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What Is Cornmeal and Which Type Should You Buy?

It’s a confusing cornmeal world out there. If a recipe calls for cornmeal, you might find yourself in the grain aisle staring down a bag of grits, polenta, coarse cornmeal, fine cornmeal, blue cornmeal, corn flour, and a familiar box of Jiffy, and who do you turn to? All cornmeals have a purpose, and we’re…

It’s a confusing cornmeal world out there. If a recipe calls for cornmeal, you may find yourself in the grain noodle staring down a bag of grits, polenta, coarse cornmeal, fine cornmeal, blue cornmeal, corn flour, plus a recognizable box of Jiffy, and who do you turn to? All cornmeals have a goal, and we’re here to help you discover the ideal cornmeal for your job. 

What is cornmeal, however? 

Simply put, cornmeal is dried and soil field corn (not exactly the exact same type of sweet corn we eat off the cob) that ranges in texture from fine to medium to coarse, all of which refer to the size of these bits. The dimensions of the grind indicates how quickly the cornmeal will consume water (smaller grind = faster absorption), that is precisely why coarsely ground grits take so long to cook into creamy goodness. 

If you are able to discover local cornmeal in the market, swoop it up, because, like wine, honey, and dip bars, cornmeal has terroir, that fancy word for distinct local flavor. “Flavors range from vegetable-y, carroty notes to floral apricots. And just the tiniest hint of citrus,” Roxana Jullapat, baker and writer of Mother Grains, advised us recently. “Corn has a beautiful grounding flavor.” If you can’t locate local cornmeal at your marketplace, however, there are plenty of great online mills, for example Anson Mills, which sell heirloom varieties in a selection of eye-catching colors and unique flavors. Find all of our favourite mills here. Now back to the mill.

Types of cornmeal:

Corn flour is the smallest, silkiest mill of cornmeal. Use it to make melt-in-your-mouth sablé cookies or mild tempura batter.

Fine and moderate cornmeal will be your everyday, do-it-all cornmeals. Use them for cornbread, ricotta pound cake, strawberry snacking cake, corn muffins, or pancakes. And honestly, don’t be afraid to experiment with it in recipes which use only all-purpose flour: Substitute a quarter of those AP flour with cornmeal and see how it affects the baked goods’ texture and flavor. (Cornmeal is gluten-free, so you don’t want to substitute it 100% or your cake might be dense.)

You can use fine or medium cornmeal in these extra corny muffins.

Photo by Chelsie Craig, Food Styling by Molly Baz, Prop Styling by Emily Eisen

Coarse cornmeal will make your cakes gritty and pebbly, so save that for breading catfish, making Southern-style cornbread (where you want that toothsome texture!) , and creating crunchy blueberry crisp topping or creamy, cheesy polenta. Unless a recipe explicitly calls for coarse cornmeal, you should generally stay away. Coarse cornmeal cooks for a long time before losing its granular bite. When it’s incorporated in a dish that does a relatively quick stint in the oven (say, cake), the result will be rocky.

Polenta is coarsely ground yellow cornmeal. Use it as you would coarse cornmeal. 

Grits are coarsely ground white cornmeal, with a more subtle, delicate flavor from the white corn. Use it to make these decadent shrimp and pimiento cheese grits.

Blue cornmeal is usually an heirloom variety with indigenous roots across the American South. Its color gives it a sweet, unique flavor. Learn more about it and try this variety from Anson Mills here. Yellow cornmeal has the most prominent corn flavor, while white cornmeal has a more delicate, subtle flavor (it’s especially nice in that ricotta cornmeal cake, below). 

Jiffy cornbread mix, in case you really are standing in the baking aisle wondering, is wheat flour mixed with some cornmeal, sugar, lard, baking soda, and a handful of preservatives. Note that because of the wheat flour, it’s not gluten-free.

What if a recipe doesn’t specify which type to use?

If a recipe calls for just “cornmeal” without calling out a specific kind, you can almost always use either fine or medium grind. Just know that a medium grind will give you some texture, while a fine grind might make a denser crumb.

Photo by Chelsie Craig, Food Styling by Pearl Jones

This Giant No-Flip Blueberry Pancake was tested with both medium and fine cornmeal, and both worked. “The difference was that the pancake made with finely ground cornmeal was a little heavier as more of the liquid has been consumed,” says Carla Lalli Music, who developed the recipe.

And if the packages don’t specify the texture (which, yep, sometimes they don’t), it’s safe to assume you’re getting either a fine or medium grind as well. Bags of cornmeal might also be labeled “stone-ground. ” Stone-grinding–that is, um, just what it seems like–means that some of the hull and germ of the kernel are kept. This generates a healthier and corn-forward product (it also tends to become coarser). If stone-ground is not advertised on the label, the cornmeal was probably floor with steel rollers. These get rid of most of the hull and germfree, which makes the cornmeal shelf-stable for a lengthier time period. (Think of it kind of like the gap between all-purpose and whole wheat flours.)

When you finally purchase the cornmeal you have been looking for, store it in an airtight container in your refrigerator or freezer, if you don’t plan on using it all within a month or two, it is going to remain fresher in a cold atmosphere. If you’re not sure how old your cornmeal is, then give it a sniff. Rancid cornmeal will smell sour and off. And we can’t have that. 

Now, get baking:

Image may contain Food Egg Confectionery and Sweets

Editor’s note: This article was originally printed by Emma Wartzman on July 17, 2019 and updated by Alex B

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