There’s more to cornmeal than cornbread and corn muffins.
Corn was, after all, the original grain of the Americas; its many species adapted well to the wide variety of climates and topographies of the New World. It was also easy to preserve, as its kernels could be dried. Dried corn is too hard to eat, but it can be reconstituted in several ways. Native Americans figured out how to process it with wood ash to soften it and remove the skin. The same basic process is used today, with slaked lime or lye. The result is called hominy. Hominy can be wet-ground into flour called masa harina (used to make tortillas) or cracked coarsely into the breakfast cereal or side dish we know as grits.
Cornmeal, however, is none of the above. To make it, dried corn is ground into meal. Nothing more exotic.
How It’s Sold
Like the corn it comes from, cornmeal is available in three colors: white, yellow and blue, though the last can be hard to find. When you buy cornmeal, you’ll typically choose from coarse, medium and fine grinds. Most processing companies also remove the oil-and nutrient-rich germ from the kernels before grinding to make it shelf-stable. Stone-ground cornmeal usually retains the germ and its nutrients, which makes it more healthful but also more perishable; it should be kept in the refrigerator. Another variation found in grocery stores is self-rising cornmeal, which contains baking powder and sometimes all-purpose flour. If you don’t use self-rising cornmeal, you’ll need to add baking powder to make your cornmeal-based baked goods rise; figure 1 tablespoon baking powder per 3/4 to 1 cup cornmeal.
You probably will use a recipe for a baked good and the measurements will be already figured for you.
How It’s Prepared
If you think cornmeal just makes cornbread and muffins, you know only part of the story. In the American South, for example, cornmeal was a staple, used in all kinds of ways, often with whimsical names. Cornmeal was—and is— used as a breading for fried catfish, squirrel, okra and other foods. Cornmeal batter roasted in coal or wood embers makes ashcakes; baked in oblong molds it turns into corn sticks; in patty form it’s called dodgers. Fried, pancake-style, it becomes hoecakes; mixed with whole corn kernels and eggs it rises into soufflé-like spoon bread. Deep-fried cornmeal fritters are called hush puppies because, according to legend, they were tossed to hunting dogs around the fire to keep them quiet.
In the North, Rhode Island revered the ashcake (also called corn pone, from an Algonquin word). Rhode Islanders love them so much that the state’s legislature decreed that they must be called jonnycakes. Today, these are made like pancakes and can be thick or thin, sweet or savory.
Italian cooks found their own way with cornmeal in a product called polenta. A close relative to the cornmeal mush of the American South, polenta is made by cooking cornmeal in boiling water, or for a richer version, in simmering milk. It tends to form lumps; to prevent these, add a little cold water or milk first, stir to dissolve and then add to the boiling liquid.
As for cornbread, you might not know that it comes in regional varieties, too. In the states comprising the American South, savory white cornbread is standard. In the North, cornbread is yellow, cakey and slightly sweet.
However you like it, cornmeal is a marvelously versatile ingredient, capable of creating all manner of delicious baked goods. Don’t pass it by in the supermarket. Grab a sack of cornmeal and enjoy some good eats!