Cornmeal is one of those core ingredients you probably always have somewhere in your kitchen. In fact, I find I often buy more cornmeal ‘just in case’ and get it home only to realize I already had two half-finished bags in the back of the cupboard.
With cornmeal useful for so many things — from making cornbread and hushpuppies to making sure pizza crust and homebaked bread don’t stick to the tray or pot they’re cooking in — it’s no wonder we often end up over-buying it.
And with lots of cornmeal in the cupboard, it makes sense so many people want to know if cornmeal goes bad, how long it lasts, and whether to trust the use by date on those big 5lb bags.
As with many staple ingredients that are largely shelf-stable, it’s also sometimes hard to tell when cornmeal as gone bad. I’ll go into that in this article too!
But first, the basics.
Table of Contents
What is Cornmeal?
If you’re a Southerner who’s been using cornmeal your whole life this may seem like a silly question. But it’s very close to a few other corn products, which can be confusing.
I’ve definitely found myself searching ‘difference between cornmeal and polenta’, for example. And then there’s grits and cornflour to consider too.
Basically, cornmeal is dried, ground corn. It comes in various textures, from fine to coarse and two colors, yellow and white. Cornmeal is available degerminated (the most common kind) and whole-grain. Whole-grain goes rancid much quicker but has a richer flavor. It will usually be clearly labeled as whole-grain as it’s a premium product and usually more expensive than degerminated.
Polenta is also cornmeal, which is kind of confusing! In fact, polenta is really a specific Italian dish made from cornmeal but it’s also just labeled as polenta in its raw form sometimes. Blame grocery stores for that I guess! Cornmeal meant for polenta is medium-ground.
Grits are very coarsely ground cornmeal. That means anything labeled ‘grits’ will probably be too coarse for dishes that want you to use even coarse ground cornmeal.
Finally, cornflour is simply very very finely ground cornmeal. You can use it to thicken sauces or instead of wheat-based flours in gluten-free cooking and baking.
There we go, now you know the difference between corn products. Wasn’t so hard, was it?
Does Cornmeal go Bad?
Onto the most important question — does cornmeal go bad?
The answer is actually a little annoying, and less clear cut than with many foods.
Degerminated cornmeal (the most readily available type) doesn’t usually go obviously rancid or rot, rather it just loses quality over time. Cornmeal loses it flavor and freshness particularly, which can be hard to determine if you don’t cook with it to check.
As with all other dry ingredients, cornmeal can be spoiled by getting wet or becoming a home for bugs. Check your cornmeal, especially if it’s been open for a while and/or you haven’t used it for some time, in case either of these things has happened. This isn’t the same as cornmeal going bad but does render it inedible.
If anything gets into your cornmeal (water, or other foods) then it could also develop mold.
Whole-meal cornmeal can definitely go bad. It doesn’t last nearly as long as degerminated, and when it’s past its best it will clearly be rancid and smell and taste sharp and acrid. This kind of cornmeal goes bad quicker because of the delicate oils in the germ.
Whole-grain cornmeal can also go bad in all the ways I went into above for degerminated cornmeal. Do remember, though, that whole-grain naturally contains flecks of black and gray from the germ.
How to Store Cornmeal
In order to keep your cornmeal fresh for as long as possible, you have to store it properly.
Once you’ve opened a package of cornmeal you should keep it in an airtight, nonporous container. That means a glass jar or a ceramic container. Cornmeal will go bad quickly if it has contact with air.
You can also keep cornmeal in a heavy-duty, sealed freezer bag.
Keep your cornmeal somewhere cool and dry. This could be a pantry or even the refrigerator.
Store whole-grain cornmeal just like you would degerminated, but be aware that keeping it somewhere airtight and cool is even more important.
How Long Does Cornmeal Last?
As it’s hard to tell by looking at or sniffing whether most types of cornmeal have gone bad, you probably want a rough guide to how long you can store them.
If you store degerminated cornmeal right (see above) then it should last a long time.
Kept in the pantry, degerminated cornmeal will be good for about a year.
In the fridge, cornmeal lasts around 18 months.
After that, the cornmeal will still be okay to use, it will simply have lost some of its flavor.
Whole-grain cornmeal, on the other hand, only lasts 3-6 months in the fridge and you shouldn’t keep an unopened package in the pantry. Luckily, it’s easy to tell when whole-grain cornmeal has gone bad because it will be obviously rancid.
Can You Use Cornmeal After the Best-By Date?
Cornmeal, like other foods, will have a best-by, best-before or another similar printed date.
With cornmeal, because it’s reasonably shelf stable, this date is more of a suggestion or guide than anything else. An unopened bag of degerminated cornmeal should be fine for up to a year after the date printed on it.
Unopened whole-grain cornmeal will last about 3 months longer than the date shown.
Can you Freeze Cornmeal?
Yes, you can freeze cornmeal. Keep it in an airtight container, and once it’s defrosted don’t refreeze it.
Use frozen cornmeal as you would room-temp or refrigerated cornmeal after a few hours out of the freezer.
Frozen cornmeal lasts up to two years in the freezer, so if you have a lot of cornmeal or don’t use it often then keeping it frozen is a great way to avoid it going bad.
How to Tell if Cornmeal Has Gone Bad
It’s a bit tough to work our whether or not cornmeal has gone bad.
Whole-grain cornmeal can go rancid, which is pretty obvious. It will smell sharp and acrid.
Germinated cornmeal is more confusing. It loses quality, and will simply make more tasteless food.
If in doubt, it’s best to err on the side of caution, as with most foods.
When cornmeal is stored incorrectly it could get damp or even become a bug-palace. This is usually pretty obvious when it happens.
What to Make With Cornmeal
If you have a lot of cornmeal stored in your kitchen you probably want to use some up!
You probably know you can make cornbread with fine-milled yellow or white cornmeal. You can also make muffins, cakes and even pancakes with cornmeal.
If you’re feeling sophisticated and European, try making polenta. It’s a little like grits, but finer and more creamy. Serve it with roasted veg, meat ragu or sauteed greens and eggs.
Another unusual cornmeal cooking hack is to make a crispy, crunchy coating for meat, fish or even some vegetables.
Hopefully, that’ll help you get through all your properly-stored cornmeal!