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What’s the difference between grits, polenta, corn starch, and corn meal?

Sweet corn is consumed primarily as a vegetable, while other types of field and flint corn are dried and ground to make grits, polenta, corn starch, and corn meal.
Sweet corn is consumed primarily as a vegetable, while other types of field and flint corn are dried and ground to make grits, polenta, corn starch, and corn meal.

Maize is known as corn in most English speaking countries. Everywhere else, it’s maize. This New World grass was cultivated by Native American cultures for thousands of years, long before Columbus stumbled onto the Americas looking for Asia. Maize is dried and ground into several different products, including grits, polenta, cornmeal, corn flour, corn starch, and a special corn flour called masa harina. which is made from hominy.

Types of maize or corn

First, we can divide corn into five types: dent, flint, sweet, flour, pop, and pod. Since corn can grow in tropical as well temperate regions, and at sea level and high altitudes, these different types are generally adapted to various climate conditions.

· Dent or field corn (Zea mays indenata)—the primary corn grown in the U.S.—is grown in the hot, mid-western climate and ground to make grits. Dent corn is either yellow or white. It is called “dent” because when it dries, the endosperm shrinks and creates a dent, while flint corn does not.

· Flint corn or Indian corn (Zea mays indurata) is grown in temperate areas and ground to make polenta. Flint corn may be yellow, white, red, blue, or purple. Both dent and flint corn are high in starch, and grown primarily as animal feed, with human food as a secondary use.

· Flour corn (Zea mays amylacea) is one of the oldest varieties with almost no hard endosperm and soft kernels that grind easily into flour.

· Popcorn (Zea mays everta) is perhaps the oldest variety of maize, with a very hard endosperm surrounding a small pocket of dense starch. When heated, the starch “explodes”. Other types of corn won’t pop.

· Sweet corn (Zea saccharata or Zea rugosa) is consumed primarily as a vegetable by humans, enjoyed when the kernels are tender and sweet, before the inherent sugars convert to starch. In recent years, sweet corn has been modified to enhance sweetness.

· Pod corn (Zea tunicata) is more ornamental and not grown commercially. Each kernel is covered with a small husk or glume.

Ground maize and corn products

Maize or corn kernels are prepared and ground into the following products:

· Cornmeal, including grits and polenta, is made by grinding dried corn kernels. The grind may be medium or coarse. The corn may be any variety, including white, yellow, blue, red, or purple. Red, blue, and purple varieties are higher in protein than white and yellow varieties. The corn can be ground with the whole kernel intact, including the nutritious germ. You can make your own cornmeal or corn flour by drying corn and then grinding it in a food processor, blender, coffee grinder, or grain grinder. Grits and polenta substitute adequately for each other. Cornmeal is most often made into cornbread, but may also be cooked as a breakfast cereal like you would oatmeal, or used to coat foods such as chicken or fish before frying.

· Corn flour (not to be confused with corn starch) is very finely milled or ground dried corn kernels. Corn flour can be substituted for one-fourth of the all-purpose flour in recipes for baked goods to lower the gluten content and enhance the flavor of cookies, cakes, and breads. Corn flour is popular in American southern cooking, and can be hard to find outside of that region. Outside of the U.S., corn flour refers to corn starch.

· Corn starch is ground from the endosperm of the kernel only, creating silky flour that is used as a thickener for sauces or to create light and tender baked goods. To use as a thickener, mix 1 tablespoon cornstarch with 1 tablespoon cold water before stirring into a hot sauce, and then simmer for 1 to 2 minutes, or until the sauce thickens. To use in recipes for cookies and cakes, substitute 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour with 2 tablespoons cornstarch to create a tenderer crumb.

· Hominy is made when whole corn is nixtamalized (neesh-tamal-ized). Nixtamalization is done by soaking corn kernels in an alkalai, such as lime water (calcium hydroxide) to break down the hard kernel, which is then removed. This process improves the nutrition of corn by making the niacin available during digestion. The process was developed in Guatemala. Whole hominy (once called “big hominy”) is use for soup or stew or ground coarsely into grits (“little” hominy) or more finely into flour.

· Masa harina (“dough flour”) is flour made by finely grinding hominy (nixtamalized corn kernels). Masa is used to make corn tortillas and tamales.