Corn Meal is Corn Meal

Not! I may be blasé about the differences between cane sugar and beet sugar, between high-end grand cru chocolates and the chocolates you can buy at the supermarket, but when it comes to corn meal I get animated. Simply put, you need the best quality stuff you can find. And when I say “best quality” I mean stone ground, ideally from an old-school grist mill of the kind you find in national parks and those historic restoration villages.

Why am I so particular about corn meal? Because there’s no corn meal like fresh meal ground slowly between stones from whole kernels of dried corn. Though you may not realize it, the corn meal you find in supermarket packages is not only stale, it’s ground from only the endosperm of the kernel, the oily germ having been pinched off by steel rollers.

What difference does that make? A lot. Because the germ contains the oil and the oil is where much of the corn flavor is. So why then do large commercial mills remove it? Preservation. As I mentioned in a previous post, dried corn kernels will keep for years — so long as you don’t grind them. For grinding releases the oil which, being liquid, goes rancid after a few short weeks on the shelf.

This is why even some of the better-quality packaged whole grain corn meals are suspect. Who knows how long they’ve been on the shelf losing precious flavor? Nope, much as I like to make fun of ingredient purists of various types, I am a purist about this. If you want to produce moist, rich-tasting corn breads and puddings of the kind our great-parents enjoyed, you literally have to go back to their sources: old mills. They’re the only places to find the whole kernel, low-volume meals that provide that real, old-school flavor and texture.

Here in Kentucky we’re lucky enough to have a few of the old water-powered grist mills still in operation. Their products can be found in area specialty shops. If you don’t have convenient access to a source like that, fresh-milled corn meal from real live grist mills can be had online. Buy it in a small quantity and either use it right away or store it in a plastic bag in the freezer where it will stay fresh the longest. Oh, and if you’re a fan of whole wheat (whole meal) flours, you’ll want to store them the same way, because the same rules apply. End of communication!

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8 Responses to Corn Meal is Corn Meal

  1. ben says:

    Hey Joe, this is great news, thanks for sharing it. You
    see, I have a soft spot when it comes to corn muffins,
    cornbread, even corndogs. I have always used Indian-
    head brand corn meal, and with good results. I’m
    intrigued to learn that my baked goods can be so
    much better! Would this be a good time to buy a
    flour mill, even a hand operated one? Or like with
    flour, would this be a job best left to the professionals?

  2. Brian Shaw says:

    You’re not kiddinga bout the difference in corn meals. Living in an area that does not have the “grist mill heritage” I suffer through life with the supermarket boxed variety of meal. I can make a satisfactory cornbread (considering that I have no options and love cornbread) but know how good cornbread can be with good corn mean.

    Up until two years ago there was an organization of people who liked the old hit-and-miss engines and they displayed their equipment at the Los Angeles County Fair, among other places. One of the exhititers had a corn mill that attached to their old engine. I’m not sure if it was stones or a steel burr grinder. Combine that rig with bags of whole corn, and visitors had the opportunity to buy freshly ground corn at a decent price. Every year I would buy more and more, and every year I would promise to buy even more the next year. But, alas, no more.

    I miss access to decent corn meal. You make my mouth salivate with the desire for yummy cornbread!

    • joepastry says:

      The internet is your friend, Brian! Use it — there are a lot of old mills out there that would love to sell you some of the good stuff!

      - Joe

  3. Cindy says:

    What do you think about the products from Bob’s Red Mill?
    http://www.bobsredmill.com/Whole-Grain-Store.html. I buy these products on the shelf in Vermont. I think we have a lot of people in VT that buys enough so the products on the shelf are really fresh? I also have baked for years with different King Arthur Flours and have been really pleased. Are we spoiled in VT or could I be benefiting from trying some other flours for some recipes? Thank you soooo much for your articles. I am learning much from you. I have learned from trial and error and reading from cook books but I never had the privilege of learning about different flours.

    • joepastry says:

      Hi Cindy!

      I’ll take locally-ground corn meal over anything packaged, but there’s no denying that Bob’s Red Mill is very high quality. Expensive as all get-out, but they have products no one else has. Same with King Arthur, fabulous stuff. So you do live in a great location for baking. All you need is a little soft southern flour for your biscuits and you’ll have everything!

      Thanks for the comment!

      - Joe

  4. Cindy says:

    Hi Joe,
    I live in Prince Edward Island and frequent North Carolina where my daughter lives. On a trip down last year I stopped at a side road specialty shop and picked up two things, pickled garlic and a bag of corn meal. I often make Hoecakes as a side biscuit for our Bed and Breakfast guests back home and the cornmeal I got was out of this world. Can’t remember where I got it to save myself. However I’ve driven everyone nuts baking hoecakes these past two weeks trying every kind/brand possible before I returnhome.

    If it means a drive to Kentucky, I guess that is what I’ll have to do. The corn meal I got wasn’t gritty, was between a light yellow and white colour and amazing. I have bags of it here that I don’t want and I’m ready to feed it to the chickens. If you have any suggestions of a brand I can try to lesson the pain on everyone here I’d sure like to know. I don’t see where I can receive response to the posts so if you could email me that would be great. In the meantime I’m going to ask Google if in North Carolina I can find good cornmeal.
    Cindy

    • joepastry says:

      Hello Cindy!

      Very nice to hear from you and very nice to know there’s another Northern convert to Southern white corn meal. Even though I spent most of my life in Chicago and Minneapolis (where corn meal is yellow and grainy) I’ve come to see the light living in Kentucky. Unlike Northerners, Southerners have relied on corn meal as a staple for hundreds of years. Simply speaking, they understand it better. Here, yellow corn meal is food for pigs, white (or blended) is all that’s fit to eat.

      The corn meal I buy here is from Weisenberg Mills, and it is spectacular. You can see below that they sell a fine grind white called “Hotel and Restaurant” (bottom of the list) which is what you want. They sell it in 25 pound bags, but who knows what it costs to ship!

      http://www.weisenberger.com/category_s/1830.htm

      If it turns out to be prohibitively expensive, I suggest a google search for “stone ground corn meal” and see what turns up. My guess is most fine white corn meal will be found in the US, but who knows? Finely ground white corn meal is the ticket. Best of luck!

      - Joe

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