What’s the difference between cornmeal and cornstarch? Here you will find a complete breakdown of their uses, flavour & nutrition. Plus, we’ll look at substitutes and the regional differences between names.
Cornmeal vs cornstarch
In short, cornmeal and cornstarch are NOT the same thing.
Yes, they’re both made from corn, but they are quite different in flavour, use & nutrition.
Cornmeal refers to dried & coarsely ground field corn used to make dishes like polenta and cornbread.
Cornstarch, on the other hand, is the white powder often used to thicken sauces, stews & gravies. It is made almost entirely out of carbs.
We’ll dive into more key differences below and also mention regional differences in names.
Corn Kernel Parts
To truly understand the differences, let’s first take a look at what corn kernels are made of.
They consist of 3 separate parts or components:
- The pericarp: the hard exterior that covers and protects the kernel, very rich in fibre.
- The endosperm: rich in starch, the most often used part of the kernel (Source: Foodsguy).
- The germ or heart (often called the embryo): the living part of a corn kernel rich in oil, vitamins & minerals.
What is cornmeal
Cornmeal refers to dried and ground field corn. It’s usually either yellow or white.
Important: field corn is NOT the same as sweet corn, the one we’re used to eating from the cob.
Cornmeal can range in texture (or grind) from super fine to coarse. The coarser the texture, the richer the flavour.
The coarsest version is stone-ground cornmeal. As the name suggests, it’s made by grinding corn between two stones.
More usually than not, stone-ground cornmeal contains some of the hull and germ of the corn kernel (unlike fine cornmeal). As a result, the flavour is slightly richer.
Fine cornmeal is ground between metal rollers. Both the hull and the germ are removed which creates the finer texture. Once the corn is ground, the nutrients that are lost might be added back.
What is cornstarch
Compared to cornmeal, cornstarch is more refined, derived from the endosperm of the corn.
The protein and fibre are removed, leaving only the starchy centre called the endosperm (Source: Healthline).
It has a white, chalky appearance and a very fine, powdery texture.
You might have heard of the phrase modified cornstarch. This does NOT necessarily mean genetically modified. It simply means that the cornstarch has been modified to increase its shelf life.
The modification process might also make it otherwise ‘superior’, for example, it might make it thicken more easily or keep the sauces thicker for longer.
What about corn flour?
Corn flour is similar to cornmeal, but they’re not the same. The main difference between them is in their texture.
As the name says, corn flour is a type of flour. It’s finely ground into a powder and usually has a pale yellow colour.
Unlike cornstarch, corn flour is milled from the entire corn kernel. It includes the hull, germ & endosperm, making it richer in certain nutrients. It is considered a whole grain.
Similarly to other types of flour, corn flour is extremely versatile. Some of the uses for corn flour include gluten-free baked goods, pies, cakes, or breading/coating for a crispy finish of fried veggies, fish, or meat.
Cornmeal is probably most commonly associated with polenta.
When speaking of polenta, many will think of cornmeal mush, but there are so many other ways of making delicious polenta dishes that are full of texture & flavour.
I personally love polenta muffins with fresh chives and ground garlic powder. They’re a great tasty side for all occasions and so versatile. Another brilliant dish are baked polenta fries. You can make them spicy, cheesy & fill them with all your favourite herbs.
There are practically countless ways of using cornmeal for example in bread, pancakes, dumplings, & pizza. Cornmeal is super versatile, so you can also use it in sweet dishes like cakes, madeleines, cookies, biscotti & puddings.
Cornstarch is most commonly used as a thickening agent.
You will need to add equal amounts of cornstarch and cold water to a small bowl and whisk well until no lumps remain. This liquid mixture is called a slurry. Then add your slurry to a sauce, soup, or stew that you need to thicken.
Some other ways to use cornstarch in cooking:
- Filling: I used cornstarch in my zesty blueberry knot buns
- Lemon curd: in addition to thickening sauces, it’s also the perfect ingredient for thickening curds.
- Crispy potatoes & veggies: adding cornstarch will result in crunchy, crispy veg, similar to battered veggies. This is particularly popular in Chinese cuisine, but works well in any stir-fry, deep-fried or even oven baked dish.
- Cookies: Cornstarch acts as a great binding ingredient in cookies such as my chocolate shortbread or matcha cookies.
Cornmeal has quite a pronounced corn flavour. It’s not used as a thickening agent, as this would affect the flavour of the final dish. Typically, yellow cornmeal will have a more intense corn flavour compared to its white counterpart.
Raw cornmeal usually has a very mild flavour. Cooking it will help unlock its sweet, earthy, starchy flavour.
On the other hand, cornstarch has very little or no flavour. It has a slightly starchy aftertaste that goes away as you cook it into the sauce. Cooking it down makes it virtually tasteless.
Cornmeal and its nutritional benefits vary quite vastly between different types. If you’re choosing super fine cornmeal, this will have fewer nutritional benefits compared to whole-grain versions.
For example, fine/refined cornmeal will usually have more calories, carbohydrates, fat & protein compared to whole-grain cornmeal.
However, added nutrients might be added to refined cornmeal, meaning that the exact nutrition will depend on the brand you're using.
As a general rule, refined cornmeal will almost always have more carbohydrates but less fibre than wholegrain.
Cornstarch is made almost entirely out of carbohydrates.
It contains no or very little fat, vitamins, minerals, protein, or fibre. It is high in calories.
However, seeing as it’s usually used in very small amounts as a thickener, it is not very calorie-heavy in a single serving.
No, they are used in completely different ways and can’t be substituted for one another.
Yes, maizena is just a name of a well-known brand of cornstarch. Additionally, maizena is a word for cornstarch in many European languages.
Some cornstarch substitutes include flour, arrowroot, potato starch, xanthan gum and tapioca flour.
However, whether or not they are interchangeable depends on the type of recipe/dish you’re making.
Generally, you don’t want to be using baking powder instead of cornstarch.
Not only can baking powder influence the flavour, but it is also a leavening agent.
This means it contains sodium bicarbonate and acid which make your product (e.g. bread) rise.
As if many different names wouldn't be confusing enough, there are also regional differences in names.
What Canadians and Americans refer to as cornstarch is called cornflour in the UK & Ireland (see images above). Additionally, in many European countries, cornstarch is called maizena.
To keep things simple & uniform, I have used the US names throughout this post.
Taking everything into account, cornmeal and cornstarch are quite different in terms of flavour, uses & nutrients.
Even though they both come from the same plant, the process of making them is considerably different.