Corn is often considered a vegetable, but it’s actually one of the world’s most important grains based on production volume. Cornmeal (as well as corn flour and masa harina) are its widely used products. In this guide to cornmeal, we’ll explore just how useful and versatile these flours, in all their varieties, can be for cooking and baking.
Corn has long been one of the most revered crops native to the Americas, with cornmeal as one of its most important derivatives. There are several types of flour made from corn, the most common of which are various grinds of cornmeal, and of course, corn flour and masa harina.
Cornmeal and corn flours are milled from a variety of corn with a high percentage of soft starch, allowing for easy grinding. Each one creates distinctive and different dishes, despite coming from the same source.
How to Buy and Store Cornmeal
There are several types of cornmeal available, some better than others. The best choice to look for when shopping, (packaged or in bulk) is stone-ground, ungerminated whole cornmeal. In this case, the corn has not been stripped of its nutritious germ. Ungerminated cornmeal spoils more quickly than the refined variety found in cardboard boxes in supermarkets.
It may be best to buy whole grain cornmeal in packages, in which it will likely have retained freshness longer, and if you’re gluten free, has less of a chance of getting cross-contaminated. Bob’s Red Mill, for example, is a great brand for packaged cornmeal varieties.
Spoilage need not be a concern if you store the cornmeal in a cool, dry place and use it up within 2 to 3 months. During warm months, refrigeration is recommended.
Whole cornmeal, at its freshest, will taste moister and sweeter in bread and other baked goods than the supermarket variety. The latter is refined to increase its shelf life but yields drier, more crumbly, and less flavorful results.
Varieties of Cornmeal
Cornmeal comes in a variety of grinds, including fine (which in this case, is often labeled as corn flour), medium, and coarse. The coarser the grind, the more likely it is to have retained the nutrients present in the germ, bran, and endosperm. Cornmeal is processed with one of several methods:
- The variety of cornmeal that’s mass-produced and the one most likely found in supermarkets is ground between steel rollers and loses much of the hull and germ.
- Cornmeal labeled water-ground is ground by millstones powered with water. This implies a smaller-scale production of the meal and possibly a slightly better product, but it’s more expensive.
- Stone-ground cornmeal is what it sounds like; the dried corn kernels are ground between stones, making a somewhat coarse product that retains much of the hull and germ. This method retains more nutrients and is the type that you’re more likely to find in natural foods stores and related online sources.
- Another type of cornmeal, though less common, is labeled bolted, meaning that it had been sifted, removing some hull material, which results in the loss of some nutrients and fiber. It’s therefore not as desirable as stone-ground or water-ground meals.
If you want to choose just one, in our opinion, it would be medium stone-ground cornmeal, which is good for use in both cooking and baking and retains a good amount of nutrients.
In addition to these distinctions, there are also color differences:
- Yellow cornmeal is the most common, followed by white cornmeal, which is used more frequently in the southern United States. The flavor of white cornmeal is more delicate and slightly sweeter.
- A relative newcomer to the specialty food markets is blue cornmeal (as well as blue corn masa harina). This is a product of the American Southwest, ground, predictably, from blue corn. The color of the cornmeal is more of a slate blue with a touch of gray. Its flavor is nuttier than that of yellow or white cornmeal, and it yields moist results.
Perhaps not as visually appealing in bread and muffins as it is in tortilla chips and tortillas (which use blue corn masa harina), it is nevertheless very good in baked goods.
Masa Harina is used primarily in making corn tortillas and tamales, masa harina is made from corn kernels that have been soaked in lime (calcium hydroxide) or other alkaline substance to remove the hulls. The hulled kernels are then dried and finely milled. Masa harina has a somewhat more distinct aroma and finer texture than cornmeal. Masa harina comes in all the cornmeal shades — yellow, white, and blue.
Masa harina is sold in 5- or 10-pound bags in supermarkets and Mexican specialty groceries. If stored in a cool, dry place, masa harina will keep well for several months. However, unless you plan to make tortillas or tamales regularly (both rather involved productions), it has limited usage than more common cornmeal. Here’s a recipe for homemade tortillas using masa harina and another for blue corn tortillas.
Corn flour can be milled from either whole or hulled degerminated corn kernels. Its consistency is finer than that of cornmeal. It’s not as commonly available as cornmeal but may be used in some of the same ways, particularly where a finer texture is desired, such as in pancakes, cookies, and light-textured breads. Corn flour is used to make corn pasta.
Cornmeal Nutrition Notes
Whole cornmeal is high in calcium, vitamin A, and the valuable amino acid lysine, an amino acid usually in short supply in grains. It also provides modest amounts of phosphorus and B vitamins. If you choose a whole-grain, stone-ground cornmeal, it’s a great source of fiber. Here’s a complete nutrition profile for whole-grain cornmeal.
Is cornmeal gluten-free?
Happily, the answer is yes. If you have great sensitivity or celiac, make sure to purchase from a source that isn’t processed in a facility where it can be cross-contaminated.
How to Bake with Cornmeal
Cornmeal must be used in conjunction with wheat flour in yeasted bread since it contains no gluten. Replacing up to 25 percent of the flour with cornmeal adds wonderful texture. In baking powder-risen pan bread, a quantity of wheat flour is also usually needed to improve the texture of the bread and make it less crumbly. More or less equal proportions of cornmeal and wheat flour is a good rule of thumb.
Try replacing 25 percent of the flour in cookies with cornmeal for an unusual flavor twist. Cornmeal is the basis of many classic American recipes, including the familiar pan cornbread, as well as hoecakes, johnnycakes, hasty pudding, and much more. Explore American regional cookbooks for these (as well as many other) cornmeal recipes to veganize.
Cooked cornmeal (polenta)
Basic Cooked Cornmeal: Bring 1-quart water to a boil in a large, heavy saucepan or double boiler. Add 1/2 teaspoon salt. Begin stirring the water with a whisk while sprinkling the cornmeal in a thin, steady stream.
Once all the cornmeal is in, turn the heat to very low and cook for 20 to 25 minutes, or until the water is absorbed and the mixture is thick and smooth. It used to be called cornmeal mush, but it sounds more appetizing with its Italian name, polenta.
Polenta with Mushrooms and Chickpeas: This combo adds up to a quick, hearty vegan main dish. Get the recipe here.
Recipes using cooked cornmeal
Polenta, simple or embellished: Cooked cornmeal, aka polenta, may be eaten as a hot cereal with vegan butter and vegan cheese, similar to grits, for breakfast or dinner. It’s easy to embellish, as in the recipe for polenta with mushrooms and chickpeas, shown just above.
Italian-flavored polenta casserole: 1 cup of cornmeal as directed in Basic Cooked Cornmeal, above. When done, pour it into an oiled, round 1 1/2-quart casserole dish and smooth it in evenly. Bake in a preheated oven at 375º F for 15 minutes. Remove from the oven and top with sautéed fresh mushrooms, tomatoes, zucchini, herbs, and vegan mozzarella shreds. Return to the oven and bake for 15 minutes longer. Allow to cool for 10 minutes, then scoop out to serve (serves 4 to 6).
Sautéed polenta squares: To transform cooked cornmeal into a crave-worthy snack, spread cooked cornmeal on a lightly oiled dinner plate or in one or more pie pans in a thickness of about 1/2 inch. Refrigerate overnight. Cut into small squares and fry on a bit of vegan butter in a hot skillet until golden brown and crisp on each side. Serve hot, plain, or with maple syrup, fruit butter, or garlic aioli for dipping.
Chili Bean Casserole with Cornmeal Crust: Easy enough for a casual weekend meal and festive enough to serve as a vegan Thanksgiving main dish, this chili bean casserole features layers of crusty cornmeal.
Recipes made with cornmeal as a flour
Cornmeal pizza dough is an easy way to add volumes of texture to your favorite slice. Simply substitute 1/2 cup of wheat flour with cornmeal in your usual pizza dough recipe. You can also use a handful just to sprinkle underneath, which will help prevent it from sticking to the pan or pizza stone.
Gluten-free cornmeal pancakes: Yes, you can make pancakes that are eggless, dairy-free, and gluten-free. Gluten-free vegan cornmeal pancakes might be just what you’re looking for.
Sweet and Spicy Pancakes: If you’re looking for a fancier pancakes, these fluffy, lightly sweetened Raspberry-Jalapeno Cornbread Pancakes are equal parts flour and cornmeal. They have a heartier texture in addition to a subtly savory cornbread flavor. Juicy raspberries and crisp jalapeños dot the surface of each disk, making every bite both sweet and spicy.
Spoonbread: This classic American recipe is a cross between cornbread and corn pudding traditionally calls for eggs. For the plant-based crowd, here’s an easy recipe for Vegan Corn Spoonbread.
Crispy breading: Beyond breading or flour coating, cornmeal creates a crispy, flavorful, and gluten-free crust on downright addictive Baked Tofu Nuggets with Vegan Tartar Sauce. This same treatmeant is just as successful on seitan, tempeh, or any of your preferred plant-based proteins.
Cornmeal cookies: Vegan Lemon Cornmeal Cookies highlight the versatility of this ingredient by creating a uniquely crunchy and chewy texture all at once. Coated in coarse sugar, it’s a completely irresistable dessert.
Fancy cornmeal dessert: When summer rolls around, the best way to celebrate is by indulging in all sorts of fresh, seasonal fruits. Vegan Tart Cherry Galettes with Cornmeal Crust do just that by wrapping up juicy cherries in a lightly sweet cornmeal crust with a touch of lime zest and black pepper.
Cornbread and corn muffins: Who can resist fresh, rich-tasting corn muffins or bread? Vegan Corn Muffins with Cheese and Herbs takes the concept to the next level with a moist crumb and deeply savory flavor. A perfect pairing with hearty soups and stews. That also goes for Jalapeño Cornbread, in which the hot chiles mellow considerably.
Cornmeal sourdough bread: Sourdough fans, you’re in for a treat with this yeasted sourdough bread combining wheat flour with cornmeal.
A stuffing favorite: If you can manage to spare enough for leftovers, extra cornbread can turn into the very best stuffing for your holiday table. Skillet Cornbread Stuffing with Vegan Sausage is rich, hearty, and deeply satisfying.
Contributed by Hannah Kaminsky: Hannah has developed an international following for her delicious recipes and mouthwatering food photography at the award-winning blog BitterSweet. Passionate about big flavors and simple techniques, she’s the author of Vegan Desserts, Vegan à la Mode, Easy as Vegan Pie, Real Food, Really Fast, Sweet Vegan Treats, The Student Vegan Cookbook, Super Vegan Scoops, and The Everyday Vegan Cheat Sheet Pan. Visit Hannah at BittersweetBlog.com.