Cornmeal and cornstarch are both made from corn so people often confuse them to mean the same thing or to work for the same purpose. What you should know is that they are not the same in any way neither can you substitute cornmeal for cornstarch and vice versa.
They have different uses, textures, and colors. Cornstarch basically thickens the sauce, soup, and pastries while cornmeal is used to make dishes like polenta and cornbread.
This article explains what cornmeal and cornstarch are, their differences, their uses, and their substitute. All of these will help you understand why they can’t serve as substitutes for each other.
What is cornmeal?
Cornmeal is a coarse flour obtained by grinding dried field corn. It could be yellow, or white, depending on the color of the corn, and the texture can be anywhere between fine and coarse.
Coarser cornmeal is richer in nutrients than other variants. For instance, stone-ground cornmeal which is the coarsest type of cornmeal contains some hull and germ which makes it richer in nutrients.
Fine cornmeal doesn’t contain any hull or germs and is usually ground in between metal rollers. It loses nutrients while processing, but the nutrient can be added back later.
What is cornstarch?
Cornstarch is a white refined powder made from the starchy portion of corn kernels known as the endosperm. It serves as a thickening agent for gravies, sauces, soup, casseroles, and the like.
Cornstarch is stripped of protein and fiber, thereby making it gluten-free and tasteless. This makes it perfect for thickening sauces, gravies, soup, and stews.
What about corn flour?
Some people refer to corn flour as cornstarch but that is wrong. Relative to cornstarch, corn flour is made from the entire corn kernel which includes the gem, hull, and endosperm. This makes it appear more nutritional and tastier.
Corn flour isn’t the same as cornmeal either. It has a much finer texture than cornmeal and pale-yellow color. From baking pies and cakes to coating meat and fish for a crispy finish, corn flour is a whole grain with multi-functional uses.
Cornmeal vs cornstarch vs corn flour
While some people are confused about the differences between these three materials, others wrongly use the words interchangeably. The basis of confusion may arise because they all have corn as their source but none of them can replace each other.
Below are the differences between cornmeal, cornstarch, and corn flour.
Cornmeal is a multifunctional pantry staple. Fine and medium cornmeal is great for making pancakes and soft, buttery cornbread.
Substituting some amount of flour for cornmeal adds a rich texture and flavor to bread as well as brittle its surface and makes it yellow. It also makes your meal healthier because it’s gluten-free.
Coarse cornmeal is well associated with creamy polenta and grits. You can also use it in sweets, cookies, puddings, and madeleines.
As aforementioned, cornstarch serves as a thickening agent for soup, stew, gravies, and sauces. It helps the loose mix of pie fillings and pizza to hold up well together.
While corn flour is used for making gluten-free baked cakes, pies, and bread and for coating meat and fish for a crispy finish after frying.
2. Color and texture
Cornmeal can be fine, medium, or coarse. It can be yellow or white in color. There’s also a rare blue variant that is found in the indigenous part of southern America.
Cornstarch has a very fine, powdery texture and is usually white and chalky in appearance. Whereas, corn flour has a pale yellow color and is well ground into fine powder.
Cornmeal has enormous nutritional benefits which vary depending on the texture. Coarse cornmeal usually has more carbohydrates, protein, fat, and calories than fine grains.
However, refined cornmeal is often infused with nutrients after grinding making them more nutritional than coarse grains.
Cornstarch has little or no protein or fat just carbohydrates. While corn flour is rich in carbohydrates, it also contains some percentage of protein, fats, vitamins, and fiber.
Unlike cornstarch, cornmeal has a powerful corn taste that’s bound to be obvious when added to food. Yellow cornmeal has a more dominating taste than white cornmeal but fine cornmeal is milder in taste.
Cornstarch on the other hand adds little or no taste to food. Corn flour has a sweet, earthy taste just like whole grain.
Now that you understand that you cannot substitute cornmeal for cornstarch, what then can serve as substitutes?
Below are some alternatives that can serve as thickening agents in your food:
This is starchy flour extracted from the roots of the Maranta genus of plants found in the tropics. Plant roots are dried and ground into fine powder to make an arrowhead.
Compared to cornstarch it contains more fiber and is great for thickening clear liquid. To get the same level of thickening as cornstarch, you’d need twice as much arrowroot in your food.
2. Potato starch
This is an excellent alternative to cornstarch. Potato is usually crushed so that it can release its starch content and dried afterward to become powder.
It contains no gluten nor adds unwanted flavor to your food. Unlike cornstarch, it has some elements of fat and protein.
Potato starch is as strong as cornstarch and can substitute cornstarch in a one-to-one ratio. It’s advised to add root or tuber starches later in the cooking process. This is because they thicken faster than grain, so heating them for long makes them lose their thickening property.
Extracted from cassava, Tapioca is cassava root ground into a pulp. After grinding, the water from the cassava is filtered to remove the toxic cyanide present. Once that is done, it is dried to powder.
Tapioca is strong enough to substitute cornstarch in a two-to-one ratio. You can get tapioca in flour, pearls, or flakes form.
4. Wheat flour
Wheat flour is wheat ground into a smooth powder. It contains high carbohydrates and a substantial amount of protein and fiber.
However, you’d need twice as much wheat flour to replace cornstarch in your recipe. Also, you have to mix wheat flour with a little cold water into a paste before using it as a thickening agent. Keep in mind that wheat flour is not gluten-free.
Can you use cornmeal for thickening soup?
No. Cornmeal has a pronounced corn flavor, therefore using it in your food would alter its taste and flavor.
What can substitute cornmeal for frying?
You can coat meat and fish in corn flour before frying as an alternative to cornmeal.
Can cornstarch substitute baking powder?
No. Cornstarch is a thickening agent while baking powder is a leavening agent.
Cornmeal and cornstarch are two different pantry staples that cannot substitute each other. Cornstarch helps to thicken loose food, making them hold up well. It is typically used to thicken stew, sauces, soup, pizza or pie crust, and gravies.
While cornmeal is a major ingredient used for making cornbread, polenta, and the like.
To avoid confusion, what Americans call cornstarch is referred to as corn flour in the UK. Europeans on the other hand refer to cornstarch as maizena. That said, note that the definitions and applications in this article are US-based.
I hope this article helped. Thanks for reading.