Ask Peter: Cornmeal (+ cornbread recipe)
I love cornbread and want to make it but the (mostly American) recipes confuse me. They usually stipulate cornmeal but I can’t find this in New Zealand. I have bought cornmeal flour but wonder if this is too refined for cornbread? Could I substitute polenta for cornmeal? If so, should I use fine polenta or coarse? And does it matter if it is instant polenta or not? Thanks, Sue.
Firstly, it’s good to point out that corn and maize are the same thing, although you’ll find the term maize is more commonly used in North America. Often the term "corn'’ refers just to the cob, whereas the plant is called both corn and maize. When you’re shopping, you may come across maize flour or maize meal, and this should help with your cornbread baking.
Italian polenta comes in a few shades — white and yellow, but it also comes in both fine and coarse styles. The former is often for baking, but both are also cooked into the more familiar porridge-like polenta that is served "wet’' with meat stews, or cooled and sliced then grilled or deep-fried and served as chips or the base for a vegetable stack.
For bread baking, both instant and non-instant will work. In the southern US, they eat grits, mostly for breakfast as we do porridge, and these grits are made from finely ground hominy — whole corn kernels that have been treated with slaked lime (which is highly alkaline).
Grinding it even finer to a flour-like consistency produces masa harina, which is used to make tamale dough, wrapped in corn husks before being steamed. I bet you didn’t know corn was so versatile!
It’s also worth pointing out the difference between (white, finely ground) cornflour and fine yellow cornflour. Both are made from corn on the cob, although I have seen white cornflour that is actually made from wheat, no corn present, and this is called wheaten cornflour, which I find rather confusing. How can cornflour not contain corn? It’s like being served a non-meat cutlet — why would you call it that?
Cornflour, generally then, is wet-milled and contains only the starch from the corn, none of the gluten which comes from the kernel. The yellow cornflour is dry milled as is regular (wheat) flour, and it contains both starch and non-gluten proteins which come from the endosperm in the kernel.
Confused? Fair enough.
When making cornbread, if the flour/meal is really fine then you’ll end up with a very dense final dough. If it’s very coarse, it will produce a very crumbly bread as corn contains no gluten — and gluten is the protein that gives bread and baked goods a pliability and strength. Generally, fine cornmeal or fine maize flour will feel like regular flour. If the grain size is large it’ll be called coarse maize meal, cornmeal, grits or polenta.
So — and we’re almost there — every recipe I’ve ever seen for cornbread has to be baked in a tin and this is because the batter you make is wet and without the tin it would just run off the tray.
Cornbread usually contains cheese in one form or another which not only tastes great, of course, but also helps bind the grains together. I’m not sure what recipe you use, but here’s mine. So go out and buy that cornmeal (or flour) and give it a go.
Peter Gordon's blue cheese cornbread
Makes 1 loaf
4 large eggs
½ tsp salt
2 red onions, diced and caramelised
Kernels from 2 grilled cobs — cooked until golden brown
2 red or green chillies, including the seeds, finely chopped
¼ cup flour (optional to keep it gluten-free, but it helps hold the bread together)
2 tsp baking powder
1 tsp smoked paprika
350g coarse polenta or cornmeal
80g coarsely grated cheddar-style cheese
50g blue cheese, crumbled
- Heat oven to 200C. Butter and line a 2-litre loaf tin with baking paper, then butter it again thickly and place in the fridge.
- Lightly beat the milk, eggs and salt. Add the onions, corn and chilli, and mix in.
- Sieve the flour, baking powder and smoked paprika together then mix with the polenta.
- Add to the wet mix in three stages, making sure there are no lumps. Mix in the cheese.
- Pour into the loaf tin and bake 30–35 minutes. To test if it’s cooked, poke a skewer into the centre of the loaf — it will be cheesy-sticky, but it needs to be firmish with no raw dough. Remove from the oven, leave to cool in the tin for 15 minutes (no less) and then gently tip out and leave to cool on the rack, although it’s best eaten warm.
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In our Ask Peter series, executive chef Peter Gordon answers your curly culinary questions. If you're stumped over something food-related, send your question to firstname.lastname@example.org keep checking in for answers. You can read more on Peter on his website, have a read of his Ask Peter articles or check out his recipes on our site.
A selection of cornmeal and polenta recipes to try