Food should always taste good and just because you might not have cornmeal at hand, it doesn’t meant that you can’t make the cornmeal recipe you want.
In this practical cooking and baking guide I wanted to share with you my top tips for substituting cornmeal in recipes, so that you can confidently make your favourite recipe even if you run out of cornmeal!
What is cornmeal?
The term cornmeal might be slightly confusing to some. Cornmeal is basically flour made out of dry yellow corn. It gets confusing because flour is often also called ‘meal’ (as in wholemeal flour is whole grain – coarse flour).
In the terms of texture, cornmeal is slightly coarser than regular flour, but not as fine as say lupin flour, rice or regular all purpose white flour.
You’ll also see that cornflour is yellow in colour, which is completely natural as the flour comes directly from the corn!
Cornflour is also naturally gluten free, which makes it a great substitute for regular cake baking for anyone who finds it difficult to digest gluten or is allergic to it.
What is the difference between cornmeal, cornflour and corn starch?
This very much depends on where you are from as much as on the actual product. In the USA coarse ground corn is called cornmeal and that’s what’s used in most cornbreads or cornmeal pancakes.
If you grind corn a bit more finely, then you can call it cornflour. This type of flour would be mainly used to thicken sauces or used half and half in the cornbread, cake or pancake recipes. If you do a 100% swap instead of cornmeal you might find that the final texture (bread, pancakes or cake) is much more dense than you’d like. It’s the coarseness of the cornmeal that makes the cornbread or pancakes so light and fluffy.
Finally, cornstarch contains only the starch part of the corn kernel and is usually used for thickening soups, sauces or making milk puddings.
In the UK or Europe, you’ll mainly find cornstarch, which is often referred to as ‘cornflour’. It’s only used for thickening soups and other dishes. You could add one or two spoonfuls to replace regular flour to make the bake a little lighter, but essentially it’s not intended for baking.
What do you use cornmeal for?
Typically you can find cornmeal in recipes for cornbread, tortillas or pancakes where the cornmeal is used 100% (e.i. not mixed with other flours).
You can also see cornmeal used instead of bread crumbs to coat and fry chicken, fish or other meats. It gives the meat a very light and flavoursome crust, which is also naturally gluten-free.
So, if your recipe calls for cornmeal, here are my favourite ways to replace it.
There are different types of polenta, but most contain at least some corn, which is why it’s very close to cornmeal. Traditionally, polenta would be boiled and cooked and served as porridge or left to set and then eaten cold. It’s usually a mix of yellow or white maize and buckwheat. You can get the coarse or fine finish, but it’s the coarse finish you want to replace the cornmeal.
You need to make sure that you have the polenta uncooked to use it as a straight swap for the cornmeal in the recipes.
Corn Grits or Hominy Grits
This is a much finer version of cornmeal, made from the same type of corn. You can do a straight swap for cornmeal, but the texture of your bake might be a little different than if you use the original cornmeal.
Basic Tortilla Chips – Unflavoured
If you can’t find anything else and you need a little bit of cornmeal for coating or adding a little bit to your recipe, you can add some unflavored tortilla chips to a food processor and use those.
Cornstarch is the finest version of cornmeal, it’s like a fine powder. I wouldn’t do a 100% swap as it would change the texture too much, but you can add a few tablespoons into your recipe and mix it say, with coarse semolina to get the texture close enough to cornmeal.
Perfect for coating, pancakes and bread, corn flakes (natural, with no added sugar) can be used as a replacement for cornmeal. They need to be processed in a mixer or grinder to get a finer texture, but they are a good alternative, that you probably already have in your food cupboard.
Wholemeal – all purpose flour
Since cornmeal is gluten-free, it’s very close to wholemeal plain (all purpose) flour. Bread or tortilla wraps can be easily made with wholemeal flour instead of cornmeal.
All purpose – white flour
For pancakes, tortillas or bread, white flour is a good replacement for cornmeal.
Gluten-free flours – Rice
Rice flour is very fine in texture, but it can be used as a part-replacement. I would mix rice flour with semolina or ground corn flakes to get the texture and flavour I need.
Lupin flour is naturally gluten free and has a yellow colour similar to cornmeal, which makes it a great alternative.
The only difference is the texture, so if I was making a cornbread I would mix the replacement flour together with some semolina (to give a coarseness), ground cornflakes or homemade cornmeal or even some homini or oat grits.
Semolina is visually very similar to cornmeal – it’s quite coarse and yellow (ish) in colour. Unfortunately, it’s not gluten-free so make sure that if you are using semolina as a replacement it’s not for somebody who has a gluten intolerance.
You can use both the fine semolina flour or the coarse version, although the coarse semolina is better for baking.
Similar to buckwheat flakes, ground oats (from the shop or ground at home in a food processor) are a great replacement for cornmeal, especially for bread, tortillas or pancakes. If you have semolina or corn flakes I would mix them together with the ground oats to get the texture and the flavour at the same time.
Buckwheat flakes & flour
Buckwheat is naturally gluten free, the same as cornmeal and it has a similar whole wheat type of texture. It has a bit of a bite and a lovely taste.
I use buckwheat to bake buckwheat bread with seeds, make pizza buckwheat bases , breakfast pancakes or homemade crackers, so I always have some buckwheat flour at hand. I also use buckwheat flakes and flour for easy tortilla flatbreads, because it’s easy to digest.
Spelt is low in gluten, but not completely gluten free, so bear this in mind if you are going to use spelt flour or spelt flakes as a cornmeal substitute.
Spelt is the perfect replacement solution for baking bread or pancakes. You can use it as it is or mix it with other types of flours and use either the spelt flour or coarsely ground spelt flakes for a bit of texture. I’ve used spelt flour in my favourite pizza base recipe.
Replacing cornmeal with breadcrumbs is a great alternative if you are frying fish, meat or sausages. It’s also O.K to use breadcrumbs for some coating – for example, if you need a thicker crumb on fried, baked chicken or healthier oven baked scotch eggs.
You can also use semolina instead of cornmeal for coating and frying.