Kitchen Confidence

Cornmeal vs. Grits vs. Polenta vs. Masa

By • June 12, 2012 • 18 Comments

Inspired by conversations on the FOOD52 Hotline, we're sharing tips and tricks that make navigating all of our kitchens easier and more fun. Today, we're talking about cornmeal and its friends.

3 Types of Cornmeal

Don’t you hate that feeling that the world is out to get you, to confuse you, to trick you?

Yeah, us too.

When it comes to polenta, grits, and cornmeal, this feeling is warranted: there are no rules about the marketing and labeling of these products. No standardization. No regulations. The same bag of ground corn can have all three words on it, tricking consumers into thinking they’re the same thing.

Throw masa into the mix, and it's pure mayhem. 

We’re here to boil it down for you, explaining the best types of each product, and what their names really mean. No more consumer panic allowed.

Fine cornmeal

First things first:

Polenta and grits both fall under the heading of cornmeal, which is simply a coarse flour (a “meal”) ground from maize (field corn).

Leave anything labeled “instant” or “quick-cooking” on the shelf; this means it’s been par-cooked. It will be lacking in that corn-flavor you’re looking for. 

Look for the words “stone-ground” when shopping for any kind of cornmeal. Unlike commercially-produced cornmeal, stone-ground cornmeal still has the hull and the oil-rich germ of the kernel attached. “Degerminated” cornmeal means that the hull and germ have been removed.

White cornmeal, grits

Grits

The grind: Grits are typically coarse-ground cornmeal. 

White or yellow? According to Anson Mills, white corn was historically popular in the urban port cities of the south, while yellow corn was predominantly used in the inland, rural areas. Today, white corns generally carry more mineral and floral nuances than yellow corns. 

Uses: Try the Southern classic Shrimp and Grits, or mix grits with goat cheese for these Creamy Goat Cheese Grits

Yellow cornmeal, polenta

Polenta

What’s in a name: In the United States, “polenta,” like “rice” and “beans,” can refer to both the ingredient and the finished product. 

The grind: While some cornmeal products may specifically be labeled “polenta,” there’s no need to limit your search; medium and coarse-ground cornmeal are best for making polenta, whether it says “polenta” on the bag or not. 

Uses: So many possibilities! Eat it for breakfast with blueberries and almonds; put it under a Short Rib Ragu; form into griddle cakes; top with fried eggs and escarole.

Masa

The process: To make masa (or hominy), field corn is dried and treated with a solution of calcium hydroxide (or “slaked lime,” or wood ash) -- a process called "nixtamalization." When fresh masa is dried and ground, it becomes masa harina. This process of treating ground corn with an alkaline solution loosens the hulls from the kernels, allowing the nutrients to be absorbed into the body easier than with regular cornmeal. 

Uses: Unlike untreated cornmeal, masa simply mixed with water can form a dough. This dough can be used to make corn tortillas and tamales

How do you use your cornmeal products, and do you see a difference? Let us know in the comments!

Tags: what's the difference, grits, cornmeal, polenta, masa, masa harina, tortillas, corn, how-to & diy

Comments (18)

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8 months ago susan g

I recently 'toured' Kenyon Grist Mill in Rhode Island, at their annual Johnnycake Festival. Aside from eating wonderful jonnycakes, seeing the mill in operation was a treat! It's exactly as it was over 200 years ago -- with electricity added. There is presently only one wheel in use, and we watched as the corn was added, ground by the old stones, and delivered into a barrel on the floor below; heard about the maintenance of the stones; and more. Take a look at their website.

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8 months ago susan g

You make cornbread with cornmeal, sometimes other flours also. Look at the upper right of the screen, where it says Search... Put in 'cornbread' and set it to 'Recipes' if it isn't already, then click on the magnifying glass icon on the right. You'll find many wonderful recipes there.

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8 months ago lifeandlarder

Susan G, you missed the joke - they are all 'cornmeal'!
'Cornmeal' as such, isn't on the shelves in Australia. I made some cornbread recently, and used 1/3 wheat flour, and 2/3 polenta with some added baking powder, sour cream, tasty cheese, and chopped jalapeños! Tasted great (even if not authentic) served with fried chicken and coleslaw!

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8 months ago susan g

Sounds perfect -- a little more bite. You could post the recipe and teach us something.

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8 months ago lifeandlarder

So what do you make cornbread with? Thats all I wanted to know? ;(

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10 months ago Chris from Brisbane

Cornflour (one word) as used in Australia, New Zealand, and maybe England is the same as cornstarch in the U.S. Cornmeal (two words?) as sold in the South of the U.S. is a mixture of ground corn, self rising/raising flour and salt, facilitating the making of cornbread.

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11 months ago Frank Wright

I believe the best polenta is milled from northern flint corns such as Roy's Calais from Vermont. Coarsely milled, then screened, the large hard chunks of the higher protein flint corn make for a wonderful creamy textured polenta. The finer screenings are fine for mush, baking or added to griddlecakes/waffles.

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about 1 year ago Demington

How does corn flour fit in here?

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over 1 year ago k9gardner

I'm confused. You're using the terms masa and hominy synonymously, but most of the packages of grits that I've seen say "hominy grits." This doesn't seem to indicated that the stuff has been treated with the calcium hydroxide solution though; I mean, they're still grits, not masa. Please explain? Thanks.

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about 2 years ago millboy

Great stuff! At our mill we produce cornmeal and grits at the same time; grits are the coarser by-product that doesn't get sifted. Usually 8 lbs. of cornmeal will leave us with 2 lbs. of grits.

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about 2 years ago Cookie!

When you order corn products from Anson Mills (a company I highly recommend) they tell you to store the bags in the freezer and so I do. Their grits are divine!

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about 2 years ago sygyzy

I believe that quick grits/polenta are just milled finer (smaller). They have not been parcooked. Am I wrong?

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about 2 years ago Brette Warshaw

You're right -- the quick grits/polenta are definitely milled finer. Since there's no standardization for the packaging, it's hard to say if all brands have been parcooked or not -- but the majority certainly are!

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2 months ago Tim

No, "quick" usually means that they have been par-cooked. This they cook for you faster but the flavor has been cooked out of them.

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about 2 years ago susan g

I like using the freezer for storage. Most whole grains come with eggs, typically grain moths, which do not survive freezer temperatures. Even if they just spend a few days in the freezer, I have read that that is enough to prevent live births. Sorry if that's unappetizing, but that's nature for you! If you don't want to intake insects, you'd have to stop breathing.
Another form of corn is usually called corn flour -- finely ground corn. This is not cornstarch!

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about 2 years ago Brette Warshaw

Thanks for the info, susan g! Yet another reason this community is so great.

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about 2 years ago EmilyC

This is a helpful breakdown! Is the fridge or freezer a good place to store them? I recently moved mine from the pantry to the freezer when I realized that I've overbought over the last year and have about six different kinds!

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about 2 years ago Brette Warshaw

If you're not storing them in the pantry, I'd say the fridge, not the freezer!