Polenta vs cornmeal: what are the differences?

Discover the nuances of cornmeal, grits, and polenta, including the distinct characteristics of each and how to prepare them to perfection.

What is polenta?

Small bowl of polenta, a classical dish from Northern Italy.

Polenta is a dish from Northern Italy consisting of a variety of coarsely ground grains or starches cooked into porridge or mush. Chestnut flour and chickpea flour have been traditionally used, but cornmeal polenta is the most common preparation today. Since regular polenta requires quite a bit of time to cook – roughly 40 minutes of constant stirring – there is instant or quick-cooking polenta available, which has been pre-processed to reduce the lengthy cooking process.

What is cornmeal?

Bowl of cornmeal with corn kernels.

Cornmeal is made by grinding dried corn kernels into three different textures: fine, medium and coarse. Traditionally, cornmeal was made through stone-grinding, which retains some of the hull and germ of the kernels. This method results in more nutritious but also more perishable cornmeal due to the higher fat content. Modern cornmeal is made through steel rollers that remove most of the husk and germ, resulting in a longer shelf life. Cornmeal can be made from blue, white or yellow corn, and stone-ground cornmeal is often labelled ‘water ground’. Finely ground cornmeal is sometimes called corn flour, but in British recipes, corn flour actually refers to cornstarch, which is not made from the whole kernel. 

Differences between cornmeal and polenta

Cornmeal and polenta are both made from ground corn, but there are differences. First, polenta is a dish, and cornmeal is an ingredient. Cornmeal is used for cornbread, muffins and other baked goods, to add thickness to chillis and stews, and for crunchy coatings on fish, meat and poultry. Cornmeal is made by grinding dried corn kernels – yellow, white or blue – into fine, medium and coarse textures, while polenta is made from a specific variety of corn called flint corn. Polenta also has a coarser texture than most types of cornmeal. While cornmeal can be made from stone-ground or steel-roller ground corn, traditional polenta is usually made using stone grinding.

Polenta vs grits vs cornmeal

Bowl of grits made from dried corn kernels and cooked with water.

Polenta, grits and cornmeal are all made from ground corn but differ in their texture, flavour and how they’re prepared. Polenta is made by cooking coarse cornmeal with water or stock until it thickens into a creamy porridge. Northern Italy’s polenta is equivalent to grits in the southern US. Grits are made from hominy – dried corn kernels that have had the hull and germ removed – and are cooked with water or milk to a thick, creamy consistency. Cornmeal, on the other hand, is a fine or medium grind of corn that can be used in many dishes, including bread and muffins, and as a coating for fried foods. 

How to cook polenta

Chef preparing polenta in the traditional Northern Italian way.

Traditionally, polenta is slow-cooked in water until the grains swell and the starches are released. Towards the end of the preparation, it’s combined with other ingredients, from butter and cheese to sauces and gravies. At this point, the dish has a thick, smooth consistency and is ready to be eaten. It can be topped with any number of ingredients. Ragoût is a classic, but polenta is also delicious when served with mushrooms or roasted vegetables. Or, just eat it on its own, as a creamy porridge. Once cooled or chilled, the polenta hardens and can be cut into pieces and crisped up on the outside. Check out our 10 creative ways to jazz up your polenta, from crunchy coatings to tasty pizzas and cakes to delicious desserts.

How to cook cornmeal

Woman preparing porridge cooking cornmeal with water

Cornmeal, a traditional ingredient in cornbread, offers more than just texture and sweetness to cookies. It can be used to dust baking surfaces to prevent the dough from sticking, as well as a thickener for soups and chilis. It is an incredibly versatile ingredient you can turn into virtually anything. Check out our 12 tasty ideas for cooking with cornmeal to create spectacular recipes that are sure to please.

How to cook grits

While finding white corn flakes – the main ingredient in grits – may be challenging, the dish is easy to prepare. If you can’t find them, you can replace them with corn flour used for making polenta. Check out our step-by-step recipe for grits.

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