I have a burning question! What is the difference between corn meal and polenta? Can I use regular corn meal (the stuff I use to make corn bread) to make polenta? Or do I have to track down a box that is specifically labeled "polenta"? And for the trifecta, what is masa harina? Could I use that to make polenta, or just tortillas?
Susan, this is a great question and a tough one to answer. The lines between all the different kinds of cornmeal have really gotten blurred over the years due to changing food fashions, more refined (and industrialized) processing techniques, and product marketing. Still, we're up for the challenge!
In our opinion, "polenta" refers to the dish and not the grain that goes into it. Polenta can actually be made from a whole range of grains. In Northern Italy, for instance, polenta is traditionally made from semolina wheat.
We think that some cornmeal products are labeled as polenta in order to indicate to the consumer that the cornmeal inside is the ideal product for making the polenta dish - and, yes, also so that the company can charge us a few more pennies. We've tried both cornmeal and the product labeled "polenta," and we honestly can't find any difference between the two.
Polenta is best made with either medium- or coarsely-ground cornmeal. Finely-ground cornmeal flour can also be used to make polenta, but we don't like the texture as much and often find that it retains a floury taste.
Masa harina is also a finely-ground cornmeal, but with one extra step added. Before the corn is ground, it gets soaked in lime water (or lye water). This process softens the hull, which is removed before grinding, and adds a distinctive flavor to the corn. Masa harina is typically used to make tamales and tortillas, but if you can find it in a coarser grind, you can certainly try making polenta!
We hope this helps clear things up a bit! Does anyone else have anything to add?
(Image: South Texas Milling, Inc.)