What is Cornmeal and Which Type Should You Buy At the Store?

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 here to help you find the right cornmeal for the job. 

What is cornmeal, though? 

Simply put, cornmeal is dried and ground field corn (not the 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 the bits. The size of the grind indicates how fast the cornmeal will absorb water (smaller grind = faster absorption), which is why coarsely ground grits take so long to cook into creamy goodness. 

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

Types of cornmeal:

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

Fine and medium cornmeal are 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 that use only all-purpose flour: Substitute a quarter of the 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 percent 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!), turning into a crunchy blueberry crisp topping, or for 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.

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