From Scratch: All About Cornmeal

December 6, 2012

Left to right: masa, grits, and polenta (photo by James Ransom)

Remember reading all about flour two weeks ago? Well, we’re back at it with an introduction to the wild world of cornmeal. Okay, so maybe it won’t get your pulse pounding like the latest James Bond movie, but it's still a fascinating topic.

When you hit the supermarket aisles, you’re bound to find cornmeal in two distinctive forms: processed and whole grain. While all cornmeals are made from ground dried corn, processed cornmeal lacks the germ and the bran of the corn. (If you recall from your Flour 101 lesson, these are where all the nutrients are stored.) So do yourself a favor and look for whole grain or stone ground cornmeal. It will be more coarse, but will give you the gift of a more nutritious meal.

Just like corn, cornmeal can be found in all sorts of colors: white, yellow, and even blue, depending on the variety of corn from which it is ground. Blue cornmeal has an intense, slightly bitter "corn" flavor, while white and yellow cornmeals are milder. Taste aside, all cornmeal is interchangeable in recipes, as long as you use the correct grind (if a recipe calls for coarse cornmeal, don’t use finely ground). Yellow and white cornmeal taste very similar, but exchanging one for the other will slightly change the color of your final dish. 

Cornmeal is a staple of cuisines across the globe. From cornbread to Southern grits, Mexican tamales to Italian polenta, cornmeal is what holds these dishes together. Let’s take a look at the common types you're most likely to find in stores. 

Fine Cornmeal

  • Ground well, fine cornmeal (sometimes labeled as corn flour) is most frequently used as the foundation for bread dough and baked, steamed, and fried foods
  • Finely ground cornmeal comes in either the yellow or white variety, but you’re more likely to come across the white variety on the shelves. These Chocolate Tamales call for corn flour instead of masa. 
  • Finely ground cornmeal is often used in baking preparations when gluten content needs to be kept at a minimum.
  • It also makes a great thickener, filler, or binder when baking. 

Example: Masa or Masa Harina

  • Masa or Masa Harina (which probably has you thinking of Mexican tamales) is created when dried, ground corn is treated with calcium hydroxide. The chemical reaction that occurs allows for better absorption of nutrients when eating. 
  • Mixed with water (and sometimes a little oil or other fat), masa can immediately form a dough used to make tamales and tortillas. These Black Bean and Spinach Tamales use masa for their filling. 

Medium Cornmeal

  • A medium-grind cornmeal is what you’re most likely going to encounter when looking for “cornmeal” in the store. 
  • This type of cornmeal is also perfect if you want to make a crunchy coating on a fried item: just dredge your chicken tenders through a little egg mix and then in cornmeal, and you’ll get a crunchy shell that breadcrumbs just can't compete with. 
  • In the U.S., cornmeal is well known for its starring role in cornbread, a dish that came about when European colonists began to substitute Native American's cornmeal in their bread recipes. For a cinchy cornbread recipe, check out this Buttermilk Cornbread
  • Throughout the world, cornmeal is used to dust the bottom of breads before baking to keep loaves from sticking to their pans. This trick also works for pizza crusts!

Example: Polenta

  • Polenta can be confusing because its name implies not only a finished dish, but the raw ingredient as well. 
  • Pre-packaged polenta in the supermarket is nothing more than a medium-coarse cornmeal. Their names are interchangeable. 
  • Mixing together regular old cornmeal and water will make a plain porridge, but adding dairy (think: butter, milk, cheese) to the mix means you’re working quickly toward professional polenta. 
  • Because of its mild flavor, polenta pairs well with spicy or rich foods, like the sausage in this Sausage and Polenta recipe.

Coarse Cornmeal

  • Modern cornmeal most likely has its origins in coarsely ground cornmeal. In earlier times, South and North American Native Americans ground corn by hand to produce a coarse cornmeal that was used in their daily diet.
  • Around the world, cornmeals of this sort are mixed with hot water to create a porridge base that is cheap, easily digested, and filling. 
  • In addition to the classic “grits,” in the southern U.S. and Mexico, posole is a hearty stew made with a base of coarse cornmeal. 
  • In Barbados, okra and coarse cornmeal are combined to make a local dish referred to as cou cou, served complete with flying fish. 

Example: Grits

  • Grits are made from coarsely ground cornmeal. 
  • Yellow grits (from yellow corn) are primarily popular in the Midwest, while white grits (with a more mineral-driven and floral taste) are customary in the South.
  • While you may think of grits as more of a breakfast staple, included in any meal they make a great side-dish or background for a spicy, flavorful topping. Delight your taste buds with these innovative Shrimp Grits.

Storing your Cornmeal

  • Store cornmeal in a cool, dry place in an airtight container
  • Processed cornmeal can be stored for up to six months on the shelf, or up to two years in the freezer. 
  • Whole grain cornmeal goes rancid more quickly because of the oils from the germ, so make sure to refrigerate it in an airtight container. It can last up to one month in the fridge

Andouille and Dijon Polenta Shrimp Grits
Photos by Sarah Shatz (left) and James Ransom


Smoked Bay Scallop Hush Puppies
Blue Cornmeal Dusted Black Bean Cakes with Asian Cilantro Lime Sauce
Grilled Polenta Cakes with Caramelized Onion, Goat Cheese and Honey [Food52]
Andouille and Dijon Polenta [Food52] (pictured above, left)
Edna Lewis and Scott Peacocks Shrimp Grits [Food52] (pictured above, right)
Creamy Goat Cheese Grits [Food52]

What's your favorite way to use cornmeal? Share your ideas and cooking tips in the comments section below. 

Like this post? Check out last week's From Scratch topic: All About Curry Powder.

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