When you need a thick and robust soup or stew to feed the gang, you have several options for thickening the broth. Cooking south of the border fare may benefit from a light corn flavor added to the other ingredients. Masa harina and fine corn meal both come from dried corn, making them suitable choices for thickening.
Masa harina comes from dried hominy, which is a corn product. Hominy results after corn soaks in boiling water and lye. After removing the kernels from the hulls, they must soak in water and wood ash until they become puffy. The puffy corn kernels are hominy. After the hominy dries, it can then be ground into a fine powder called masa harina. Cooks use masa harina for making tortillas as well as thickening soups and sauces.
Fine Corn Meal
Corn meal can have a variety of different textures and consistencies. The coarsest corn meal may have granules as large as coarse salt. The finest corn meal may resemble fine flour. Corn meal might be stone ground for added flavor and texture or it might be machine ground. Some cooks like to use freshly ground corn meal to thicken sauces and soups, appreciating the enhanced flavor that comes from fresh grinding.
Corn Flour and Starch
Corn flour comes from finely milled yellow corn. The difference between fine corn meal and corn flour is the texture and consistency of the grinding. Corn flour is still whole-grain corn, but ground finer than even fine corn meal. Cornstarch is a purified starch, refined from the pale endosperm of corn kernels. The super-fine consistency of cornstarch makes it a popular ingredient for thickening cooked soups, sauces and desserts, but it thickens much differently from cornmeal or masa harina. It's quicker and has no flavor of its own, but sets to a glossy and thick texture that might not be exactly what you want in a given dish.
Make a paste with the masa harina or the fine corn meal before adding it to warm liquids to avoid lumps. Add enough cold water to the masa or corn meal to make a stirrable, thick paste. After stirring the paste until smooth, pour it into chili, soup, stew or savory sauces. Cook and stir the liquid after adding the paste. You should detect thickening within minutes. Mix cornstarch with water before using it to thicken both sweet and savory liquids. Because cornstarch has no flavor, it is better suited for thickening liquids in which you do not want corn flavors, such as custards and puddings.