What defines an experienced cook? The ability to improvise in the kitchen, no doubt. Following a recipe with accuracy is commendable, but making a palatable meal with unconventional ingredients, that is truly impressive.
But this kind of skill isn't acquired overnight. It's gained through years of consistent trial and error. Thankfully there are some experienced cooks who've been kind enough to pass this knowledge down to us, and what better place to start than the commonly used cornmeal.
Cornmeal is found in thousands of dishes for reasons of flavor, texture and stability. I encourage you to think about why your recipe calls for this ingredient, so you can choose a cornmeal substitute worth using.
When looking for a suitable ingredient replacement, it's always best to start with those that originate from the same plant. Flavor and textural changes will usually result in mildly different finishing qualities, but the overall end result will be very similar.
1) Corn Grits (similar flavor and texture)
Corn Grits are the coarser equivalent of white cornmeal. Stemming from the same parts of the corn plant, grits will contribute an identical flavor. The difference will come in texture. Grits will offer a grainier consistency to dishes, which can be both an attractive and unattractive quality depending on your preference.
I recommend using a smaller proportion of grits since the grain size is slightly bigger. There isn't a universal conversion, but a good starting point is 3/4 the quantity of the original cornmeal.
For dishes that require a liquid consistency, grits will create a slightly thicker, but still liquid, porridge.
If you wish to match the consistency of cornmeal exactly, you can actually reduce your grits to a similar size with a blender, food processor or grinder. While mimicking cornmeal more closely, proper blend time will take some trial and error.
In cases where you don't have the quantity of cornmeal a recipe asks for, you can also use a ratio of cornmeal to grits. Many cornbread recipes, for example, call for a 50% grits / 50% cornmeal ratio which can add some complexity to the texture of your dish.
Hominy grits will work as well.
2) Polenta (similar flavor and semi-similar texture)
Similar to corn grits, polenta is made by grinding up corn kernels. The difference being that polenta comes from yellow corn instead of white, and is also a little coarser. The flavor will be a little sweeter and the final dish will have a yellower hue to it.
While Polenta is a suitable cornmeal substitute, it is more practical to grind the product down to something similar to cornmeal. This will require less guesswork when converting from cornmeal to polenta quantities.
3) Corn Flour/Polenta Flour (similar flavor, different texture)
If your recipe calls for "fine" cornmeal, you can usually substitute it weight for weight with corn flour. The texture is practically identical so texturally, it will create a similar product.
If you're sticking with corn products, I highly recommend sticking with particle sizes that are either bigger or match that of the cornmeal your recipe requires. You can make it work with smaller grain size, the texture of the end result will just be a little harder to predict.
Flour has far more surface area than its courser constituents. This can contribute a more intense corn flavor into the recipe. It will also lead to faster cooking times. You can actually go as far as to cut the baking time in half with certain dishes.
4) Corn Chips (Ground Up)
Yes, a totally ludicrous way to add corn back into the recipe, but suitable nonetheless. Put some corn chips into a food processor and continually grind until a particle size of cornmeal is reached. Add it to the recipe as if it were cornmeal.
Most corn chips are salted heavily which will definitely contribute to the flavor of your recipe. Make the the corn chips have zero added salt if salt is undesired.
For those who are allergic to corn or simply don't have corn ingredients on-hand, there are some suitable replacements. Non-corn substitutes will not contribute the corn flavor, but can resolve the texture problem.
5) Semolina (similar texture, different flavor)
A unique flour made by grinding durum wheat kernels into a fine powder. This flour turns out to be a little coarser than typical wheat flour and more closely resembles the texture of corn meal. It's also a little darker and provides a more earthy taste than your common wheat flour.
I recommend using a slightly larger quantity of semolina than the original recipe asks for. This will help create a thicker texture, similar to that of cornmeal.
6) Ground Flaxseed (similar texture, different flavor)
Ground Flaxseed resembles the texture of cornmeal relatively well, but the flavor is pretty different. Flax is far more bitter due to the protective nature of plant seeds. Some argue that ground flaxseed is a healthier alternative to cornmeal because of its nutrient dense innards.
Several people have found ways to make ground flaxseed cornbread that has apparently turned worth making a second time.
7) Wheat Flour (different texture, different flavor)
Wheat flour is both a finer material and completely different flavored cornmeal substitute. Texture will be smoother (less gritty) and flavor will resemble more of a malty flavor. Fortunately, the flavor of wheat flour can be subtle so you can cover this malt flavor with other ingredients if undesired. You may have to dabble with the sugar and salt content to create a flavor you're happy with.
8) Rice Flour (different texture, different flavor)
Again, both a finer consistency and completely different flavor than cornmeal. Texture may be slightly stickier and flavor will be sweet but hard to distinguish. I encourage you to experiment here and get back to me.
Frequently Asked Questions
Can I Replace Cornmeal with Flour?
In most cases yes, but the baking/cooking time will usually diminish substantially and flavor will be a little more intense due to the increase surface area of the corn.
Can You Use Cornstarch Instead of Cornmeal
Yes, you can but the cornstarch will usually contribute less flavor and less nutrition. This will create a sweeter flour but with less overall corn flavor. This is due to corn starch being created only from the starchy parts of the plant, whereas cornmeal is grounds of the whole kernel.
What's the Best Cornmeal Replacement for Cornbread?
If you're trying to replace cornmeal with another corn-containing ingredient, I highly recommend corn grits. Corn grits are identical to cornmeal but just with a coarser grind. If you grind this down to cornmeal size, you can use the same quantity the recipe entails. If you're looking for a healthy cornmeal replacement for cornbread, I recommend ground flaxseeds. Flaxseeds are far more nutrient dense than the corn we grow today.
What Can I Use in Place of Cornmeal on a Pizza Stone?
If you don't have cornmeal, parchment paper, flour or semolina make for an acceptable replacement. With a hot enough oven and proper pizza stone, you really shouldn't have to use anything to keep the dough from sticking to the pizza stone.
Can I Use Bread Crumbs Instead of Cornmeal?
For purposes of adding texture to the outside of cooked meals, bread crumbs can be used. For everything else, bread crumbs are not a good replacement for cornmeal. Bread crumbs are already cooked and can burn easily when added to baking recipes.
A defining quality of an experienced cook is knowing the proper replacements for ingredients you don't have on hand. If you're ever unsure of whether something can be used as a suitable replacement, I encourage you to think about where the original food item comes from.
Cornmeal, for example, comes from corn. It would only make sense that other refined corn products would be the first place of interest. Then you can start looking towards plants that behave similarly. Corn and wheat for example are both grown in similar climates and thus have similar traits. They are also ground up to create products with a similar texture.
While these tactics will not always guarantee an identical product, it is a fantastic place to start. I hope this was helpful. Please comment below if you have any questions.
Founder of Robust Kitchen