Pro Advice on Cooking with Cornmeal

Celebrated cookbook authors Leslie Cerier and Robin Asbell suggest great ways to cook with cornmeal—in all its guises.
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Celebrated cookbook authors Leslie Cerier and Robin Asbell suggest great ways to cook with cornmeal—in all its guises.

Yellow, White, and Blue

Regional preferences for white versus yellow cornmeal can be as intensely debated as politics or sports—but it really boils down to a matter of taste, says Robin Asbell, author of The New Whole Grains Cookbook. Raised north of the Mason-Dixon Line, Asbell confesses to a preference for yellow cornmeal, and enjoys making pancakes (sweet or savory), cornbread, and certain cookies and biscuits with it. “The taste and texture are familiar,” she explains.

White cornmeal is traditionally used in authentic Southern-style cornbread, so Asbell uses it in all kinds of Southern-influenced dishes. For instance, in a red beans and rice pie, she’ll opt for a white cornmeal crust. By the same token, she’d make Southern biscuits and spoon bread from white cornmeal. And she’d top off a Southern-style meal with a coconut cake made with white cornmeal.

Leslie Cerier, author of Gluten-Free Recipes for the Conscious Cook: A Seasonal, Vegetarian Cookbook, believes that everything goes with either yellow or white cornmeal and cooks and bakes with both interchangeably. That said, Cerier does confess to relying on visual appeal to help her choose one over the other. For instance, if she has kale and leeks or onions on hand, she’ll make cornmeal fritters with yellow cornmeal because of the ingredients’ contrasting colors. “It’s about novelty, versatility, and being playful,” she says.

Cerier recommends making corn fritters with white cornmeal, carrots, and butternut squash, and savory pancakes with white cornmeal and quinoa or brown teff flour because of the way the colors play off the white meal. She also especially enjoys sweet pancakes and waffles made with corn flour.

Blue corn is a traditional Hopi Indian food, so Asbell recommends incorporating it into dishes that have a native American influence, including “three sisters”–inspired dishes such as squash-and-bean soup with blue cornmeal croutons and a casserole or tamale pie with squash, pinto beans, and blue cornmeal. Blue cornmeal’s heartier and cornier (than white and yellow cornmeal) taste is also great in savory muffins with chiles and sun-dried tomatoes as well as with apples and blueberries in sweet muffins, she adds.

Match the Grind to the Menu

Corn flour or fine cornmeal sops up excess moisture so batters stick. Make a batter with yellow corn flour and egg, then use it to coat and bake tofu, tempeh, or firmer vegetables, such as cauliflower and potato sticks, suggests Asbell. If you make pancakes or waffles with cornmeal it will have a crunchy texture; for smoother-textured corn pancakes, waffles, or muffins, corn flour is the way to go, says Cerier.

According to Asbell, medium-grind yellow cornmeal is key to hush puppies with just the right amount of crunch: a fine grind would make a mushy or hard fritter, and the coarse-grind’s little bits would probably be too hard, she says. Cerier likes to make cornbread with organic medium-grind cornmeal.

Coarse-grind cornmeal doubles as a release agent that adds a satisfying crunch to pizza and bread, she Asbell. To get the effect, dust the pan/stone with coarse cornmeal before getting to work. She also suggests a coarse-grind if making a piecrust and quiche because of the pleasing contrast to the soft, melted cheese and sautéed veggies.