Cornmeal has been used for ages in cooking and baking as a humble, unsung hero. Other than using it for cornbread or as a crispy coating for foods, how much do you know about cornmeal? This ingredient, which happens to be gluten-free (but check labels to make sure it’s processed in a gluten-free facility), is actually quite versatile and can be used for many purposes. And what about grits and polenta – are they all the same thing as cornmeal? Sit back and let’s explore cornmeal and all its many uses.
1. What is Cornmeal?
Cornmeal is dried ground corn. It’s traditionally made by grinding whole-grain corn kernels between millstones. The cornmeal is coarse and retains the nutrient-dense germ. In modern times, the corn is ground through steel rollers which remove most of the husk and germ. This “degerminated” cornmeal is less nutritious but lasts longer on the shelf. If you want the more nutritious variety, look for the words “stone-ground” on the label.
2. Selection and Storage
Cornmeal comes in several textures including fine, medium and coarse. It also comes in various colors such as blue, white and yellow, depending on the corn ground. You can also buy self-rising cornmeal that has added salt and leavening agents.
When buying cornmeal, check the label for organic corn and for gluten-free certification, if necessary. Store cornmeal in an air-tight container for up to six months, or up to two years in the freezer. Whole-grain cornmeal has oil so store this in the refrigerator to keep from spoiling.
3. Cornmeal in Baking
There are many uses for cornmeal. Unless a recipe specifies which grind of cornmeal to use, you can use medium-grind as an all-purpose cornmeal. Cornmeal is the main ingredient in cornbread, a staple food in Southern cooking that dates back to the Native Americans. For recipes, see 7 Ways to Make Vegan Cornbread and then check out this Almost Oil-Free Jalapeno Cornbread, Buttery Cornbread Squares, Jalapeno and Blueberry Cornbread and this Chili Sin Carne Cornbread Pie.
Cornmeal can be used in other types of baking to add texture and sweetness from the corn. These Raspberry Cornmeal Muffins are a delicious example of this. Try it by swapping out some of the flour in your cake and cookie recipes. Cornmeal can be used to dust baking surfaces to prevent dough from sticking as in these Strawberry Lemon Zest Bagels and for pizzas like this Indian Tikka Masala Pizza and this Bangin’ Buffalo Cauliflower Pizza. You can even make the entire pizza crust from cornmeal like this Polenta Pizza Crust or make these Cornmeal and Nooch Croustades which are similar to tostadas.
4. Crunchy Coatings and Batters
Cornmeal makes a crispy, crunchy coating for baked and fried foods. Try these Crispy, Crunchy Cornmeal, and Pepita Onion Rings, Fried Green Tomatoes with Red Pepper Aioli and Cauliflower Crisps and Tangy Tahini Dressing to see how crunchy cornmeal can be. It makes a crispy topping for casseroles like mac and cheese and this Vegan Pueblo Corn Pie. Make pancakes with cornmeal like these Crispy Cornmeal Pancakes With Blueberry Sauce and these Taco Cornmeal Pancakes.
Other uses for cornmeal include acting as a thickener for soups and chilis and as a binder for burgers like in these Black Bean Apple Burgers With Caramelized Onion Chipotle BBQ Sauce and Shiitake Bacon and these Foolproof Mega Lentil Burgers.
So is polenta really just cornmeal? Technically, polenta is the northern Italian dish rather than the ingredient but the terms are used interchangeably. While polenta can be made with other ingredients (I like making polenta with chickpea flour), it is usually made with yellow cornmeal. While you can buy bags that say “polenta” on them, any medium – or coarse – ground cornmeal will work fine.
Polenta is cooked on the stovetop. You mix the cornmeal with water, milk or broth and cook until the grains swell and release their starches. It will become thick and creamy. Some people like to add cheese to the polenta and let it melt on top of veggies as in this Lemon Seitan and Creamy Polenta dish.
When it cools, polenta solidifies. To make crispy polenta, pour the hot mixture into a baking pan, cover it with plastic wrap and refrigerate for several hours until solid. Then you can cut the polenta into blocks, sticks or chunks and fry them until they are brown and crispy. Other recipes using polenta include this Cheezy Polenta Bruschetta, Polenta Bake With Caramelized Onions and Portobello Bacon, Fiesta Polenta, Pav Bhaji With Gluten Free Polenta Brioche Buns, Asian Broccolette Polenta, and Zucchini Polenta Fries and Zucchini Polenta Scramble.
You can also buy “quick-cooking” polenta which is par-cooked so instead of forty minutes, you can have a bowl of polenta in just five. Prepared polenta is sold in big tubes and can be cut into pieces for cooking or melted on the stovetop into a creamy consistency. The tube variety is used in this Polenta Benedict (Vegan Eggs Benedict) and this Super Simple Fiesta Jackfruit and Polenta.
Grits are a Southern dish also made from cornmeal. Usually, grits are made with a coarse white cornmeal. Grits are cooked the same way as polenta, and you can also buy instant grits which take just a few minutes to prepare.
Recipes for grits include this Smokey Pumpkin Grits with Maple-Roasted Pepitas, Southwestern Style Grits, Grilled Cheesy Grit Cakes and Smoky Pumpkin Grits with Shitake Mushrooms in Kale Pesto Cream Sauce.
7. Masa and Hominy
Masa harina and hominy are types of cornmeal where corn kernels have been soaked in lye or limewater before being dried and finely ground. Soaking them in lye removes the bran and makes the niacin more digestible. Recipes using this type of cornmeal include these Corn Tortillas and this “Chicken” Green Chili and Hominy Posole.
You probably have a bag of cornmeal somewhere in your pantry. Now is the time to take it out and see all the delicious dishes you can make with this underappreciated ingredient.
Lead image source: Chili Sin Carne Cornbread Pie