You probably are familiar with cornmeal as the key ingredient in cornbread. We go beyond the basics to explain exactly what cornmeal is and how it differs from similarly named products.

By Kelly Vaughan
Updated March 27, 2019
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Despite its notoriety for being the key ingredient in cornbread, cornmeal is not a one-note ingredient. Cornmeal’s vibrant color and flavor brighten up many dishes and it creates a light, crispy crust when fried. Below, we detail what exactly is cornmeal, the difference between cornmeal vs. cornstarch vs. corn flour, and share some of our favorite recipes that utilize the flaky yellow ingredient.

RELATED: What Is Polenta, Exactly?

Cornmeal is made of ground yellow corn ranging in texture from fine to coarse grounds. Most yellow cornmeal, especially the kind found in U.S. supermarkets, is made from dent corn, which has a high starch content and prominent corny texture. While cornmeal is most commonly used in cornbread, it forms a delicious, crispy crust on fish, chicken, and mozzarella sticks. Cornmeal is processed either through a stone ground, which produces a coarser texture and more artisanal product, or steel rollers which produce a finer ground, removes the germ and bran, and makes it shelf-stable. Some polenta recipes note that cornmeal can be used as a substitute; however, authentic polenta dishes like our polenta bake with shrimp use a coarser ground cornmeal labeled specifically as “polenta” for a true Italian texture.

Since cornmeal is only made with dried maize, it is gluten-free. However, there’s always a chance that the cornmeal was processed in the same facility as gluten products, so be sure read your labels. Traditional cornmeal-based recipes like corn muffins, corn bread, and southern hoe cakes do contain gluten.

Cornstarch is a white powder made from the endosperm of the corn kernel (aka the starchy, white interior). Cornstarch is most commonly used as a thickening agent in sauces, puddings, and ice cream. Since cornstarch is only made with corn, it is a naturally gluten-free product that can be used as a substitute where flour would be the thickening agent (like when making a basic roux as a base for béchamel sauce in macaroni and cheese). When adding cornstarch to hot liquid, it should first be tempered to prevent clumping. Yellow cornmeal, on the other hand, is finely ground corn that usually uses the entire kernel. It adds flavor, texture, and body to a dish. Whereas some recipes will only call for one or two tablespoons of cornstarch, others will call for multiple cups of cornmeal.

Corn flour ($3; bobsredmill.com) is very similar to cornstarch; however, corn flour is more finely ground than cornstarch. They can be used interchangeably in cooking to thicken gravy and other sauces. Corn flour is also a popular substitute in gluten-free recipes, as well as the base of homemade corn tortillas and tamales. In the grocery store, you’ll find both corn flour and masa harina; while they are similar products, masa harina is made with corn that has been soaked in a chemical limewater solution, which allows the corn flour to be formed into a dough. Cornmeal, on the other hand, is very coarsely ground compared to cornstarch and corn flour, and is the standout ingredient in muffins and cookies.

If you’re wondering what to do with leftover cornmeal, we’ve got answers. For a bright flavor and crumbly texture that highlight the very best of yellow cornmeal, try a traditional Southern preparation of classic corn spoon bread or this sweet cornmeal crust. In the mood for something sweet? Cornmeal adds a light, crumbly texture and great flavor to marbled maple butter cornbread and strawberry almond cornmeal cake. It also creates an insanely crispy, airy crust on these cornmeal crusted mozzarella sticks or crispy chicken cutlets.