Cornmeal differences abound, as do cornbread preferences. Do you lean toward tender and smooth, or coarse and gritty?
Published Sept. 20, 2019.
I used to take cornmeal for granted. Growing up in Louisiana, cornbread, arguably the most common of cornmeal applications, was often on the dinner table. Sometimes it was even shaped like little ears of corn, courtesy of a molded cast-iron pan. (If you’re ever in an antique store in the South, I highly recommend looking for one.) I never questioned the brand of cornmeal because, frankly, that would have been a really weird thing to do as a kid. But as an adult, with multiple cornmeal options on the market and a specific idea of what cornbread should taste like, I now care very much about what different brands have to offer. As chef, PBS personality, and author Vivian Howard states in her 2016 cookbook, Deep Run Roots, “Your cornbread is a window into your soul.” Forget horoscopes, tell me which cornmeal brand you use.
We had previously tested cornmeal, but our winner was discontinued. So we chose five nationally available brands, excluding cornbread and corn muffin mixes with added ingredients such as sugar and baking soda. If a brand offered multiple grind sizes, we selected “fine” as that’s our preference for baking. Even though we sometimes add cornmeal to fry batters in recipes such as Fried Green Tomatoes and Homemade Corn Dogs, we wanted to test these cornmeals in recipes in which they took center stage. So we went straight to the holy grail of cornmeal applications, which uses all cornmeal and no additional flour: Southern-Style Skillet Cornbread. To see how the cornmeals performed when combined with flour, we made our Cornmeal Buttermilk Pancakes.
Every cornmeal produced satisfactory pancakes. The cornbreads were much more revealing—especially when it came to their textures, which ranged from smooth, moist, and tender to grainy and crumbly. Our least favorite cornmeal produced a “dry” cornbread that “falls apart very easily,” a drawback to most (but not all) tasters. Another product made “grainy” cornbread; some tasters compared it to eating couscous. Even though that product was labeled “fine grind,” the meal itself looked coarser than the rest.
Our 21-person tasting panel overwhelmingly loved the “smooth,” “very moist” cornbread made with our winning cornmeal, noting that it had a “noticeably more soft” texture that “holds together nicely.”
To assess the grind sizes of the cornmeals, we sifted them using a series of sieves. One product (appropriately labeled as “fine” grind) was significantly finer than the rest, while another (also labeled as “fine”) was markedly more coarse. The gri...
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