Five Ways to Cook with Cornmeal (No Cornbread Allowed!)

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I used to think cornmeal was boring and would take forever to go through an entire bag from the grocery store. How many times a month can one eat cornbread? A year ago I started experimenting with different ways to use cornmeal in my diet because it is cheap and filling. Here are five ways to cook with cornmeal that aren’t cornbread! 

Corn is an ancient grain that first grew in Mesoamerica before spreading through the world to Europe, Africa, and other surrounding countries through trade routes. It became ubiquitous worldwide because it was easy to grow, had a good yield, and was nutritious and filling. Of the many varieties of corn cornmeal is often made from yellow dent corn, so named for the small dents in each corn kernel.

Use cornmeal for Italian polenta (both boiled and fried)

polenta five ways to cook with cornmeal
From Five ways to cook with cornmeal: Polenta with pan fried mushrooms, garlic, and greens

Polenta is the Italian version of corn mush (in the southern United States) or African porridge (known under different names, such as ugali, nshima, mealie pap). Each meal consists of cornmeal boiled in water that can be made stiffer or thinner and eaten with a variety of toppings or mix-ins. My favourite way to eat polenta is with loads of butter and parmesan cheese mixed in with sauteed cremini mushrooms on top. This boiled cornmeal stiffens up quickly and can be rolled into a tube (like you would see in the grocery store), sliced, and pan-fried for a delicious snack or side dish. I like to pan fry leftover polenta for some variety later in the week. When pan-fried, polenta makes an excellent side dish to light proteins and greens. 

Simple Polenta Recipe

Ingredients:

1 cup cornmeal

4 cups water

1 cup sharp shredded cheese

1 tsp salt

Butter

Milk or cream

Directions:

  1. Bring 4 cups water to boil and add salt
  2. Whisk in 1 cup cornmeal
  3. Reduce heat to low
  4. Keep whisking every few minutes until polenta is thick, hard to stir, and fully cooked, about 30 minutes. Taste a small spoonful to ensure cornmeal is cooked and no longer raw-tasting.
  5. Off heat, mix in butter, milk or cream, and cheese until fully mixed. Add more of each ingredient to taste

Use cornmeal as breading for Southern fried catfish (or any fish!)

breaded fish with cornmeal
From 5 ways to cook with cornmeal: Cornmeal breading for southern fried fish, Haddock pictured here

Fish frys in the United States became a part of enslaved African food culture that later evolved into what most think of as African-American soul food or Southern food. The fish was often caught from the rivers and lakes, dipped into a cornmeal coating or batter, fried, and served with plenty of hot sauce and lemon wedges. If you’ve ever had down-south fried catfish, you know how good the cornmeal breading is! Some people may think catfish isn’t a fish worth eating because it is a bottom feeder, but let me tell you, it is perfectly edible – and delicious to boot. 

A breading made of cornmeal that isn’t cut with flour can overwhelm certain fish types that don’t have much flavour on their own. Sole and pollock are too mild to stand up to a cornmeal batter but catfish is just strong enough to not be overwhelmed by the corn flavour. If you want a slightly lighter tasting batter, add a bit of flour to the cornmeal mixture. This cornmeal breading recipe is spicy with lots of cajun, black pepper, and salt to complement the fish and add a bit of heat.

Cornmeal Breading Recipe 

To make cornmeal breaded fish (I recommend using catfish), first coat the fish fillets with salt, then the cornmeal mix, dip in milk, and dredge again in the cornmeal mixture before pan frying.

Ingredients:

1 cup cornmeal

1 tbsp cajun spice

1 tbsp paprika

1/2 tbsp black pepper

1/2 cup milk

Directions:

  1. Heat up a frying pan with a decent amount of oil on medium.
  2. Mix dry ingredients in a bowl. Put milk in a separate bowl.
  3. Salt the fish fillets liberally, dredge in cornmeal then milk and then back in cornmeal again.
  4. Once oil is shimmering and hot, place fish fillets in the pan taking care not to flip too early. Depending on the thickness of the fish using, cooking time may be between 3-5 minutes per side.
  5. Fish is ready to be flipped when the breading is crusty and not sticking to the pan. Leaving the fish to fry without moving it too early makes for the best fried fish.

Bake cornmeal to make Native American spoonbread

spoonbread made with cornmeal
From Five ways to cook with cornmeal: Spoonbread with a dollop of butter and salt

Spoonbread is exactly like it sounds, bread that can be eaten with a spoon. It is sort of like a bread pudding but tastes like cornbread. Spoonbread originated as a Native American dish called suppone or suppawn. This dish consists of cornmeal, eggs (yolks and whites – sometimes separated), and milk that are mixed together and baked in an oven for roughly 30-40 minutes. The eggs act as leaveners making the cornmeal mixture rise and become fluffy. The resulting texture and taste is light, fluffy, and slightly eggy, perfect served with a spoonful of melted butter and a dash of extra salt on top.

Spoonbread Recipe

I recommend this Old Fashioned Spoon Bread recipe from The Spruce Eats. It is perfectly delicious exactly as is.

Boil and ball it to make African ugali (corn fufu)

ugali cornmeal
From Five ways to cook with cornmeal: Ugali with sukuma wiki, a savoury kale stew with garlic, onions, and tomatoes

Remember African fufu, a mashed and boiled starch that is formed into a ball and served on the side of a heavily seasoned stew or soup? Instead of limiting yourself to fufu only made from cassava and plantain, try corn and pair it with a rich stew with meat or chicken. The cooking process is similar to polenta although you don’t add butter or cheese at the end. This ball of cornmeal is meant to be bland and accompany a richly seasoned meal like sukuma wiki, a spiced dish of braised greens and meat if desired. Typically, white cornmeal is used as it is more refined and finely ground.

Ugali Recipe

I recommend using this recipe for Ugali from Immaculate Bites. Pair it with sukuma wiki!

Form a paste and make Georgian mchadi 

mchadi with cornmeal
From Five ways to cook with cornmeal: Georgian Mchadi, a fried corncake made with cornmeal

Mchadi is a Georgian (the country, not the state) fried flatbread made from white cornmeal, cold water, and salt. This side dish is often served with lobio (red kidney beans) and a salty cheese like feta. These fried corn cakes may have the same ingredients as polenta but the cornmeal is not cooked in the water. Instead, the cornmeal is mixed with the water and salt until a dough forms. This dough is then molded into balls, pressed, and fried as corn cakes. I tried out this recipe with fine ground cornmeal and had a difficult time getting the cakes to stick together. Make sure you use coarse ground cornmeal and don’t worry if your cakes aren’t perfectly oval or even pretty! They will taste just as good.

Mchadi Recipe

Try out this recipe for Mchadi from Georgian Recipes!

The most wonderful part of finding new ways to use ingredients is how universal these ingredients are and how similar recipes from countries around the world can be. We have seen the humble cornmeal transformed with just a mixture of water, salt, and a few different cooking methods. 

I hope you have found these five ways to cook with cornmeal inspiring! Please let me know of any other ways to cook with cornmeal in the comments. Tag me on IG @finnyfromscratch or #finnyfromscratch so I can see what you are cooking with cornmeal.

3 thoughts on “Five Ways to Cook with Cornmeal (No Cornbread Allowed!)”

  1. Finny, I am enjoying your posts so much! You are opening up a whole new dimension of cooking to me. I hesitate to call it cooking. It is more cuisine: “cooking can be a great art”. You are definitely an artist! Thank you for educating me and inspiring me!

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