Cornmeal vs. Cornstarch: Unlocking the Secrets of These Versatile Corn-Derived Ingredients

Cornmeal vs. Cornstarch: Unlocking the Secrets of These Versatile Corn-Derived Ingredients

Written by: Dennis Reinhardt

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Time to read 6 min

Cornmeal and cornstarch are two items made from corn that are often used in place of each other. They both come from the same plant, so what could be the difference? It turns out, quite a bit. In order to improve your cooking and baking, it is important to know the main differences between these two important food ingredients.

To fully understand the changes, let's begin by taking a more in-depth look at our corn kernel. There are three main parts to each kernel: the tough outer layer called bran, the starchy middle layer called endosperm, and the nutrient-rich center called germ. What parts of the seed are used to make cornmeal and cornstarch are what makes them different.

The bran, endosperm, and germ of a corn seed are all ground up to make cornmeal. When you do this, you get a rough, yellow flour that still tastes and feels like corn. On the other hand, cornstarch can only be taken from the endosperm, which is the starchy part in the middle of the seed. After the bran and germ are taken out, what's left is a fine, white powder that doesn't taste like much.

Texture and Appearance

Because they are made in different ways, cornmeal and cornstarch have very different physical traits. Different ways of grinding cornmeal can make it fine or coarse. It has a rough, gritty feel. It looks rough and uneven, with spots of yellow, gold, blue, or even red or blue corn, based on the type of corn used.

Cornstarch, on the other hand, is a bright white powder that is very fine and smooth. It feels almost smooth or velvety and doesn't have any grit to it at all. One of the easier ways to tell the difference between the two ingredients is by how they look and feel.

Flavor Profiles

Adding or not adding the bran and germ of the corn kernel also has a big effect on the taste of these two ingredients. Cornmeal has a strong, unique corn flavor that is sweet, earthy, and a little salty. The strong corn taste comes from the germ and bran that were kept.

On the other hand, cornstarch doesn't have much taste. It only has the endosperm and not the flavorings that are in the other parts of the kernel. Cornstarch doesn't add any flavor; it's just there to thicken and hold things together.

Uses in Baking

Because of these changes in taste and texture, cornmeal and cornstarch are great for very different kinds of baking.

Cornmeal works great in baked goods because it gives them a rough, crunchy texture and a strong corn flavor. It is a main ingredient in hushpuppies, cornbread, polenta, and corn muffins. The rough texture and strong taste are important parts of the finished product.

Because it is coarse, cornmeal can also be used to dust baking sheets so that dough doesn't stick. Because of the way it feels, it helps pizza, flatbreads, and galettes get a crisp, evenly spread crust.

On the other hand, cornstarch is valued for its ability to make baked goods tender and light. It won't clash with or overpower other flavors in a recipe because it has a neutral taste. To make the inside of cakes, cookies, and pies soft and pillowy, cornstarch is often added. Additionally, it can be mixed with all-purpose flour to make baked goods more soft.

In addition to being used in baking, cornstarch is a great way to make things thicker. It's often used to make gravies, sauces, puddings, and pie bases that are very smooth. The starch grains in cornstarch swell and gelatinize when mixed with a cold liquid and then added to a hot dish. This thickens the mixture without making it cloudy or gloppy.

The Different Roles in Gluten-Free Baking

Because of the way they are made, cornmeal and cornstarch are also very useful for gluten-free food.

The goal of many gluten-free recipes is to get the same structure, texture, and rise as when wheat flour is used. Cornmeal is a good thing to add to gluten-free flour mixes because it has a rough texture that helps gluten-free baked goods feel like regular ones.

On the other hand, cornstarch is often used in gluten-free baking to make things flexible and give them a soft crumb. Because it doesn't have a strong taste, it mixes well with other gluten-free flours like almond, rice, or tapioca flour.

When mixed together, cornmeal and cornstarch can make a gluten-free baked good that is well-balanced and well-structured. The cornstarch gives it a light, pillowy texture, while the cornmeal gives it substance and chew.

Substitutions and Conversions

Because they have very different uses and traits, cornmeal and cornstarch should not be used in place of each other in recipes. If you try to use one instead of the other, you will get very different (and probably not good) results.

To make a recipe work when you don't have cornstarch, you can use all-purpose flour, arrowroot powder, or tapioca starch in the same amount. Remember that the hardening power will be a little different. Start with a smaller amount and add more until the uniformity you want is reached.

It's not a good idea to use cornstarch instead of cornmeal because the hard texture and strong corn flavor will make the dish taste very different. It is better to use semolina flour instead of cornmeal because it has a similar rough, gritty feel.

In the same way, you can't just use cornmeal instead of all-purpose flour when baking. Due to the lack of gluten, cornmeal will not give the same shape and rise. For recipes that call for cornmeal, you'll need to change the other items to take into account how it works.

Regional Variations

One final note on the potential confusion around these corn-derived ingredients - the terminology can vary depending on where you are in the world.

The words "cornmeal" and "cornstarch" are well known and clearly different in the United States. There are, however, some places where the name rules aren't as clear.

In the UK and other places around the world, for example, what Americans call "corn flour" is often called "maize flour." Like American cornmeal, this corn flour is made from whole corn kernels that have been ground very finely.

Also, "cornflour" is what people in the UK and other countries call the fine, white powder made from the endosperm of the corn kernel. In the US, this is called "cornstarch."

When looking at recipes from other countries, it's important to know about these changes in ingredient names to make sure you're using the right one.

Cornmeal and Cornstarch in Savory Dishes

These two ingredients are very different when it comes to baking, but they can both be very useful when cooking meat.

When its rough texture and corn taste can really shine through, cornmeal is at its best. People in the American South eat it all the time. It's used to make cornbread, hushpuppies, and the batter for fried foods like catfish and okra.

Cornmeal can be used to dust baking surfaces or roll out dough because it has a rough feel. This keeps things from sticking and helps pizza, flatbreads, and pot pies get a crisp, evenly spread crust.

When it comes to making soups, gravies, and stews thicker, cornstarch is the real deal. It is necessary because it can make the texture silky smooth without making the other tastes less noticeable. A simple slurry of cornstarch can turn a thin, watery sauce into a thick, velvety coating that sticks to meats, veggies, and starches like glue.

Cornstarch can also be used to make coats that are crispy. When cornstarch is used to coat or dust proteins or veggies before they are fried, it helps keep the moisture in and makes the outside very crunchy.

Summary

At first view, cornmeal and cornstarch may look like they can be used in place of each other, but they are actually very different in how they look, taste, and are used in cooking. Cornstarch is a neutral thickening agent that is loved for making baked goods soft and light. Cornmeal gives food a rustic, corn-forward flavor and texture.

For cooking and baking to go well, you need to know these important differences. Knowing the difference between cornmeal and cornstarch can make all the difference in the end result, whether you're making pancakes, thickening a stew, or baking gluten-free cookies.

When you're looking through your pantry and not sure which corn-based item to use, remember that cornmeal and cornstarch are different. Now that you know this, you'll be able to pick the right ingredient for the job and make sure that all of your corn-based products taste great and have the right texture.