Ingredient Intelligence

What’s the Difference Between Cornmeal and Cornstarch?

published Sep 2, 2022
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diptych of corn starch and corn meal
Credit: Joe Lingeman/Kitchn
Left: cornstarch in measuring spoon, right: cornmeal in large mixing bowl

There’s an array of differences between cornmeal and cornstarch, but, because they have such similar names, many of us have found ourselves staring at a pantry or supermarket shelf and wondering which one to grab.

Consider this your roadmap to understanding the differences between cornmeal and cornstarch, whether it’s OK to substitute one for the other, and how to use them in sweet and savory recipes from pizza to pancakes to chewy cookies.

The Difference Between Cornmeal and Cornstarch

The easiest way to understand the differences between cornmeal and cornstarch is by getting a quick lesson in corn anatomy. Every kernel or “seed” of corn has three main parts: a thin, fibrous outer layer called the bran; a larger, starchy middle section named endosperm; and the innermost portion, or germ. 

Cornmeal and cornstarch are made from different parts of these kernels. Cornmeal consists of dried and ground entire kernels, while cornstarch contains only the endosperm, separated from the rest of the kernel and ground into a fine powder. 

Cornmeal and cornstarch look, taste, and are used differently. Cornstarch is a white and very fine powder. Cornmeal is coarse in texture and is typically yellower than cornstarch, although it comes in various colors. Both are cooked before they’re eaten, but cornmeal has a distinctive corn flavor, while cornstarch is neutral-tasting. 

What Is Cornmeal?

Made from dried and ground whole corn kernels, cornmeal is like a rustic flour. It comes in fine, medium, and coarse textures, and an array of hues from straw to golden, depending on the color of the corn used to make it. 

Commercially packaged cornmeal is sometimes made without the germ and bran to give it an even texture and longer shelf stability — if kept cool and dry, these cornmeals can last as long as two years in your kitchen. 

Cornmeal labeled “whole-grain” or “stone-ground” is made from the entire kernel. On the flip side, whole-grain cornmeal perishes much more quickly, within six or nine months.

The type of corn used for cornmeal is usually dent corn, also known as field corn. It’s full of soft starches and tastes less sweet than what we eat off the cob.

What to Make with Cornmeal

Cornmeal features prominently in hushpuppies, cornbreads, and corn muffins. Pizzaiolos also sometimes dust their pans with cornmeal to keep the crust from sticking.

What Is Cornstarch?

Cornstarch is a starchy, gluten-free powder made from the endosperm, or bulky middle section, of corn kernels. Unlike cornmeal, which provides flavor and texture to sweet and savory dishes, cornstarch disappears into most foods.

It’s primarily used to thicken gravies, sauces, and soups. If you thoroughly combine equal-parts cornstarch and cool water, and stir that slurry into what you’re cooking, it creates a thicker consistency.

Cornstarch can also be combined with all-purpose flour to give cookies and cakes a delicate crumb, or to help batters and sauces cling to foods. A few teaspoons or tablespoons of cornstarch can help keep pie fillings from becoming watery, too. And a little cornstarch can help make tofu extra crispy as well. Cornstarch has some surprising uses around the house, too.

What to Make with Cornstarch

Because it’s virtually flavorless, cornstarch can be used in an array of dishes, from tempura batter to cobbler.

Can You Substitute Cornmeal for Cornstarch?

Although they come from the same plant, cornmeal and cornstarch have distinct properties and purposes in the kitchen, so you unfortunately can’t substitute cornmeal for cornstarch. 

One of the best substitutes for cornmeal is semolina, a protein-rich durum wheat flour with a similar texture. You can also swap ground oats or flaxseed for cornmeal in dishes where you don’t need or want corn flavor.

If you’re out of cornstarch, you can swap in twice as much wheat flour, tapioca starch, or arrowroot powder, or you can swap in three times the amount of rice flour. You can also substitute equal parts potato starch for cornstarch.

Wait. Then What Is Corn Flour?

Here’s where things get tricky. In parts of the U.S., the term “corn flour” is used interchangeably to simply refer to a very finely ground cornmeal. However, cornflour, written as one word, is what U.K. cooks call cornstarch.

And speaking of corn products, polenta and grits are made from cornmeal that’s been coarsely ground (the latter may also be made from hominy). The many iterations of corn are nothing if not complex.