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DIY Cornmeal from Popcorn (Plus Cornbread)

DIY cornmeal

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’ve provided a simple recipe that suits my preferences, but 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.

Type of Corn

While I’ve seen a few references to drying and milling sweet corn, most cornmeal is made from the starchier field (a.k.a. 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.

Equipment Needed

DIY cornmeal: Processing

DIY cornmeal: Processing

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 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.

Do you grind your own cornmeal or other grain products? What method do you use?


The Verdict

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, and would love to hear more about the pros and cons from those of you who are doing it.


DIY Cornmeal Cornbread

DIY Cornmeal Cornbread

9 ounces of popcorn, ground into meal (alternatively, use 1 1/2 cups store-bought cornmeal)
1 cup AP flour
2 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1 egg
2 cups buttermilk
2 tablespoon shortening, bacon drippings, or high heat oil

Place 10-inch cast iron skillet in oven on middle rack and heat to 450°F.

Meanwhile, whisk cornmeal, flour, baking powder, and salt together in a large bowl until evenly incorporated. In a medium bowl, lightly beat egg. Stir in buttermilk.

As oven nears 450°F, remove pan and add fat, allowing it to heat and coat the bottom.

Add egg and buttermilk to dry ingredients and then pour in excess fat from skillet as well, quickly mixing all ingredients together until just wetted. Pour batter into skillet and return to oven, baking 20-25 minutes, until top is just golden and edges have pulled away from the side of the pan.

Cornbread is best served warm fresh from the oven.


This recipe and post were created for my “DIY vs. Buy” column on Serious Eats.

We’re Under Siege! (Popcorn Edition)


I think it was when the seventh kernel flew past my face and ricocheted off the stove top that I began to wonder if anyone was supposed to really strip down these dried cobs and actually pop this corn. I mean, they sure were cute sitting in that barrel at the pumpkin patch, and all the kids were definitely excited. But perhaps all those moms beside me knew to dispose of this old-world treat as soon as they got home. Because seriously, this was one step worse than shelling old peas.

Eventually, it either got easier or I got better at it. I worked out a system where I would clear a row up the cob and then flick out all the kernels in the row to the left with the side of my thumb. Then I’d work my way around the cob and repeat. It worked, more or less, but I’m not sure I’ll be motivated to do it again unless this turns out to be the Best. Popcorn. Ever.

Pffff. Microwave popcorn. I don’t think so. It’s way more fun to drag out the stockpot before Friday night movies knowing that you’ll have to wash a stockpot splattered in congealed oil in the cold Saturday morning light. Am I right?

So, no one probably needs a “recipe” for stovetop popcorn, though it occurs to me that I’d need instructions for using a microwave to do it, so I don’t want to be a snot either. I netted about 2/3 cup of kernels, so I poured about 4 T of cooking oil and the corn in my 8 qt. stock pot and heated over medium. I keep the lid vented just a crack and shake the kennels around every so often to avoid burning. In “a watched pot never boils” fashion, it may seem to take a while until you hear that first pop, but you should watch it and eventually things will take off. Once the percussive fun subsides, remove from heat and toss the light and airy popped kernels with seasonings of your choice.

I used to be pretty faithful to a salt/sugar mix, but this being Maryland, I was inspired to try some Old Bay seasoning and salt this time. I didn’t feel like my seasonings were sticking well and I didn’t feel like melting butter, so when I spied that can of olive oil spray on the counter, I went to town like it was a can of Aqua-Net on prom night. Problem solved. It wasn’t the best popcorn ever, but it sure was an experience–with unpopped souvenir kernels now hidden in unlikely places all over the kitchen.