5 Substitutes for Cornmeal That Aren’t Corny!
Cornmeal is ground, dried corn, and is a signature ingredient in recipes from all over the world! From Mexican food like tacos and tortillas to Venezuelan arepas, Italian polenta, and even Canadian bacon, cornmeal is an important ingredient in many pantries!
In Africa, cornmeal is the most common staple next to rice, and in the United States, cornmeal is incredibly popular.
Cornmeal can be used in most recipes where flour is needed, but it does tend to be more coarse than typical flour. It does however come finely ground, to medium and very coarse (as in the case of hominy grits.) It is used to make taco shells, tortillas, tamales, and more, and is also popular in certain desserts.
It can be used to bread things to make them crispy, or slowly simmered with water or milk to make a creamy polenta. It often has a light corn-like flavor but is considered quite mild. Cornmeal is also gluten-free and plant-based so it can be enjoyed by anyone who can eat corn!
Corn is a very cheap crop, so cornmeal is very affordable and readily available in most shops. It comes in a variety of types and colors including white (most common in America), yellow and blue. It can be steel ground or stone ground—stone ground cornmeal often contains more of the husk of the corn, meaning it has more fiber.
It often has more flavor and nutrition as well and is believed to be the superior choice, but if you cannot find stone ground cornmeal, steel ground will work just fine! Some common products that contain steel ground cornmeal are: Doritos, Fritos, Corn Pops, Cheetos, and other corn chips.
We’ve compiled a list of cornmeal substitutes in case you cannot find cornmeal. Some of these will be appropriate for folks with corn allergies too!
1. Grits (Including Hominy Grits)
Grits are made in the exact same way as cornmeal, but ground much more coarsely, with hominy grits being the largest of them all.
Grits are a staple food in the American south and are (at their most basic level) slow-simmered with water. However, when simmered with stock and topped with cheese, butter, shrimp, or meat, grits are a delicious, well-rounded meal! (Or better yet, all of the above!)
Grits are known for being very filling while not costing a lot, and a little bit of seasoning or flavoring can go a long way. By adding garlic, spices, or even simply salt, these affordable grains are taken to the next level. To substitute grits for cornmeal, you will need to use 1 cup for every ¾ cup, because they are so much coarser.
2. Panko Breadcrumbs
Cornmeal is often used as a bread that can be fried in oil and made super crispy, and what is better at doing that than panko breadcrumbs?! Panko is a natural choice for anyone who wants to bread or batter something, and cornmeal is a close second.
Because cornmeal is gluten-free, it works great as a breading for anyone who cannot consume panko for breading. Simply dip any item in gluten-free flour, then in an egg wash, then in the cornmeal, and lightly fry or deep-fry. The result will be crispy and slightly sweet! You can use panko breadcrumbs as a 1:1 ratio with cornmeal but it will not be applicable in all recipes.
3. Corn flour (or other flour)
Corn flour is essentially just very finely ground cornmeal, and can be used interchangeably with cornmeal in most recipes.
Corn flour will have a different texture than cornmeal because it is finer, and will not produce the same result as grits or polenta.
Corn flour can however be used to make gluten-free batters, breads, muffins, cornbread, cakes, etc. It will have a slight corn flavor and is readily available and affordable. In fact, you can essentially use any flour as a replacement for cornmeal, but consider the fact that many people use cornmeal because it is cheap and contains no gluten, so ensure you let people know if you switch to a wheat flour.
It is also important to note that cornstarch, while made from corn, is not the same thing as cornmeal or corn flour. Cornstarch has special thickening properties that are obtained through a rigorous chemical process, and cannot be consumed raw, or in the same way that cornmeal can be. Do not use cornstarch in place of corn flour or cornmeal!
Semolina is almost identical to cornmeal in texture and applications, except semolina is made from durum wheat and therefore contains gluten. Semolina is one of the main ingredients in handmade pasta, and in couscous, and it cannot be used in all cornmeal recipes, but it certainly can be used in certain ones without skipping a beat. It is also very popular in many dessert recipes.
Semolina is very finely ground and can be used 1:1 with most cornmeal recipes. It is commonly used to dust surfaces before kneading doughs because it doesn’t stick to anything! It also has great flavor and plenty of gluten, making baked goods tender and rich.
5. Ground Corn Chips or Corn Flakes
When in a pinch, if you don’t have any of these substitutes on hand, you can grind up some corn chips and use them as cornmeal! This won’t be a perfect option, and you’ll need to grind them quite finely either in a food processor or mortar and pestle.
This is a good option if you’re going to use cornmeal as a breading or thickener, but it will not be the best option in all cases. Corn chips are cooked whereas cornmeal is raw, so this will also make a difference in whatever you’re cooking. You can also buy unsweetened cornflakes and use these as a fantastically crunchy breading or coating for just about anything.
Cornmeal is a staple ingredient in many recipes and comes in a variety of forms, and it’s important to note that not all corn products are created equally. There are many different varieties and it is important to know the difference. Corn flour is very finely ground corn. Cornmeal is most commonly used for polenta. Grits are coarsely ground whole corn.
There is also masa flour (sometimes called masa harina), which is a very important ingredient used to make arepa, tortilla, and tamale — it is still considered a cornmeal product but it has gone through a very specific process called nixtamalization which is when the cornmeal is soaked in lime water which makes it alkaline.
This is sometimes referred to as “pre-cooked cornmeal” and it acts very differently when added to water. Either way, it is critical that you check your recipe for which type you need, before considering these substitutions. For breading, panko or crushed chips will work great. In desserts, batters, or doughs, semolina is your best bet. For savory, stewed cornmeal, we suggest grits as the best option.