There is perhaps no recipe I've investigated that is as simple and yet as fraught with passionate argument regarding the "correct" way to make it as cornbread. First, you have the ostensibly North/South difference of opinion on the use of sweeteners, and then further debate among the Southerners themselves ratcheting up tensions even further. Discussions regarding the ratio of flour to cornmeal, the number of eggs, and what kind of fat needs to be in the pan can then further exacerbate hostilities. And if you're not already using a cast iron skillet to bake yours, you best duck when those who are come near.
I mention all this at the outset because adding to this battle is not my purpose in making cornbread this week. I want to leave all the controversy aside (and the box of Jiffy mix as well) in order to highlight the great taste provided by freshly milled cornmeal.
With all the chatter out there concerning wheat, gluten, and human nutrition, there's been a lot of discussion in food circles regarding sprouting and soaking grains and milling flours at home, but I haven't taken that very far. And grinding my own cornmeal was something I hadn't even begun to consider when I first stumbled upon discussions of how great the freshly milled variety made your cornbread. As cornmeal has a habit of sitting around in my pantry, the chance to DIY this product certainly intrigued me.
Picking the Right Corn Type
While I've seen a few references to drying and milling sweet corn, most cornmeal is made from the starchier field (aka dent) corn. Not having the space to grow and dry my own corn (not to mention that it's March), the option that really lit my eyes up, however, was one I already had in my pantry: popcorn.
Selecting Your Equipment
If you haven't already invested in a grain mill (there are many types, from hand crank to KitchenAid attachment to sophisticated powered appliances), Vitamix benders are also powerful enough to grind dried corn into a beautiful yellow cornmeal, if that's an option for you. Even still, working in small batches is necessary so as not to overheat the meal during grinding. There are also people out there who use their coffee or spice grinders for small batches.
As a precaution, you may wish to sift the meal after it is initially ground to check for missed larger pieces, but I didn't find this strictly necessary.
While I haven't had the chance to try a proper grain mill yet, another tip I read frequently during my research is that if you're having trouble grinding the corn—especially using a hand-cranked mill—try running the corn through on a very coarse setting and then grinding it a second time to get a finer grain. Less wear on your machine and yourself!
Whole Kernel Popcorn vs. Refined/Degerminated
"Why not just buy cornmeal?" you may be asking yourself. Much of the conversation online surrounding growing and grinding your own corn concerns GMO and pesticide concerns. Beyond that, however, is the fact that many types of cornmeal available on grocery store shelves have been refined/degerminated. By removing the germ from the whole grain, the product will have a longer shelf life. However, that oil-rich and vitamin-packed germ is also where a lot of the nutrition lives. Grinding your own meal means you can preserve the whole grain aspect with less worry about rancidity. Simply grind meal as you need it, or store small batches in your freezer for maximum preservation.
Milling at Home for a Richer Corn Flavor
A 32-ounce bag of popcorn netted me 5 1/2 cups cornmeal, though grinding the amount needed just before use is recommended for maximum freshness. The special equipment is the real barrier to entry here—and some of it is frankly quite expensive. The richer corn flavor and overall freshness definitely provide a big push towards investing in an appliance that can get the job done. Beyond that, however, unless you're buying in bulk, it seems that the popcorn vs. cornmeal price points are negligible. I remain on the fence about adding grain milling to my regular kitchen tasks, but in this case the benefits and ease outweigh any downsides.
Commercial cornmeal comes in different grind sizes: fine, coarse, and stoneground, the last of which is the most irregular with a combination of fine and coarse pieces. When using a high-powered blender at home to make cornmeal, controlling grind size is one of the most difficult parts of the process. Generally—and assuming you're using a good blender—you will have the most luck grinding finely. Getting a consistent coarse grind will be much more difficult, and while you might be able to approximate "stoneground" meal, there's a decent change you'll have some too-large chunks in the meal as a result of trying to not take the grind too far overall.
All of this comes with one big caveat: using a blender to mill a grain does not provide the same level of grind-size control as a proper grain mill. In some recipes, this may not present much of an issue at all, especially if you have a good sense of what commercial "fine" cornmeal look like and can match your grind to them by eye. But in other situations, it's possible this lack of control could throw a recipe off. I had no trouble successfully baking my cornbread recipe using my home-ground cornmeal, but please don't be shocked if you find that you have to try it a few times to get your own grind dialed in to your specific uses.
In a high-powered blender, and starting at low speed and gradually increasing speed to high, blend popcorn kernels until meal is consistently ground to either a "fine" degree, depending on your needs (assessing "fine" is something you'll need to do visually, based on existing commercial products as a benchmark).
This recipe can easily be scaled up or down depending on the amount of cornmeal you need and the capacity of your blender bowl.
Make-Ahead and Storage
Cornmeal can be stored in an airtight plastic container on the shelf for several months.