Flours & Starches: Cornstarch, Cornmeal and Masa Harina

Corn Varieties

Corn Varieties

By Cat, Nov 2014 (Photo, right, from Wikimedia Commons)

See also Flours & Starches: 1. Other True Grains, 2. Gluten-Free, and 3. Purchasing & Storage; also 4. Lime Water and Nixtamalization

Corn, or maize, is a true grain native to the Americas, and became known to Europeans only after explorers arriving on the American shores discovered this unique grain and brought it back to Europe. It is familiar to us in two variants: common or feed corn, and sweet corn. 

  • Sweet corn is a genetic variant that produces more sugar and less starch in the ear, so that it is consumed as a popular vegetable. (1)
  • Common corn is a major source of starch. It is dried and ground to make cornmeal and cornstarch, or feed for livestock and pets. Many food additives are made from corn; for example mono- and di-clycerides, corn syrup, and HFCS. Native Americans typically boiled or soaked the corn kernels in lime water to make hominy, which can then be dried and ground to make masa harina (masa), or a porridge known as grits.


This product, like cornmeal, is made from common or feed corn. Unfortunately most cornstarch for sale in the US is made from GMO corn, but Bob’s Red Mill brand, as well as 100% Organic brands are non-GMO. (5, 6)

Cornstarch is more highly processed than cornmeal, to extract the starch from the bran and germ. It is used as a thickener for sauces.

Reasonable substitutes include unbleached white flour, tapioca starch, and arrowroot powder. See my article on Non-Flour Starches & Other Thickeners for more.


Cornmeal has less bran than wheat, and lacks gluten so that it does not rise well. (1) Unless it is limed, cornmeal does not form a dough. For these reasons, modern recipes for cornbread include wheat flour. However, the liming of corn (nixtamalization) provides many benefits to the cook (2):

  • Limed corn is more easily ground;
  • Its nutritional value is increased (by making niacin, or Vitamin B3, bioavailable);
  • Its flavor and aroma are improved;
  • Mycotoxins in the corn are reduced;
  • Its cell walls are softened, so that the corn is softer;
  • Some of the corn oil is broken down into emulsifying agents;

The changes to the cells and their components in the ground masa allow it to form a dough without the addition of wheat, and thus be used to make all the food products that comprise the main component of the Mexican diet.

However, most American grocers do not sell masa; the cornmeal most commonly available has not been limed. Our American recipes use this un-limed form and thus most cornmeal recipes include wheat.  But if you want to make your own tortillas and other authentic cornmeal products, you will need to use masa harina (or make your own limed cornmeal). If you wish to try masa harina, it is available from Bob’s Red Mill (5, 6), and includes a recipe for authentic tortillas.

Cornmeal to Flour Ratio

Cornbread can be made with regular (fine-ground) cornmeal, coarse stone-ground cornmeal, or with a mixture, and usually with wheat flour (whole grain or white), which helps the cornmeal to form a dough when combined with liquids. Cornbread recipes vary on proportion of cornmeal to wheat flour (whole or white), depending on the desired lightness and texture.

The following comparisons are from my various cookbooks/recipes (amounts in parenthesis are specified in the recipe). Most of these recipes use 2 – 3 eggs and 1 1/4 to 1 1/2 cup milk. Recipes using masa or or a lime-soaked cornmeal require less flour (or none); otherwise, it’s all a matter of taste:

  • Tassajara Bread Book (muffins)*: 1:1 (1 cup cornmeal, 1 cup flour; 2 cups total);
  • Bob’s Red Mill:  1:1 (1 cup cornmeal, 1 cup flour; 2 cups total)
  • Better Homes & Gardens:  1:1 (1 cup cornmeal, 1 cup flour; 2 cups total)
  • New Vegetarian Epicure*:  3:2 (1 1/2 cups cornmeal,  1 cups flour; 2 1/2 cups total);
  • Tassajara Bread Book (cornbread)*: 3:1 (1 1/2 cups cornmeal, 1/2 cup flour; 2 cups total)
  • Betty Crocker cookbook*: 3:1 (1 1/2 cups cornmeal,  1/2 cup flour; 2 cups total);
  • Chow.com Masa Cornbread:  3:1 (1 1/2 cups cornmeal, 1/2 cup flour; 2 cups total);
  • Nourishing Traditions* (uses lime-soaked cornmeal):  2:1 (2 cups cornmeal, 1 cup flour; 3 cups total).

* See Beloved Cookbooks for more about these recipe sources. For source information about the recipes not marked with a ‘*’, see ‘Sources’ below as follows: Bob’s Red Mill (2) and Better Homes & Gardens (3) and Chow.com (4).

Leavening of cornmeal batter

Cornbreads are almost always made with some form of milk, which determines the choice of leavening agent; either as:

  • fresh milk with baking powder as the leavening agent (baking powder includes baking soda to leaven and a weak acid such as cream of tarter to activate the soda); or
  • buttermilk (or other sour milk product) with baking soda as the leavening; the acidity of the buttermilk activates the baking soda to leaven the dough..

I prefer the buttermilk and baking soda combo. See my articles on Baking Soda vs Baking Powder, Part 1 and Part 2 for lots more about this.


  1. Wikipedia on corn/maize (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maize) and on nixtamalization (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nixtamalization)
  2. Bob’s Red Mill recipe (link removed at their request)
  3. Better Homes & Gardens recipe (bhg.com/recipe/breads/crusty-cornbread)
  4. Chow.com recipe (chow.com/recipes/11286-masa-cornbread)
  5. Bob’s Red Mill, Golden Corn Flour: Masa Harina; Cornmeal, Fine Grind; and Cornstarch (all links removed at their request)
  6. Bob’s Red Mill non-GMO policy (link removed at their request)

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