One of the ultimate comfort dishes, polenta is to Italy what grits are to the American South. Both grits and polenta are made from ground corn, but the main difference is in the type of corn. Polenta is made from yellow corn, while grits are normally made from white corn (or hominy).
It took me years to figure out why there was such a wide variety of cooking times indicated in various polenta recipes. It ranges from 5 minutes to over an hour. Seriously. After doing some research, I realized there were two reasons for that. One is: you can buy cornmeal that is ground anywhere from fine to coarse, and how fine it is determines how fast it cooks. The other is a matter of personal taste: some people like a slightly “sandy” texture, others like it smooth and creamy.
This creamy polenta recipe is my absolute favorite way to prepare it. It is rich and smooth, yet not too heavy. And it uses a little trick I’ve recently discovered to avoid lumps: starting your polenta in cold liquid instead of pouring it into boiling liquid!
What cornmeal should you buy
First, polenta doesn’t have to be made with a product that says “polenta” on the package. Nothing wrong with it, but you can just as easily use any medium- or coarse-ground cornmeal. Or even fine ground if you want to reduce the cooking time. You can even use grits, which are often ground more coarsely and require a longer cooking time.
This creamy polenta recipe is written for medium ground cornmeal. I like Bob Red Mills’ organic polenta.
What liquid should you use
You can cook polenta in plain salted water, vegetable or chicken broth, but for a creamier polenta, I like to add some milk as well. I use a 50-50 ratio of milk and vegetable broth. Feel free to experiment and find what you like best.
How long should you cook it
While the actual cooking time may vary depending on the brand of cornmeal, how long it’s been sitting on the shelf, and your personal taste, a total cooking time of 30 minutes is a good guideline. If you feel like it is getting too thick earlier than that, simply whisk in more liquid and keep cooking.
One way to reduce the cooking time is to soak your polenta overnight in water and drain it before cooking. It will cut the time in half and it should be done in 15 minutes.
What cheese goes well in polenta
I find that Asiago brings a nice nutty flavor. Parmesan is also a classic addition. In a pinch, a good cheddar would work, or even crumbled goat cheese. You can of course omit the cheese.
You can also add some herbs to it if you like. Basil, oregano, parsley or chives come to mind.
How to use polenta
Polenta is very versatile and can go from breakfast to dinner.
You can serve it soft, like mashed potatoes, or spread it into an oiled baking sheet and let it firm up as it cools, then cut it into slices. Slices are easy to refrigerate or freeze and later grill or sauté in olive oil.
You can top it with a saucy stew, mushroom ragu or beans. Serve it alongside cooked vegetables, sautéed greens, fish, shrimp or poultry. Use it as a base for a casserole, or as “pizza” crust.
Endless possibilities! So go try it now!
Other recipes you might like:
- Combine milk, vegetable broth , salt, pepper and cornmeal in a saucepan
- Bring to a boil over high heat, stirring frequently until polenta thickens enough that it starts to spit.
- Reduce heat, cover, and continue to cook for about 30 minutes. Stir frequently with a spoon or silicone spatula, scraping the bottom to prevent scorching. Polenta is ready when it becomes thick and pulls away from the sides of the pan but remains runny.
- If polenta forms lumps, beat vigorously with a stiff whisk to remove.
- If polenta becomes too firm or begins to set, add a small amount of water, stock, or milk and beat in with a whisk until liquid is fully incorporated and no lumps remain.
- Turn the heat off. Add cheese and olive oil and stir with a whisk until smooth and creamy.
- Serve right away.
- Alternatively, you can spread it into an oiled baking sheet and let it firm up as it cools, then cut it into squares or circles. Refrigerate or freeze for later use. To reheat, place on the grill or saute in a tablespoon of olive oil for a few minutes