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Which Cornmeal Is Which?

Fine Cooking Issue 49
Photos: Scott Phillips
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The corn used to make cornmeal, grits, and masa is not the same as our much-loved, supersweet summer corn on the cob. Instead, these meals are made from a very starchy variety, called field corn, that has been grown to full maturity and then dried. Once dried, the corn is processed or ground in any number of ways.  

Quite simply, cornmeal refers to any ground, dried corn. It may be white or yellow, depending on the type of corn used. With just slight differences in flavor, the two may be used interchangeably. Blue cornmeal also exists, but it’s more of a specialty product.  

The most impor tant distinction for cornmeal is whether it’s whole-grain or degerminated. Like wheat and other grains, corn kernels consist of three parts: the oil-rich and vitamin-packed germ or heart; the fibrous hull; and the starchy endosperm. Whole-grain cornmeal contains parts of all three and thus boasts a fuller, richer taste and twice the nutritional value of the other. But because the germ is high in oil, wholegrain cornmeal turns rancid quickly if not stored in the freezer or refrigerator. For this reason, most supermarket shelves are stocked with degerminated cornmeal. Typically, this cornmeal is also hulled to create a finer texture.  

Yellow whole-grain cornmeal.
Yellow degerminated cornmeal (fine to medium grind).

Cornmeal also varies by the grind—fine, medium, and coarse—although product labels don’t always make this distinction. Medium- and fine-grain meals are most often used in baking because the finer the grind of the meal, the lighter the texture of the confection. The tradeoff is a less apparent corn flavor. The coarsest grind is typically reserved for rustic puddings and polenta (although when I want to appreciate the full texture of the grain, I use coarse meal in cornbread).

You may also see cornmeal labeled stone-ground. This is whole-grain cornmeal that’s been milled by traditional rather than modern methods. Modern, high-speed mills heat up the grain, deteriorating the taste and quality of the oily germ. So for more true corn flavor, look for stone-ground cornmeal. Some millers sift their stoneground cornmeal to remove some of the hull and refine the texture

Yellow coarse-ground cornmeal.
White stone-ground cornmeal.

It’s still cornmeal, it’s just called something else

There are several other products you’ll see in stores that are essentially still cornmeal but are labeled something else because of the way they’re used. In essence, grits, polenta, and masa harina are all forms of cornmeal, though they’re not typically used to make cornbread.  

The term polenta is used to describe both the popular Italian dish of cornmeal mush as well as the cornmeal used to make the dish. While there’s no specific cornmeal required to make polenta, most cooks prefer a medium or coarse grind, and packages of cornmeal labeled as polenta are usually coarser grinds. Instant polenta is made from cornmeal that’s been hydrated and then dehydrated so that it cooks up in minutes.   

Although the term grits comes from the British word for any coarsely ground grain, it has come to refer to a very coarse grind of cornmeal. Grits may be white or yellow, and are commonly made from hominy. Hominy is whole-kernel corn that has had both the germ and hull removed either chemically with pickling lime (calcium hydroxide) or mechanically through steaming. More flavorful whole-grain grits are harder to find but are available from a few mail-order sources.  

Literally translated from Spanish as dough flour, masa harina is a very fine cornmeal made from hominy (called pozole in Mexico and in the Southwest). Masa harina is traditionally stone-ground from the still wet, freshly ground hominy. This freshly ground paste, called masa, is used to make authentic corn tortillas. Because it spoils quickly, the masa is typically dried and then pounded into the longer-lasting masa harina, which is most commonly used as a thickener in soups and stews, such as chili con carne. It’s also used in place of wheat flour in traditional Latin American kitchens.

Masa harina.


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