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Kitchen Shrink: How do you decide which cornmeal to use when a recipe doesn’t tell you?

cornmealI recently got this question from John: “Every recipe that I read that includes cornmeal never states what grind to use. How can I determine which grind to use? Should it be Coarse, Fine or Corn flour?” 

Until the last decade, it was very difficult to find anything but steel-ground medium-grind yellow cornmeal in a grocery store (or medium-grind white in areas where it was the traditional choice.) Now the possibilities are much greater. There is a tendency in food writing to list ingredients in their most available form and only add qualifying adjectives if another form of the product is essential. 

Foods made with cornmeal aren’t usually very temperamental so deciding between coarse, medium, and fine grind cornmeal depends on taste. They are interchangeable in most baked products. The coarser the grind, the crunchier and more rustic the finished product. Grits are just an extra-coarse grind of the same corn varieties. Corn flour is the very finest grind; has the texture of wheat flour. When it is used, baked products will be a bit denser and have no crunch. Corn flour is especially good for breading meats before sautéing, thickening sauces, and adding flavor to cookies. It is often used in gluten-free baked goods as well. If you are using an unfamiliar recipe that just calls for cornmeal, using medium grind is a good choice. If the recipe is a “keeper” try other forms of cornmeal until you find one perfect for you. Corn powder is a very new product made by grinding freeze-dried corn. It is used to add a more intense corn flavor to recipes especially designed for its use.

Other things to consider when selecting cornmeal: 

Stone-ground cornmeal usually contains the hull and germ of the corn (the package should say “whole grain”), it has more flavor and nutrition, doesn’t keep as long, and should be stored in the refrigerator. If the package doesn’t say stone-ground, it is steel-ground and has had most of the hull and germ removed. It is not as flavorful or nutritious but keeps longer. 

Cornmeal color may affect flavor intensity but doesn’t usually affect the way the cornmeal works in most recipes, so you can easily substitute the color a recipe calls for with the color you have on hand.

If you have grits or coarse ground cornmeal on hand, you can turn them into any of the finer grinds of meal or even flour in a blender or coffee grinder. 

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