Although cornmeal and corn starch are made with corn, there are key differences in flavor and use between the two ingredients.
Cornmeal is a type of flour made from whole dried corn. Corn starch is the pure starch extracted from the endosperm of a corn kernel, and it contains barely any protein, fat, gluten, or other components.
Comparison Chart: Cornmeal vs. Corn Starch: What’s the Difference?
|A coarse flour made from dried corn||A fine white powder made from the corn kernel’s starchy endosperm|
|Used in polenta, grits, and cornbread||Used in sauces, gravies, egg recipes, and to add a crispy edge to meat and tofu|
|Widely available in supermarkets||Widely available in supermarkets|
|Typically costs $2–$8||Typically costs $3–$10|
|Contains many vitamins and minerals||Contains mostly carbohydrates|
Cornmeal is a type of flour that’s created by grinding dried corn. Depending on the grinding process, cornmeal varieties range from finely ground to coarsely ground. The coarser the texture, the stronger the flavor of the cornmeal.
The corn grain has been cultivated for around 9,000 years and began its life in Mexico. Cornmeal’s use in the United States originated around 5,000 years ago when this flour became a Native American staple.
In the last few centuries, cornmeal’s popularity has grown, and it’s now especially well-known in the southern US, thanks to its use in grits and other Southern delicacies.
This ground powder can be yellow or white and is the main ingredient in polenta, grits, and cornbread. Cornmeal is incredibly versatile and can be used to make tortillas, pancakes, pizza, and baked goods.
Polenta is one of the best-known cornmeal-based dishes:
How to make polenta with cornmeal:
- Start with 5 cups of water to 1 cup of cornmeal
- Bring the water to a boil and add 1 teaspoon of salt
- Slowly pour the cornmeal into the water, stirring with a spoon or whisk for 2–3 minutes until the mixture thickens
- Turn the heat down and cook for a further 45 minutes to 1 hour. Stir the mixture regularly
- Add 1 more cup of water if necessary, to keep the polenta soft
- After 45 minutes, taste the polenta. It should taste creamy and the grains should be tender. If it doesn’t, cook the polenta for longer
- Once cooked, serve the polenta on a plate and season as desired
Wholegrain cornmeal is healthier than refined cornmeal because the whole grain contains more fiber. Cornmeal is naturally gluten-free, so foods like cornbread are a great gluten-free alternative to bread for people who have celiac disease.
Cornmeal contains various essential nutrients including iron, potassium, magnesium, zinc, copper, vitamin B1, vitamin B2, and manganese.
Price and Availability
Cornmeal is available at most superstores and health food shops. A typical packet of cornmeal costs between $2 and $8.
Corn Starch Explained
Corn starch is a refined starch that appears as a fine white powder and is made from the corn kernel’s endosperm. Corn starch is known as corn flour in the UK.
Thomas Kingsford invented corn starch in the 1840s in his New Jersey wheat starch factory. The main use of corn starch in the 1840s and 1850s was as industrial laundry starch.
In the last two centuries, corn starch has become more prevalent in food, mainly being used as a thickening agent for sauces and gravy.
Corn starch has a huge variety of uses, including thickening sauces, preventing eggs from curdling, and adding crispiness to foods like tofu. Corn starch is also used in sweet oat beverages.
How to make crispy tofu with corn starch:
- Slice a block of firm tofu into small chunks
- Put the tofu in a container with 4 tablespoons of corn starch and shake the container vigorously until the tofu is covered with corn starch
- Fry the corn starch-covered tofu in vegetable oil for around 10 minutes, frying on all sides
- Serve the crispy tofu as the protein in a salad, stir fry, or curry
Corn starch is made purely of starch, so it contains only carbohydrates with no protein, fat, sugar, or sodium. This popular powder is gluten-free, so it can be used as a replacement for flour in recipes suitable for people with celiac disease, for example, to make a cheesy sauce for macaroni and cheese.
Price and Availability
Corn starch is available at most superstores and health food shops. A typical packet of corn starch costs between $3 and $10.
Choosing Corn Starch vs. Cornmeal
Despite both coming from dried corn and having similar names, corn starch and cornmeal are very different in flavor, use, and nutrition.
Corn starch can be used to thicken sauces, add a crispy edge to fish, meat, tofu, and mozzarella, and prevent eggs from curdling in pudding and similar dishes. Cornmeal is the key ingredient in polenta, grits, and cornbread.
Whether you choose to use cornmeal or corn starch depends on the meal you’re cooking, but both are suitable for people with gluten intolerances.