What is the difference between cornmeal and masa harina? They’re both made from corn (usually dent corn), but the way they’re processed is quite different, and they’re generally best used in different kinds of recipes, with some exceptions.
Cornmeal is simply ground dried corn and is often fairly coarse in consistency, and usually yellow in color, though you can find white cornmeal too.
Coarse cornmeal and medium-ground cornmeal can be used for making polenta (traditional corn polenta is essentially the same thing, except it’s made from flint corn instead of dent corn; still, either kind can be cooked into a thick porridge). This coarser cornmeal is also handy for ensuring a pizza crust doesn’t stick to a skillet or baking sheet
More finely ground cornmeal can be used to dredge food for frying, and while the consistency used can vary by recipe, cornmeal is also the primary ingredient in cornbread and many other baked goods.
If you like to DIY, you can make your own cornmeal by grinding popcorn kernels in a food processor or high-powered blender. For the best corn flavor, though, look for stone-ground cornmeal—but note that it doesn’t last quite as long since the oily germ and bran are not removed before grinding and they are more perishable.
Grits are technically just another form of cornmeal, but are even more coarsely ground, and are also sometimes made from hominy, which is corn that has been treated with lime to remove the hull and germ.
Masa harina is also made from hominy, but is ground much finer (usually to the same consistency as all-purpose flour—masa is sometimes called corn flour, in fact). While generally white in color, you can find yellow masa too, and even blue masa harina (labeled azul).
All masa is treated with slaked lime or wood-ash lye and is made from a wet corn dough that is then dehydrated so it can be stored longer (that is, the dried corn kernels are cooked and soaked in lime water, then ground while wet before being dried out into the fine flour).
To make masa dough, all you have to do is add water back. Masa is the main ingredient in homemade corn tortillas and in tamales. You can also add small amounts of masa to things like chili and soups as a thickening agent, and use it in place of wheat flour in many recipes too (including cornbread).
Here are some ways to use both corn products in your cooking.
Masa harina forms a tender crust for these mini tamale pies that work equally well as a game day snack or a fun dinner that even kids will like. Get our Mini Tamale Pies recipe.
This basic masa dough is a great starting point for making a wide variety of tamales. It calls for lard, which is traditional (and delicious), but you can also substitute vegetable shortening or even coconut oil (which will impart a faint coconut flavor). Get our Easy Masa Dough recipe.
One idea for filling your tamales: pork mole (or any kind of mole, really). Get our Pork Mole Tamales recipe. For a veggie version (as long as you don’t use lard in the tamale dough), you can try our Bean and Cheese Tamales recipe.
Similar to tamales, humitas are an Ecuadorean dish that combine masa with fresh corn kernels and cheese. Make it with the last of summer’s corn, or swap in frozen when there are no more fresh ears to be found. Get our Sweet Corn Humitas recipe.
Masa is also useful when it’s not a main ingredient—it’s a common secret weapon for thickening chili of all kinds (it also lends body to the traditional Mexican drink atole), and cornmeal can be used the same way. Get our Jerk Turkey Chili recipe.
Speaking of cornmeal, its most famous application has to be cornbread, and there are many ways to make it. Ours is lightly sweetened, but you can cut back on the sugar if you prefer. Get our Moist Cornbread recipe. (And try our Skillet Cornbread recipe too.)
OK, corn dogs probably run a close second when it comes to favorite cornmeal recipes. Making your own at home isn’t that hard and it’ll transport you straight to the state fair (in a good way). Get our Corn Dogs recipe.
Finely ground cornmeal combined with flour (gluten-free if need be) makes a delicious, crisp coating for fried food like fish or green tomatoes. Just don’t use too-coarse cornmeal or the texture will be unpleasantly gritty. Get our Cornmeal Fried Catfish recipe.
Cornmeal can work in dessert too. This delicious cake has a slightly crunchy texture from the addition of coarse cornmeal, is moist without being greasy, and is strongly flavored with olive oil (so make sure you use a good one), plus a whisper of orange zest and amaretto. Get our Olive Oil Cake recipe.