Cornmeal has long been used for baked goods and giving fried foods crunch and texture. Polenta may feel like a less-familiar newcomer, not surprisingly causing some confusion. What's the difference between these two cornmeal products?
Polenta is also made from corn, but is it really just cornmeal labeled differently and sold at a higher price? Can the two be used interchangeably? Read on to find out!
Left: Cornmeal; Right: Polenta
Cornmeal is made by grinding dried corn kernels into one of three textures: fine, medium, and coarse. The traditional way of making cornmeal was through stone-grinding, which retains some of the hull and germ of the kernels. This makes the cornmeal more nutritious but also more perishable because of the higher fat content. The more modern way of grinding corn is through steel rollers, which remove most of the husk and germ.
Types of Cornmeal
Besides the difference in grinds, cornmeal can be made from blue, white, or yellow corn. Stone-ground cornmeal is labeled as such or can also be called "water ground," and you can usually assume unlabeled cornmeal is made through the steel roller process. If the package isn't labeled with the coarseness of the grind, it's probably medium.
Finely ground cornmeal is sometimes labeled as corn flour, but British recipes that call for "cornflour" actually refer to cornstarch, which is not milled from the whole corn kernel. Masa harina is cornmeal made from corn kernels that have been cooked in limewater first.
While cornmeal is the traditional ingredient in cornbread, it is also used for texture and sweetness in cookies and other breads. It is also often used to dust baking surfaces for things like pizza to prevent the dough from sticking, and can also be used as a thickener for soups and chilis.
If a recipe does not specify the grind of cornmeal to use, your best bet is usually to get a medium-grind cornmeal.
Polenta is really a dish, not an ingredient, from northern Italy. It refers to a porridge or mush now made from coarsely ground cornmeal since corn was cultivated in Europe in the 16th century, but was also in the past made with farro, chestnuts, millet, spelt or chickpeas. Polenta is usually made from yellow corn.
Labeling and Substitutions
Packages labeled polenta mean that the grind of the corn is appropriate to make the polenta dish, but you can substitute regular medium or coarsely-ground cornmeal instead. Don't use finely ground cornmeal or corn flour which have too fine of a consistency and will give the finished dish a pasty texture.
Other Forms of Polenta
Since regular polenta which requires a fair amount of time to cook properly, about 40 minutes of constant stirring, there are other forms of polenta sold. Instant or quick-cooking polenta has been pre-processed to reduce the cooking time, but many purists don't like the flavor and consistency as much. Prepared polenta is fully cooked and sold in tube-shaped packaging — this form is best sliced and fried, sauteed, grilled, or baked, as it has already passed the creamy, runny form when freshly cooked.
Think of polenta nowadays as a form of Italian "grits." Polenta is slow-cooked in liquid until the grains swell and the starches are released. At this point, it has a thick, creamy consistency and is ready to be eaten. After is has cooled or been chilled, the consistency changes and it solidifies into a solid piece. In this form, it's cut into pieces and usually crisped up on the outside.
(Image credits: Christine Gallary; Emma Christensen; Faith Durand)