge adds a nice smoky flavour. Or you can just use all chili powder, if you prefer.
- Jalapeño – For a little extra crunch and spice.
- Kosher salt – Corn loves salt but if you are adding cotija cheese which is very salty, add only a pinch of salt.
How To Make Mexican Street Corn Salad (Esquites)
For this Mexican Street Corn salad, you can grill the cobs then remove the kernels, or remove the kernels first, then cook them in a hot skillet for a few minutes. The latter allows you to use frozen corn if the craving hits in the middle of winter. It happens.
To Grill the corn:
Preheat a grill to high heat. Grill the shucked corn, turning occasionally with a set of tongs, until charred in spots, about 2 to 3 minutes a side. Do not let it cook for too long or it could dry out.
Once cool enough to handle, cut the corn kernels off the cob and transfer to a large serving bowl.
To Cook corn in a skillet:
Slice the corn kernels off the cobs. Heat a large skillet over high heat and add 1 tablespoon oil (I use avocado oil). Add the corn kernels and toss quickly to coat with oil then leave undisturbed for 2 minutes. Toss again and allow to char undisturbed for another 2 minutes. Repeat one more time, then transfer to a large serving bowl.
Assemble the salad:
Combine the crema, lime juice, and garlic in a small bowl, then pour over the corn kernels. Add in the red onions, scallions, jalapeño, chili powder, tajín (if using), and smoked paprika (if using) to the bowl with the kernels and and toss to combine.
Sprinkle generously with cotija cheese and garnish with chopped cilantro.
A few Tips
- Don’t overcook the corn. Whether grilling or sautéing the corn, do not overcook it. You want the kernels to char a little, but retain most of their crunch.
- Remove the kernels over a bowl or a sheet pan with sides. This helps catch all the kernels so they don’t go flying all over the counter. If using a bowl, place a smaller one inside the large one, upside down. Otherwise, your knife won’t reach the bottom of the corn in one swipe. This article has some good tips and visuals.
- Freeze the corn kernels. If you ever have leftover corn, freeze the kernels for later to use in salads or stews, or soups. To make this salad using frozen corn, there is no need to defrost it.
In Mexico, street vendors will usually serve esquites as a snack served in small cups. If serving this Mexican Street Corn salad as a snack at a backyard grill party, it would be really fun to serve it in cups. You can also serve it as an appetizer with tortilla chips.
The salad is just as good served warm or at room temperature, or even after it’s been chilled for a few hours. If making a day ahead, store the cooked corn kernels separately from the rest of the ingredients. This way, it’s crunchier, creamier, and fresher when you go to serve it.
We really enjoy this Mexican street corn salad served alongside this chicken burger, or this grilled juicy chicken. For a satisfying meatless meal, serve it with these mushroom tacos, or this veggie burger. Or add it to a Mexican fiesta spread along with this charred tomato salsa, and these insanely good nachos.
More Favourite Summer Salads To Try
- Broccoli salad
- Grilled Peach and Burrata Salad
- Mexican Chopped Salad
- Turkey Taco Salad
- Summer Tomato Panzanella salad
Mexican Street Corn Salad (Esquites)
- 6 ears fresh corn shucked
- 1/4 cup *Mexican crema (see notes)
- 3 tablespoons fresh lime juice from about 2 limes
- 1 medium clove garlic grated or very finely minced
- ¼ cup red onion finely diced
- 1/4 cup finely sliced scallions white and green parts only
- 1 jalapeño pepper seeded, stemmed, and finely diced
- 1/2 teaspoon chili powder
- 1/2 teaspoon **Tajín
- 1/2 teaspoon smoked paprika optional for a bit of smokiness
- 1/4 cup Cotija or feta cheese finely crumbled
- 1/2 cup fresh cilantro leaves finely chopped
- 1/2 teaspoon Kosher salt
- Preheat a grill to high heat. Grill the shucked corn, turning occasionally until charred spots appear, about 2 to 3 minutes a side. Do not let it cook for too long - you want it to retain a little crunch. (See notes for cooking corn kernels indoors in a skillet.)
- Once cool enough to handle, cut the corn kernels off the cob and transfer to a large bowl.
- Combine the crema, lime juice, and garlic in a small bowl, then pour over the corn kernels. Add in the red onions, scallions, jalapeño, chili powder, tajín (if using), and smoked paprika (if using) to the bowl with the kernels and and toss to combine.
- Transfer to a large platter (or leave in bowl) and sprinkle generously with cotija cheese and garnish with chopped cilantro.