Corn can be made into myriad products and eaten in a variety of ways. It has been a staple food around the world for centuries and it seems that every culture has developed their own favorite way to prepare it. Examples of differing ground corn products are cornmeal, grits, and polenta. Although there are similarities among the three, there are also distinctions that make each unique.
Although cornmeal can be either a fine, medium, or coarse ground, the cornmeal we find packaged in the baking aisle is generally a finely ground dried corn. More coarse than wheat flour, cornmeal has a slightly powdery, yet granular texture. Although sometimes called cornflour, it should not be confused with corn starch, which goes by the same name in some European countries.
Cornmeal is often used to dust baking surfaces when making bread and pizza to prevent sticking and provide texture. Cornmeal is also used as an ingredient in batters for deep-frying, as it offers exceptional flavor and texture. Perhaps one of the most common uses for cornmeal is as the main ingredient in cornbread, a popular dish in the Southern United States. Cornmeal comes in several varieties depending on the type of corn used, including white, yellow, and blue.
Grits is a type of cornmeal mush that originated with Native Americans and is still widely consumed across the Southern United States today. Grits are most commonly served as breakfast or a side dish to other meals. Similar to cornmeal, grits are made from dried and ground corn but are usually a coarser grind. Grits are often made from hominy, which is corn treated with lime—or another alkaline product—to remove the hull. The corn used to make grits is often referred to as "dent" because of the indentation found in each corn kernel after it has dried. This variety of corn contains a soft starch, which cooks up smooth and creamy. Grits are often served seasoned with cheese and other savory ingredients such as bacon, crab, or shrimp.
Several varieties of grits can be found on grocery store shelves, including stone ground or instant. Stone ground grits are whole grain and retain the germ and all of its nutrients. Stone ground grits have a longer cooking time of around 45 minutes, compared to the 5 to 10 minutes it takes to cook instant grits, which are further processed and partially cooked before drying. Instant grits have a lower nutrient content than stone ground grits.
Polenta is a dish native to Italy and, similar to grits, is made from a coarsely ground corn product called "flint," which contains a hard starch center. This hard starch provides a distinctly granular texture even after cooking. Polenta is served hot and creamy or allowed to cool and then sliced. Sliced polenta is often fried or sautéed before serving for added texture. Polenta can be cooked with stock instead of water for added flavor and can have herbs, cheese, or other ingredients added during the cooking process.
Polenta is available dry or cooked. Cooked polenta is often found in tube form, which can then be sliced and then fried, sautéed, or grilled.
Unlike grits, the word polenta can be used to describe the ground corn product or a porridge made with any type of rice, beans, or other grain.