If you are a fan of cornbread year-round and not just when it makes an appearance as part of the Thanksgiving dinner spread, then you probably know that the key to any good cornbread recipe lies in its main ingredient: cornmeal. But, what exactly is this key ingredient? How is it made? Cornstarch vs. corn flour vs. cornmeal: What exactly is the difference between all these corn-prefixed ingredients?
What Is Cornmeal?
Cornmeal is the resulting product of drying and grinding kernels of yellow corn. And, no, not the sweet ears of corn that are relished all summer long. The variety of corn that is used to make cornmeal is different. Called dent corn, this type of corn is easy to mill thanks to its high starch content.
Depending on the way it's ground, store-bought cornmeal ranges in texture from coarse – meaning it's only ground once or twice – to fine, where it's ground multiple times to an almost powder-like texture. Cornmeal that is stone-ground is ground with both the germ and bran intact, making it less shelf-stable than cornmeal that’s degerminated. As a result, stone-ground cornmeal is more nutritious.
What Is Corn Flour?
Made from grinding cornmeal to a fine powder, corn flour is commonly used in baking along with a combination of other flours. There are two different types of corn flour: yellow corn flour and white corn flour, and the difference between the two is what corn kernel it was made from. Yellow corn flour is made using yellow kernels of corn, while white corn flour comes from grinding white kernels of corn.
Yellow corn is generally sweeter, so yellow corn flour has a sweeter taste and is preferred in the baking of pastries, cakes and breads. White corn flour can be used for savory recipes and breads.
What Is Masa Harina?
If you’ve eaten corn tortillas, then you’ve consumed masa harina. Masa harina, which means dough flour in Spanish, is the main ingredient in corn tortillas, and is made from dried hominy. The corn kernels used to make masa harina are soaked in a chemical solution of lime water to remove the outer hull.
Cornstarch Vs. Corn Flour
When making corn flour, the whole kernel of corn is used. But when making cornstarch, only the endosperm part of the corn kernel is used. So the difference between cornstarch and corn flour lies primarily in the part of the corn kernel that is used.
The white powder cornstarch is a common pantry staple and is very starchy. As a result of its starchiness, it is used as a thickening agent for sauces, soups and sometimes even desserts like ice cream.
Cornstarch is naturally gluten-free so it can be used as a gluten-free thickener in place of regular flour. Corn flour can be used to achieve the same function as cornstarch in a recipe – it’s just important to note that corn flour is finer in consistency than cornstarch.
Difference Between Cornmeal and Corn Flour
The major difference between corn flour and cornmeal is its texture and consistency. Cornmeal, made from drying and grinding dent corn, ranges in texture from coarse to fine. It’s more coarsely ground than corn flour. But, essentially, corn meal is the same as corn flour and can be used interchangeably once you take into consideration the textural differences between the two.
While, you can use corn flour in place of cornmeal, it really depends on the recipe in question and the final results you want to achieve. For grits and polenta, which are made from different kinds of ground cornmeal, you would not be able to replace corn flour and achieve the same texture, simply because corn flour is finely ground. If the cornmeal is used to thicken a recipe, then corn flour will make for an adequate substitute.
When substituting corn flour for cornmeal in baking, the finished product will likely be fluffier and less dense in texture. As a result, it should be baked for a shorter amount of time. To achieve the desired consistency, you may have to increase the amount of corn flour used.
Christabel Lobo is a freelance writer focusing on all-things food, travel, and wellness. Her writing has appeared in Tenderly, SilverKris, Byrdie, Trivago, Open Skies, Fodor’s, London’s Evening Standard, Silkwinds, HuffPost, Barclays Travel, Pint Size Gourmets, and on her personal yoga & travel blog, Where’s Bel. Feel free to check out her design and writing portfolio: christabel.co