- Which Cornmeal Is Which?
- Stone Ground Cornmeal
- CORNBREAD COMES IN 2 STYLES – SOUTHERN WHITE, YANKEE YELLOW
- How we tested
- Choosing the Lineup
- Our Top-Rated Cornbread Was Smooth and Cakey
- Why the Textural Differences? There Are Germs in Your Cornbread
- What About Enriched Cornmeal?
- Flavors Mattered, but Not as Much as Textures
- The Winner: Anson Mills Antebellum Fine Yellow Cornmeal
- What is Polenta?
- Can You Use Cornmeal to Make Polenta?
- Cornmeal vs. Polenta: So what’s the bottom line?
- What are Other Typical Polenta Ingredients?
- Southern Kitchen’s definitive list of the best cornbread mixes you can buy
Which Cornmeal Is Which?
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.
Stone Ground Cornmeal
Five years ago, almost to the day, I wrote about the incredible 150-year-old Graue Mill on my blog. Click on the link to get all the fine details, but know that it is a fascinating piece of American history in addition to producing the best stone ground cornmeal and whole wheat flour.
Graue Mill has been a destination of mine since grade school when our classes took field trips there in the fall. I still go every year to pick up the cornmeal and whole wheat flour. They both come in those lovely flour sacks tied with string and will keep indefinitely in the refrigerator or freezer. I stock up once a year because they close in November for the winter, plus it’s about an hour or so away and once the Chicago snow hits, it’s not somewhere I want to drive anyway. My husband Bill happened to be driving right past the mill on the way to a job site and I convinced him to run in and grab my supplies for the winter. He also picked up the recipe booklets.
I called my mom and told her I had my supply of Graue Mill cornmeal, which she knows well. I told her one of her favorites, cornmeal mush, was in the recipe booklet. “Oh, I want some right now,” she said. I grew up eating cornmeal mush, and also fried cornmeal mush. It was a staple at our house. So you know what I had to make. This one’s for you, mom! Actually, both are for you. How I wish you could taste it.
The process of making cornmeal mush has to begin the night before, or even days before if you prefer. It keeps well. Some of the cornmeal is mixed with cold water, salt, and a little flour. Boiling water is stirred in and cooked quickly for about 10 minutes, then transferred to a double boiler where it will cook another 1-1/2 hours. When done and cooled slightly, line a loaf pan with non-stick foil and spoon in the mixture. (Mom, do you recognize your old loaf pan?)
Cover and refrigerate overnight, then slice into pieces the next day and fry in some butter and serve with maple syrup. It’s good alongside link pork sausages too.
If you prefer not to fry pieces and just eat the mush as is, it’s great that way too. After the cooking period described above, you can eat it right away with some butter and cream or maple syrup, or chill it in a container and reheat in the morning, maybe adding some milk or water if you find it is too thick to your liking.
Either way, it’s a healthy and wonderfully delicious way to begin a cool autumn morning, or a ferocious blizzard when winter hits. Cornmeal mush is very filling and satisfying and will hold you for the day.
Sorry you can’t have some of this, mom, but I can mail you a bag!
Fried Cornmeal Mush Ingredients
- 1 cup stone ground cornmeal
- 1 cup cold water
- 1 teaspoon salt
- ¼ cup flour (I bet any flour of your choice would work. I have used both all-purpose and whole wheat)
- 3 cups boiling water (approximate, as it depends on how thick you prefer, plus the brand of cornmeal used. Not everyone is lucky enough to have Graue Mill, so you could go as high as 4 cups)
- In a saucepan, mix together the cornmeal, cold water, salt, and flour; mix thoroughly. Add 3 cups boiling water and cook over high heat, stirring constantly, for 10 minutes.
- Transfer to the top of a double boiler set over simmering water and continue cooking, stirring occasionally, for 1-1/2 hours or until thickened, and checking water in pan to make sure it has not boiled away. Remove from heat and let cool slightly.
- Line a loaf pan with non-stick foil, having foil hanging over sides so you can lift it up and out of the pan the next day for easier slicing and handling. Cover pan and refrigerate overnight or for several days.
- To make fried mush slices, lift the cold cornmeal mixture up and out of the loaf pan. Lay on a flat surface and pull down foil. Slice into equal-sized pieces.
- Heat some butter and oil in a skillet and add cornmeal slices. Cook over medium-high heat until browned and crispy on both sides. Remove to serving dishes and pass maple syrup.
P.S. The whole wheat flour booklet has recipes for cornmeal/whole wheat muffins, orange wheat quick bread (with orange juice wheat germ, and walnuts), whole wheat waffles, whole wheat yeast bread, and brown nut quick bread (with molasses, buttermilk, and brown sugar). Which one should I make for another blog??
- Amazon – The quickest way to find cornmeal might be online. Try Amazon for a wide variety of brands and vendors.
- Walmart – Walmart stocks cornmeal in the grain and baking aisles. You can use the store locator on the company website for product availability information in any store.
- Whole Foods – Whole Foods sells Arrowhead Mills, Bob’s Red Mill and other brands in the baking and grain aisles, but check the bulk bins, too.
- Your Local Health Food Store – Cornmeal is a pretty popular gluten-free ingredient, so try the gluten-free section of the natural food store.
- Safeway – If you’re at Safeway, look in the baking and international sections for O Organics, Goya or store brand cornmeal.
- Target – You’ll find Quaker, Maseca and other brands near the flours in the baking aisle of Target.
- Kroger – Check the baking and international aisles for cornmeal at Kroger.
- Publix – Publix offers its own store brand as well Bob’s Red Mill and Quaker.
- Ethnic Markets – You’ll probably find cornmeal at spots like Latin and Caribbean markets.
View full sizeJenna DeMattia Masters
It seems so simple. You want to make corn bread or polenta or maybe a cornmeal-crusted fish fillet, and the recipe calls for cornmeal. So you head for the baking aisle at the grocery store to pick some up. But instead of just one type of cornmeal, you have four or five choices, all slightly different from each other. Some have “stone-ground” on the label; others specify coarse grind. Some are called grits. Who knew it would be so hard?
The good news is, what you choose is mostly a matter of personal taste. Here’s how to sort it all out.
White, yellow or blue corn:
White corn tends to have a milder flavor. Yellow corn has more vitamin A. Blue corn, which is a bit harder to find, has a little more protein and antioxidants.
When you see this, you know the corn has been ground with the germ intact, which makes it a whole grain. It has more vitamins, minerals and fiber. The germ also has some fat, which means stone-ground cornmeal can go rancid, so store it in the freezer if you’re not going to use it up fast.
This is more flourlike and less toothsome than coarse-ground cornmeal. If you’re making something that needs a softer texture but still has that delicious corn flavor, go for fine-ground. Think muffins, spoonbread, pancakes and coatings for fried foods.
This is a good choice when you want a little more texture in the finished product. It can be used in pretty much the same places as fine-ground, but the results will be more rustic. It’s the traditional choice for Southern-style cornbread, which tends to be more dense and savory than the sweet, cakelike cornbread you get from a box mix.
It’s a bit chunkier than medium-grind, and because the grains are larger, they take longer to soften. Baked goods will end up having crunchy bits of cornmeal, which some people love and others don’t. It’s a great choice for polenta and porridge. In fact, most companies label their coarse-ground cornmeal as polenta or grits (which are essentially the same thing). However, Bob’s Red Mill makes a subtle distinction, grinding its corn for polenta into a texture that’s between medium and coarse, and removing the germ so it’ll cook up softer.
Mix them up:
If you want tenderness but don’t want to give up on texture, try combining different grinds of cornmeal. For example, try making corn bread or corn muffins with a combination of fine- and medium-ground cornmeal. It’ll be light and tender, but with a little coarser crumb. If you typically use medium-ground cornmeal but want a bit of crunch, add a little coarse-ground cornmeal. If you’re making a tart or breading for fried foods, try replacing about 1/4 cup of all-purpose flour with coarse cornmeal for just a hint of crunch. Don’t be afraid to play around to find the mix that’s right for you.
And here’s a tip:
If you only have medium- or coarse-grind cornmeal on hand and need it to be finer, just grind it in a clean spice mill (essentially a blade coffee grinder dedicated to spices, not coffee beans).
Although the corn that grows around the world comes in a large and diverse palette of colors—there’s blue, there’s orange, there’s purple—at most U.S. markets the selection is a bit more limited, with options ranging from yellow or white to…yellow and white. We got to wondering—call us bi-color-curious—is there any difference between the two?
So, what is the difference between yellow and white corn?
Frankly not much, at least in terms of flavor. Though some people believe that yellow corn is sweeter, that’s not the case. The only difference is that the naturally occurring pigment that makes those kernels yellow, beta carotene, gives them a bit of a nutritional edge over white corn—beta carotene turns into vitamin A during digestion.
In fact, in 2008 researchers found a couple of long-lost strains of corn—yellow and, particularly, orange—that were so heavy in beta carotene that they were touted as a possibly crucial source of the nutrient in parts of Latin America and Africa, where chronic vitamin A deficiency can lead to blindness. (One challenge may be that corn-color preference tends to be culturally specific—in the U.S. the norm is yellow and/or white corn, whereas people in Africa are accustomed to white corn; orange corn is popular elsewhere, like in parts of Asia.)
Do other colors of corn contain other nutrients?
Let’s take a step back and clarify what we mean by “corn.” Long ago in Europe, “corn” was just a generic term for whatever happened to be the major crop in a given country or region—in England “corn” could have referred to wheat, whereas in Scotland or Ireland it could have meant oats. So when European colonists arrived in what would become North America and brought the primary New World crop back to Europe—a crop more properly referred to as maize—they called it “Indian corn.”
“After a while domesticated maize became so ubiquitous that the word ‘Indian’ was dropped, and all maize became corn—like all facial tissue becoming Kleenex,” writes Mark Lasbury of the fascinating biology blog As Many Exceptions as Rules.
Today the term “Indian corn” refers to ears of corn—usually flint corn, a cousin of sweet corn—that are vibrantly colored and typically ornamental. But the corn—er, maize—colonial-era Native Americans grew was also vibrantly colored, in an array of hues, described by the Connecticut colony governor John Winthrop Jr. as “red, yellow, blew, olive colour, and greenish,” with some black kernels, and so on. A piece in the New York Times a few years ago reported that some of these colors—black, red, blue—indicated the rich presence of anthocyanins, pigments that “have the potential to fight cancer, calm inflammation, lower cholesterol and blood pressure, protect the aging brain, and reduce the risk of obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease.”
How do I get those nutrients, then?
Look for corn with the deepest yellow kernels. Look for blue or purple cornmeals. And whoa, check out this glass gem corn, developed by a breeder in Oklahoma. Good for popping and grinding into cornmeal, it’s for sale, but in short supply.
So if color doesn’t determine sweetness, what does?
Centuries of breeding, chance history, some recent tinkering. At war with Native American tribes in 1779, some American troops came across a field of particularly sweet yellow corn that the Iroquois had been growing, seized it, and began to grow the strain for themselves, making it a forerunner of modern sweet corn. Still, an early problem posed by corn was that it would lose about half its sweetness within 24 hours of picking, becoming more and more starchy. So in the 1800s, American planters began mixing and matching corn characteristics to breed varieties that would stay sweeter longer—meaning the kernels had more sugar. Thus developed the three main strains of corn we see today in the U.S.: normal sugary, sugar-enhanced (which has twice as much sugar as normal sugary), and supersweet (three times as much). Supersweet corn lasts longer off the stalk, but what was lost in the process, flavorwise, is a certain creaminess that characterized the older breeds.
CORNBREAD COMES IN 2 STYLES – SOUTHERN WHITE, YANKEE YELLOW
Cornbread is a Southern staple, a tradition that spans generations.
Many cornbread cooks use cast-iron skillets or cornstick pans that have been passed down from mothers, grandmothers, even great-grandmothers.Cornbread has many variations but two styles – white cornbread and yellow cornbread.
Linda Carman, director of consumer affairs and test kitchens at Nashville-based Martha White Foods, says, “Southern cornbread is made with white corn meal, which means it’s made from white corn. Yellow corn meal comes from yellow corn . . . I grew up in Cullman (Ala.) and I never ate any yellow cornbread.”
Carman recalls that her mother “always made the very same cornbread every day. We’d have several vegetables, and maybe some meat, but always cornbread. She made her cornbread in a big iron skillet. The cornbread was very thin and crisp all over. We liked all that crunchy part . . . She cut it in wedges and it was wonderful.”
But she says, “All these years of reading and talking about corn-bread, I’ve never found a definitive method.”
Variations on the cornbread theme include corncakes and corn light bread. The latter is made in a loaf pan with buttermilk, and is “very, very dense and very sweet,” Carman says.
There are some basic differences between Southern corn-bread and what many people call “Yankee” cornbread.
Southern cornbread, besides being made from white corn meal, has very little sugar in it – between a teaspoon and a tablespoon. And it is made with buttermilk. Typically it is made in a preheated oven, with a skillet that has been preheated.
Carman says Yankee cornbread usually contains half yellow cornmeal and half flour. It is sweet, having been made with sugar, and contains more eggs.
“People in the South who make cornbread every day usually use self-rising corn meal, because it amounts to a pre-mix that already has the baking powder and salt in it,” she says.
Martha White is second to Quaker Oats Co. in production of corn meal. The company’s distribution is limited to the South and parts of the Midwest, but Carman notes that these are regions where shoppers often buy five pounds of corn meal per week.
White corn meal is the bigger seller, but she says that during the past few years she has noticed “people that I consider traditional Southern cooks buying yellow corn meal because it looks a bit different, and it may taste a little different.”
One tip she offers when making cornbread is this: Be sure the batter is pourable, similar to pancake batter. “If it’s too thin, it won’t get done. If it’s dry, it’s going to be dry and crumbly.”
Jo Ellen O’Hara is a staff writer for the Birmingham (Ala.) News
MOM’S CRISPY CORNBREAD
3 tablespoons vegetable shortening or oil
1/2 cup milk or 3/4 cup buttermilk
1/4 cup water
1 and one-fourth cups Martha White self-rising corn meal mix
Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Place shortening in 10-inch skillet and put skillet in oven to heat. (It will take only 4 to 5 minutes to heat. Watch closely: Grease will ignite if overheated.) Beat egg in medium mixing bowl. Add milk, water and corn meal; stir to blend. Batter should be fairly thin; add more water if necessary. Remove skillet from oven. Carefully pour most of the hot shortening into batter; stir quickly. Pour batter into hot skillet. Return to oven and bake 10-12 minutes or until golden brown. Turn out onto plate, leaving crisp brown bottom crust up. Cut into wedges.
Note from Linda Carman: This cornbread is thin and crisp, traditionally served with fresh vegetables in the summer, dried peas and beans or soups and stews in the winter.
2 cups self-rising corn meal
2 eggs, beaten
1/2 cup oil
4 teaspoons flour
11/2 cups buttermilk
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Combine corn meal, egg, oil, flour and buttermilk in bowl; mix well. Pour into greased cast-iron skillet. Bake at 350 degrees for 35 minutes.
(Makes 8 servings)
From “Golden Goodies”
HEAVENLY HUSH PUPPIES
1 cup white corn meal
1 tablespoon flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
3/4 teaspoon salt
1 medium onion, minced
1 egg, beaten
6 tablespoons milk
oil for deep frying
Combine corn meal, flour, baking powder, salt and soda in bowl. Add onion, buttermilk and egg; mix well. Drop by tablespoonsful into 375-degree oil. Deep-fry until golden brown. Hush puppies may be fried with fish.
(Makes 24 hush puppies)
From “Golden Goodies”
This simple staple, made from dried corn kernels that have been ground into meal, comes in a number of variations. The first, texture, depends on how well the corn kernels are ground; cornmeal can come in fine, medium, or coarse grind. The second, color, depends on the type of corn used; cornmeal can be yellow, white, or blue.
The last variation is the method of grinding: it can be traditional water-ground (also called stone-ground) or the more modern steel-ground. In water-ground cornmeal, water is used to power the rotation of the mill’s stone wheels. This method does not entirely eliminate the corn’s hull and germ; this makes water-ground cornmeal the more nutritious choice because it retains more fiber and other nutrients, but a higher fat content also means it will spoil faster than steel-ground. Water-ground cornmeal should be stored in the refrigerator for up to four months. Steel-ground cornmeal is ground on steel rollers that almost entirely eliminate the husk and germ; without the fat-containing germ, steel-ground cornmeal will keep almost indefinitely in an airtight container in a cool, dark place. Usually, water-ground or stone-ground cornmeal will be labeled as such; unlabeled cornmeal is typically steel-ground.
How we tested
I used to take cornmeal for granted. Growing up in Louisiana, cornbread, arguably the most common of cornmeal applications, was often on the dinner table. Sometimes it was even shaped like little ears of corn, courtesy of a molded cast-iron pan. (If you’re ever in an antique store in the South, I highly recommend looking for one.) I never questioned the brand of cornmeal because, frankly, that would have been a really weird thing to do as a kid. But as an adult, with multiple cornmeal options on the market and a specific idea of what cornbread should taste like, I now care very much about what different brands have to offer. As chef, PBS personality, and author Vivian Howard states in her 2016 cookbook, Deep Run Roots, “Your cornbread is a window into your soul.” Forget horoscopes, tell me which cornmeal brand you use.
Choosing the Lineup
We had previously tested cornmeal, but our winner was discontinued. So we chose five nationally available brands, excluding cornbread and corn muffin mixes with added ingredients such as sugar and baking soda. If a brand offered multiple grind sizes, we selected “fine” as that’s our preference for baking. Even though we sometimes add cornmeal to fry batters in recipes such as Fried Green Tomatoes and Homemade Corn Dogs, we wanted to test these cornmeals in recipes in which they took center stage. So we went straight to the holy grail of cornmeal applications, which uses all cornmeal and no additional flour: Southern-Style Skillet Cornbread. To see how the cornmeals performed when combined with flour, we made our Cornmeal Buttermilk Pancakes.
Our Top-Rated Cornbread Was Smooth and Cakey
Every cornmeal produced satisfactory pancakes. The cornbreads were much more revealing—especially when it came to their textures, which ranged from smooth, moist, and tender to grainy and crumbly. Our least favorite cornmeal produced a “dry” cornbread that “falls apart very easily,” a drawback to most (but not all) tasters. Another product made “grainy” cornbread; some tasters compared it to eating couscous. Even though that product was labeled “fine grind,” the meal itself looked coarser than the rest.
Our 21-person tasting panel overwhelmingly loved the “smooth,” “very moist” cornbread made with our winning cornmeal, noting that it had a “noticeably more soft” texture that “holds together nicely.”
Why the Textural Differences? There Are Germs in Your Cornbread
To assess the grind sizes of the cornmeals, we sifted them using a series of sieves. One product (appropriately labeled as “fine” grind) was significantly finer than the rest, while another (also labeled as “fine”) was markedly more coarse. The grind sizes of the other three—one labeled “fine” and two that offered no specific grind size on their labels—fell somewhere in-between.
Tasters found the very coarse product’s cornbread “grainy,” “gritty,” and more “rustic” than other samples. But overall, tasters cared more about moisture levels than how rough or fine-textured the breads were; they strongly preferred the two “moist” cornbreads to the three that were perceived as being drier. To learn why some of the cornmeals produced moist cornbreads, we talked to Dr. Charles Hurburgh, professor of agricultural and biosystems engineering at Iowa State University. He explained that a cornbread’s moisture level probably had more to do with whether or not the corn kernels were degerminated prior to grinding than with how finely or coarsely they were ground.
Dr. Hurburgh said it’s standard practice for high-capacity corn grinding mills to remove the germ—the center part of the corn kernel that contains vitamins, enzymes, and corn oil—prior to grinding the corn. There are two reasons for this. First, manufacturers can sell the corn oil they harvest from the germ. Second, the oil in the germ will turn rancid over time, so removing the germ prior to grinding helps to prolong a cornmeal’s shelf life.
According to our science research editor, a cornmeal’s label may report that it contains 0 grams of fat, but that doesn’t mean it contains no fat at all. The amounts are just too small to register when calculating the nutritional information. He also noted that, on average, the fat content of degerminated cornmeal is 1.75 percent, whereas the fat content of non-degerminated cornmeal is almost 4 percent. Even though the difference in fat content between the two is small, it can make a difference: cornmeals made from kernels with their fatty germs intact would be more likely to produce a moist cornbread. Sure enough, our two favorite cornmeal products—the ones that produced moist cornbreads—were not degerminated.
What About Enriched Cornmeal?
Along with “degerminated,” we spotted “enriched” on a few of the cornmeal labels. Hurburgh said the “enriched” labeling typically means that the manufacturers of those cornmeals added back the vitamins that were removed during processing. A few brands we tested were enriched, but this enrichment didn’t affect the flavors or textures of the cornbreads we tasted.
Flavors Mattered, but Not as Much as Textures
We didn’t give tasters any condiments for their cornbread—no butter, no honey, no salt, nothing. We did this to ensure consistency across all samples and to keep the tasters focused on the flavors of the cornbreads without any distractions. (We weren’t trying to be cruel, we’re just very methodical.)
Tasters observed that some of the cornbreads were more “subdued” in flavor, while others had a “prominent” corn taste. Our lowest-ranked cornmeal produced a cornbread that had a “very strong” corn flavor, with multiple tasters comparing it to a tortilla chip. Our winner, on the other hand, had a more neutral flavor, with some calling it “buttery.” We asked Dr. Hurburgh what might account for flavor differences, assuming the type of corn used might play a role. He explained that it’s difficult to determine the types of corn used to make cornmeals because most grind mills process commodity corn—a wide mixture of different farmers’ grains. However, some, including the manufacturer of our winning cornmeal, do use only one type of corn, which may impart a specific flavor profile.
The Winner: Anson Mills Antebellum Fine Yellow Cornmeal
The cornbread made with our favorite cornmeal, Anson Mills Antebellum Fine Yellow Cornmeal was smooth and tender, cake-like in consistency with a buttery, but generally subdued, corn flavor. We ordered this cornmeal online, as it’s considered something of a specialty product, but not to worry—we also chose a winning supermarket brand: Goya Fine Yellow Corn Meal. The cornbread made with this meal had a pleasant savory flavor and a melt-in-your mouth texture.
Ultimately, we can recommend every cornmeal we tasted. Which product you choose depends on your preferences. If you happen to like a crumbly cornbread or one with a coarse texture, try one of our lower-ranked, but perfectly acceptable, cornmeals.
When determining our lineup, we looked for fine-grind, yellow cornmeals because that is what we call for most often in our recipes. Twenty-one America’s Test Kitchen staffers sampled five nationally available products (three labeled “fine” and two with no grind size listed on their labels), in Southern-Style Skillet Cornbread and in Cornmeal Buttermilk Pancakes. Nutrition information and ingredients were taken from product labels or provided by company representatives, and are based on a 3-tablespoon serving size. We purchased the products either online or in local grocery stores, and the prices shown are what we paid. The cornmeals are listed below in order of preference.
Ah, the endless polenta vs. cornmeal debate. A few nights ago I found myself standing in the bulk section of my grocery store, staring blankly at a bin of cornmeal. I had come in search of polenta, which I had planned to make for dinner. But it seemed as though everybody else had the same plan—the polenta was sold out. However, there was plenty of coarse-ground cornmeal, and from all I knew they were essentially the same thing. So I went home and made, um, polenta. And it worked. Sort of. I cooked it low and slow, and the results were indeed porridge-like. But something was missing in consistency and flavor.
Confused, I reached out for help. Glenn Roberts, of Anson Mills in South Carolina, and Sarah House, of Bob’s Red Mill in Oregon, were able to set the facts straight:
What is Polenta?
Polenta is not an ingredient—it’s a a dish. “The term ‘polenta’ refers to the traditional Italian preparation of a variety of coarsely ground grains or starches cooked into a porridge,” says House. “For example, Northern Italy is known for polenta taragna, a porridge of cornmeal and buckwheat meal.” Chestnut flour, chickpea flour, or coarse ground rice are just a few of the many grains that were traditionally used, and are still used, in Italy. However, cornmeal polenta is by far the most common preparation and today, particularly in the United States, when you hear the term “polenta,” it refers to the cornmeal version.
Can You Use Cornmeal to Make Polenta?
So, is polenta cornmeal? And can you use those bags labeled “cornmeal” and “polenta” interchangeably? Yes and no. “Most people, including chefs we know and love, say any version of medium or coarsely ground corn works for polenta,” says Roberts. “Ultimately, yes, a cook can prepare a porridge from medium or coarsely ground corn. Fine-grind can be a bit too pasty if prepared this way. I like best for baking or breading. But for those who are sticklers for authenticity, choosing a product specially designed for polenta will produce an ideal dish,” says Sarah.
True polenta is made from a specific variety of corn. “Polenta should be made from corn that at one point culturally grew in Italy, even if the variety is now grown in the United States,” says Roberts. Authentic polenta is most typically made from a variety of corn called eight-row flint, or otto file in Italian. It’s an heirloom variety that produces a porridge that is deep in both color and flavor. It’s also milled differently from cornmeal, which yields a different, fuller mouthfeel.
In a pinch, sure, use that medium or coarse-ground cornmeal for polenta. But when possible, try to seek out the cornmeal that’s labeled “polenta,” as this is most likely to be the real stuff, the otto file—the stuff that will yield a bowl of porridge with a rich yellow-orange hue and a specific, addictive sweetness. Look for polenta from respected mills domestically and in Italy. Roberts likes Mulino Marino, a mill in Northern Italy whose polenta is made from the eight-row flint variety. And, of course, he also recommends his own company’s polenta, which also uses this heirloom corn.
What are Other Typical Polenta Ingredients?
Traditionally polenta is cooked in water. But it can also be made with stock or milk for added creaminess and flavor. Be sure to season with salt. Toward the end of the cooking process, it’s common to stir butter or olive oil in to the polenta for luxe creaminess. It’s also common to add cheese, like Parmesan. Then, your polenta can be topped with any number of things. Ragout is typical, but it’s also delicious served with mushrooms, roasted vegetables, or with a protein like fish. Or, just eat it on its own, as a creamy porridge. Need to know more about how to cook polenta, step by step? Check it out here.
1 / 27Chevron Chevron Wild Mushroom and Parsnip Ragout with Cheesy Polenta This hearty mushroom ragout gets a boost of earthy flavor from umami-packed tomato and miso pastes. Using a good mixture of wild mushroom such as maitake, shiitake, and porcini will add a nice richness to the ragout, but if you can’t find them, crimini or button mushrooms are a good substitute. Serve with garlicky sautéed spinach or a side salad alongside. Get This Recipe
Southern Kitchen’s definitive list of the best cornbread mixes you can buy
Our preferred method of cooking classic Southern cornbread involves a cast iron skillet and a little bit of elbow grease. But (real talk) we’ve got to admit that sometimes we take a few shortcuts and pull out a mix.
The cornbread mix selection at most grocery stores is pretty extensive. From honey to cheddar jalapeño, you can pretty much always find a cornbread mix that fits your taste. Still, we wanted to know: With this large selection, which mix tastes the best? Which has the best texture and flavor?
The only way to find out? Pull out a lot (and we mean a lot) of cake pans and get baking. Our results, below.
Our testing process and criteria
We selected seven cornbread mixes to bake in the test kitchen to see if any of them stood up to real-deal homemade cornbread — golden brown, flavorful, moist, and a little crumbly, but not so much that the bread falls to bits as you pull it it out of the pan. Although some mixes required more ingredients than others, we followed the directions written on each package and baked all of the cornbread at the same time.
Our judges were asked to rate each cornbread for its corn flavor, texture and appearance on a scale of 1 to 5, and to provide their overall impression. We tallied up the results from our nine judges, and the highest possible score a cornbread could receive was 135. We had a gut feeling we knew which mix would come out on top, but in the end, we had a surprise winner.
Below are the results of our cornbread taste test, ranked from least enjoyable to the very best.
Tenda-Bake Cornmeal Mix
This sad dish of cornbread (if you can call it that) was so dry and pale that we could barely get a piece of it down or out of the pan. Our tasters were not afraid to point out its flaws. One even called it “dry, crumbly and sad!” It was clear that this cornbread lacked flavor, but another glaring flaw was its texture. One taster described it as grainy and too crumbly, while another said “ is dusty and needs a prayer.” Overall this cornbread was “awful, awful, awful.”
Corn flavor: 15 Texture: 15 Appearance: 12 Total: 42
Martha White Buttermilk Cornbread
When you look at a piece of cornbread, it should make you hungry. That was not the case with this cornbread mix. Not only did one taster call it “white, flat and boring,” its corn flavor was lacking and it had an unappealing texture as well. “ tastes like dry Cracker Barrel cornbread,” another taster said. Yet another wrote, “ is not the worst, but it tastes boxed and processed.” One particularly detailed taster said, “I think this was included in Civil War rations. Extraction was, shall we say, difficult.” Indeed, you couldn’t take a full piece out of the pan without it crumbling into dust.
Corn flavor: 14 Texture: 16 Appearance: 14 Total: 44
White Lily Cornmeal Mix
When it comes to making biscuits, White Lily flour is, hands-down, one of the best products to use. However, its cornmeal mix definitely missed the mark. Our judges were unimpressed with this bland, grainy cornbread. “PALE! Meh. Needs a lot of butter,” one taster commented. Along with a lack of flavor, it was really difficult to extract a full piece of cornbread from the pan. “You can’t even take it out of the pan without it crumbling,” one disappointed taster remarked. Another taster said “ is grainy and crumbles into nearly powder.” One of our tasters told us later that he loves using this mix at home, but he puts his own touch on it by adding in cheese, bacon and/or scallions. He also suggests adding a little more buttermilk than the recipe calls for, then letting the mixture rest for 10 minutes, to hydrate the cornmeal, before baking. Wise advise.
Corn flavor: 17 Texture: 15 Appearance: 16 Total: 48
Zatarain’s Cheddar Jalapeño Cornbread Mix
We broke our own rules by adding this cornbread mix into the taste test — it’s not a traditional, plain mix. However, we really wanted to know how a spicy cornbread stood up against the rest of the group, and since all Southerners put their own touch on cornbread, we figured spicy cornbread mix would be a frequent-enough purchase to test. We also didn’t forewarn our tasters, so they were definitely surprised by its flavor.
They did, however, have mixed feelings. One taster wrote: “It’s sweet then POW! So spicy I like it, but confused, but then I like it.” To one taster, “the spiciness was more intense than expected.” Many tasters, however, were disappointed in its texture. “It’s soft, crumbly and sad. Sad like the end of a Trump tweet,” one wrote. Still, its golden brown color was much more appealing than other contestants in this taste test. Overall, it was a straight middle-of-the-road offering.
Corn flavor: 26.5 Texture: 24 Appearance: 25 Total: 75.5
Causey Cornmeal Mix
You have to put a lot of effort into making cornbread out of this cornmeal mix. You’ll need sugar, eggs, vegetable oil, sour cream and creamed style corn to turn this mix into cornbread. If you’re willing to put in a little more effort, however, ou’ll be rewaded with a moist, tender bread. Too moist? Perhaps. Our tasters were split. Some thought this cornbread was too moist to even be considered cornbread: “It’s more like cornbread pudding. Not cornbread!” Another wrote, “Corn mud. Looks way cuter than it tastes. I’m unhappy.” But others found its texture particulary delightful after eating some of the drier options: “Amazingly soft like a squishy pillow — love it,” one taster said. “Great overall, I really like how soft, dare I say … supple, this one is.” Still, all of those rich ingredients left the cornbread with a distinct greasiness that left our tasters wondering what they had just eaten. Overall, this cornbread was “better than some, but we can’t all be winners.”
Corn flavor: 28 Texture: 27 Appearance: 33 Total: 88
Jiffy Corn Muffin Mix
Chances are, if you’ve had Jiffy once in your life, you don’t forget its flavor or texture. When looking for a quick cornbread mix that doesn’t need 100 additional ingredients, Jiffy is one of our favorite mixes on the shelf — especially for those of us who like a sweeter cornbread — and it performed admirably in our taste test. Tasters found it easy to extract a piece of the cornbread from the baking pan, with only a few crumbs left behind. “ what I expect from cornbread,” one taster said. “It passed the test.” “It’s a nice mixture between crumbly and sturdy. Hello Jiffy!” another taster wrote. Its flavor was slightly sweet and corn-forward, but tasters thought it could use a little bit more oomph and a tad more moisture. “ a good hearty cornbread,” one taster said. “Love the flavor and texture that’s slightly crumbly, but … doesn’t fall apart.”
Corn flavor: 33 Texture: 34 Appearance: 36 Total: 103
Krusteaz Southern Cornbread Mix
Going into the blind taste test, our assumed that Jiffy would come out on top, so we were a bit surprised with the final tally. With a bit more corn flavor, Krusteaz knocked Jiffy out of the top spot. One taster wrote: “After every other cornbread here, this was a goddamn salvation. It’s soft and pillowy. Not too shabby.” Tasters found this mix produced a cornbread that was “more flavorful than most.” Another taster said this cornbread “was very sweet and does kind of have a good corn aftertaste.” Our tasters were also happy to see this cornbread could be extracted in one piece with ease. There was a slight crumble, but it was a healthy and what you should expect. However, with the good comes the bad. One taster, however, truly disliked Krusteaz: “It seems artificial. This is kinda bullshit.” You can’t please ’em all.
Corn flavor: 35 Texture: 34 Appearance: 35 Total: 104