Food & Nutrition

Most Valuable Ingredient: Cornmeal

This whole-grain ingredient played a key role in American history, just like it should play a key role on your menu.
Published March 7, 2017

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When you bite into a crumbly corn muffin, a Rhode Island johnnycake drizzled with maple syrup, or a corn dog at the state fair, you probably aren’t thinking that you’re eating a food crucial to our nation’s history. But after their first wheat crop failed, the Pilgrims survived a harsh winter thanks to corn’s abundance in the New World, and the cornmeal it yielded. The grain adds a mildly sweet, pleasantly rugged note to all kinds of recipes, from breakfast to dinner to midnight snack. No doubt about it, cornmeal is a Most Valuable Ingredient.


The Stats

  • Look for whole-grain cornmeal — it’ll be labeled either “stone-ground” or “water-ground.” This type of milling retains some of the hull and germ of the corn, so it naturally packs more nutritional punch than regular, steel-ground varieties (what you’ll find on most supermarket shelves).
  • To make up for the loss of nutrients, steel-ground cornmeal is enriched with thiamin, riboflavin, niacin and iron. The label will likely include the words “degerminated” and “enriched.”
  • Whole-grain cornmeal is a terrific source of fiber: Depending on the brand, it can have as much as 5 grams per 1/4 cup serving. But even regular cornmeal offers a healthy dose, with about 2 grams in 1/4 cup.
  • Like many pantry staples, cornmeal is inexpensive. Expect to pay $2 to $3 for a 24-ounce package.


The Score

  • Cornmeal comes in three grinds: coarse, medium and fine. Use coarse to make grits or polenta, and medium for baking or to thicken soups and stews. Finely ground cornmeal is sometimes labeled “cornflour” and is less widely available. All are gluten-free.
  • Blue cornmeal is made from, well, blue corn. It has a sweeter, more intense corn flavor than yellow or white.
  • Masa harina is flour made from dried corn kernels that have been cooked and soaked in limewater, then ground while still wet. It’s used for making tortillas, tamales and corn chips.
  • Because whole-grain cornmeal contains the germ and the corn oil within, it goes rancid faster than regular. Whole-grain varieties should be refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 4 months, while regular cornmeal will be shelf-stable for up to a year.


In Play

  • 1 cup dry will yield 4 cups cooked.
  • Perhaps not surprisingly, cornmeal’s influence is felt most strongly in the original 13 colonies. In New England, it’s found in cornmeal mush, Anadama bread and Indian Pudding. Southerners use it for grits, of course, but also for hush puppies, corn bread and fried okra.
  • Cornmeal lends a sweet, crunchy texture to baked goods — think of the delicious, distinctive grittiness of a corn muffin. Replace a few tablespoons of flour in cookies, cakes, even pancakes, to give eaters a homespun surprise.
  • Use that crunch to good advantage when breading chicken cutlets or fish fillets by swapping cornmeal for some or all of the bread crumbs.