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I can't help but laugh when I think of polenta, the Italian corn porridge. Everyone always repeats the same old rules for making it—make sure the liquid is boiling before adding the polenta, and then stir nonstop until it's done. And yet, of all the things worth knowing about how to cook great polenta, those might be two of the least important (and, frankly, partially incorrect) lessons. How can the wisdom around such a simple food get so universally bungled?
I want to rewrite some of these rules and set the record straight. First, if the things you've heard about polenta have left you too intimidated to cook it, I want to assure you: it couldn't be easier. Yes, it does require some attention as it cooks, but not more than, say, steel-cut oatmeal. Don't fret about constant stirring or unconquerable lumps. Those are practically non-issues.
What does matter? More than anything, the ratio of liquid—whether water, milk, or stock—to polenta, and the cooking time. Those are the things far too many people (including some so-called experts!) get wrong, with disastrous results. Get them right, though, and the polenta will be so good I promise you'll want to make it a heck of a lot more often at home.
Let's start at the beginning to make sure we're all clear on what polenta is, then look at what you do and don't need to think about when making polenta.
What is Polenta Anyway?
Polenta, in short, is a cornmeal porridge that is a common dish in Northern Italy (so much so that one derogatory word for Northern Italians is polentoni—the big polentas). It's frequently eaten with meats and ragù, cheese like gorgonzola, or condiments like mostarda d'uva, a grape-and-nut jam from Piedmont. It can either be eaten freshly cooked, much like a thick porridge, or it can be cooled and then sliced and fried, grilled, or baked.
Long before corn was brought from the Americas to Europe, polenta was already a staple food—it just wasn't made from corn, obviously. The name originally comes from the Latin word for pearled grain (like barley), and the dish, a gruel that could be made with all sorts of grains and legumes, dates to Roman times.
Today, it's no longer associated with those other grains, just corn (or, in the case of polenta taragna, cornmeal mixed with buckwheat). While there are certain heirloom varieties of corn, like otto file and biancoperla, that some prefer over the more generic stuff, for all practical purposes any medium- or coarsely ground cornmeal will do. Even grits, which often have a coarser grind than polenta and are sometimes made with a different variety of corn (dent instead of flint), are a perfectly acceptable substitute in just about any situation requiring polenta.
The first thing that's helpful to know is that polenta doesn't have to be made with a product that says "polenta" on the package. There's nothing wrong with using a product designed exclusively for polenta, but you can just as easily use any medium or coarse-ground cornmeal.
For instance, the above photo shows an imported package of Italian polenta as well as a bag of stoneground cornmeal from Bob's Red Mill. The Bob's Red Mill stuff makes no mention of polenta anywhere on the bag, and yet it's totally fine for making polenta (the company also makes a product that they do sell as polenta, but it's not stoneground).
The biggest difference between the two, in fact, is the grinding method. In this case, the imported polenta is a more consistent grind, while the Bob's Red Mill product is stoneground, which produces a more irregular grind, ranging from powdery flour to large grit-size pieces. Bear in mind that there's no connection between origin and grind type: You can find imported Italian polenta that's stoneground, and domestic stuff with a more consistent grind size. In the end, it's just a matter of personal preference. The consistent grind will produce a more uniform polenta, while the stoneground cornmeal will have a more varied texture, potentially with some large, firm bits of chaff mixed in.
A lot of stores sell quick or instant polenta, which is either made from an incredibly fine grind of cornmeal or from pre-cooked polenta that's then dried and processed into a flour that can be rapidly reconstituted and put on the table within minutes. While I recognize the convenience a product like that offers, I'll be honest: I've never met a quick-cooking polenta I've liked. Personally, I'd rather just not eat polenta than settle for that stuff.
The Common Refrains
There are a few things you hear over and over when people talk about making polenta, and not all of them are true. The first is that the water absolutely must be boiling. That is 100% wrong. I've made many side-by-side batches of polenta, some where I stirred the cornmeal into cold water, and some where the water was boiling, and it makes no difference at all in the finished product. If your water is boiling, that's fine. If it's not, that's fine too.
The second is that you should add your polenta to your water in a thin stream while whisking constantly in order to prevent lumps. This is generally true if you're starting with boiling water and dry polenta, but as we'll see in a bit, it's not true for all cases (and in fact, my favorite method of making polenta involves no boiling water or slow addition of polenta at all).
The third thing you hear over and over is that you have to stir the polenta non-stop until it's done. This is another rule that simply isn't true. If you don't stir polenta at all, it will stick to the bottom of the pot and eventually burn, while a skin can form on top that will create lumps once stirred back in. Both of these issues are solved by frequent—but not constant—stirring. If you're making polenta, it's enough to give it a good stir every few minutes. The rest of the time, you're free to prepare the rest of whatever it is that you're cooking. If you do get a skin on top that creates lumps, vigorously stirring with a firm whisk will get rid of them.
I'm not even going to give serious consideration to the two other common rules of polenta, specifically that you absolutely must use a wooden spoon and stir in only one direction. Suffice it to say, I've broken these silly rules countless times and always had great results, so just disregard them.
The Real Rules of Making Polenta
So, what is important when you're making polenta? Let's take a look.
Perhaps the biggest decision, aside from the exact type of cornmeal itself, is what type of liquid you're going to use for the polenta. Years ago, when I worked for the Tuscan chef Cesare Casella, I spent a week or so cooking with his mom. One day I asked her about making polenta with milk and she looked at me in complete horror. No, no, no, she told me, you don't make polenta with milk, ever—you use water!
Not being as bound to tradition as she is, I don't necessarily agree that water is the only acceptable choice for polenta. Milk, for instance, makes an incredibly rich and creamy polenta that's a lot more of an indulgence all on its own, while chicken stock infuses the polenta with much more flavor. They're both perfectly good options, depending on what you want.
Still, while I like polenta made from both milk and stock, water is my personal favorite. First, because it creates a more neutral polenta that allows the corn flavor to shine through.
Second, polenta made with milk can often be too rich. It reminds me of another experience I had while working for Cesare. At the time, he had a very talented cook working as his chef de cuisine who had a tendency to load just about everything with cream, cheese, and other heavy ingredients. Once night, Cesare took me outside and said, "Look, that guy is a very good cook, but he's not thinking about an important part of cooking: Food can't just be judged by how it tastes in your mouth, you also have to consider how it leaves you feeling once you're done eating. Delicious food that makes you ill isn't necessarily good food."
I think about that lesson a lot with things like polenta. Sure, you can load it with milk (and then often finish it with butter and tons of cheese). It will taste good, but it'll also leave you feeling pretty gross afterwards. More often than not, I opt for water instead, which, when done right, still makes an incredibly creamy (but not as heavy) polenta.
Once you've picked up your polenta and decided on a liquid, the next question is what ratio to use. I've seen far too many recipes that mess this up, so here's what you need to know: Any recipe that uses less than 4 parts water to 1 part polenta by volume should be approached with extreme caution. I have yet to see such a low ratio produce good results, unless it's with instant or quick polenta. Frankly, depending on the grind of the cornmeal, even a 4:1 ratio can be too low; I almost always use a ratio of 5 parts water to 1 part polenta by volume.
The problem with using less liquid than that is that it almost invariably fails to fully hydrate the cornmeal: Your polenta may thicken faster and appear to be done sooner, but the little bits of dried corn will retain an unpleasant crunch. In essence, too little water makes polenta that's undercooked and gritty.
Using more liquid does extend the cooking time, but I like to think of it as the proper cooking time, not a long cooking time.
The Cooking Time and How to Shorten It
So if we're using a proper ratio of liquid to cornmeal, the next question is how long to cook it. This is another area that a lot of people get wrong all too often by serving the polenta while it's still very runny. Of course there's space for personal preference, and if you want a runny polenta, I won't argue, but I'd like to share one more story about my time working for Cesare that may change how you think about it.
One day, I was cooking some polenta at his restaurant, and I pulled it from the fire a little too soon. Cesare walked over, lifted a spoonful of polenta from the pot, then tipped it so the polenta flowed off the spoon in a thick stream back into the pot. "You want your polenta to look like snot?" he asked me. No, I realized, I do not. I'll never look at runny polenta the same way again.
So what is a good texture? As Max put it the other day when he ate some of the polenta I was making in the office, "It's like soft-scrambled eggs."
He's exactly right. For me, the best polenta texture in most circumstances is soft and moist, spreadable, spoonable and creamy, and just barely flowing.
With the right ratio of liquid, it can take a while to get there, so here's another warning: Beware any polenta recipe that uses medium or coarse cornmeal and specifies a cooking time of less than 45 minutes. Honestly, an hour is even more realistic (some folks start with more liquid and go even longer, but I don't think that's necessary).
Now, as I said above, you don't actually have to stir the polenta constantly for a full hour as it cooks, but it does require frequent attention. I get that an hour commitment just to make the starch component of your meal may be off-putting to some. But here's the good news: In the course of my testing, I stumbled on a way to cut the cooking time roughly in half. All it requires is a little forethought.
The trick is to pre-soak the polenta in its liquid for several hours before cooking it. This step helps fully hydrate the cornmeal before you even start cooking it, which in turn drastically cuts down on the cooking time. By pre-soaking, I was able to fully cook polenta that otherwise had been taking an hour in just thirty minutes.
In the course of my testing, I played with a few other methods of making polenta, including an oven method, a double-boiler method, and a microwave method.
The recipes for oven-made polenta that I found online called for combining polenta with water in a baking dish, then cooking it, in some cases covered and in others uncovered, until done. I tried this uncovered and got the above result: soupy polenta with a dry skin stretching across the top. Not appealing.
Covering helps mitigate this somewhat, but you still have to stir the polenta from time to time to prevent lumps. It works fine, but isn't a huge savings of effort.
I thought a double-boiler might help reduce the need for stirring, since the steam heat from below won't cause the polenta to scorch on the bottom of the saucepan. Once again, though, a skin on top of the polenta became a problem, and I found myself stirring it nearly as frequently as polenta directly over the flame. Plus, it took a while longer to cook since the heat was more gentle. This really didn't seem worth it to me.
Cook's Illustrated has published a microwave version, in which polenta and water are combined in a large Pyrex measuring cup, then cooked, covered, for about 12 minutes total.
The method works, but I have some reservations. First, the Cook's Illustrated recipe uses a ratio that's slightly too low in water (3 1/2 cups water per cup of cornmeal), producing polenta that's still a little gritty when done. I'd recommend bumping the water up to a full 4 cups at the very least. Second, the water has a tendency to boil over in the microwave, which is why the CI recipe calls for a 2-quart Pyrex measuring cup, nearly twice the total volume of ingredients. It's an unusually large Pyrex measuring cup (we don't have one that size in the SE test kitchen, nor do I have one that size at home). Of course, you can use some other microwave-safe cooking vessel that's large enough, but it does put a limit on how much polenta you can make in the microwave since you need a vessel that's significantly larger than the polenta it's holding, lest it spill over during cooking.
Lastly, this method too requires stirring between blasts in the microwave to keep the polenta smooth and lump-free. Still, it's a good method to have in your back pocket, especially if your stovetop is crowded with pots and pans.
Most of the time, though, I'll stick with the stovetop method, since I like being able to watch the polenta as it cooks.
Stovetop Polenta Step by Step
We start with water (or stock, or milk), either cold, warm, or boiling, and sprinkle in the polenta, whisking as it goes in to prevent lumps. (If you pre-soak, just dump the water and soaked polenta together into the pot and turn on the heat.)
The polenta will come to a rolling boil and will thicken quickly as the cornmeal absorbs water.
Reduce the heat as soon as it starts to show the first signs of spitting, keeping it low enough that the polenta won't puff, pop, and spit as it cooks. Stir it every few minutes. I recommend using a 3-quart saucier, which has rounded sides that are easier to reach into and scrape clean with a whisk or spoon.
After a while, the polenta will start to thicken even more, pulling away from the side of the saucepan slightly as you stir. It's close to being done at this point.
If any lumps form at all, grab a stiff whisk and give the polenta good beating. All lumps should disappear.
Once the polenta is smooth and thick, I add some butter and/or olive oil to enrich it slightly.
It will become just a tad glossy from the added fat, and should feel rich, creamy, and smooth. Note that it's not soupy or runny at all.
Season with salt, and you're all set. At this point you can spoon the polenta onto plates and top with whatever you're serving with it, or pour it into a mold of some sort and let cool until set. You can also pour it out onto a wooden board and then serve from there, cutting it with a string or wire, which is what they sometimes do in Italy, though usually only when making polenta for large crowds.
If at any point your polenta becomes too thick or hard, just add some water, stock, or milk, and whisk it in. It'll start off lumpy but will quickly mix in until soft and smooth again.
How to Sear, Fry, and Grill Polenta
If you want to chill the polenta and then cut it up for frying, grilling, or searing, here's how.
Start by pouring the polenta into a greased vessel. Here I'm using a rimmed quarter-sheet pan.
Spread it as evenly as you can.
Then press parchment or plastic wrap against the surface, further smoothing and evening the surface. This will also help prevent a dry skin from forming on it. Then wrap the vessel well in plastic and refrigerate for several hours or overnight, until completely chilled and set.
When you take the polenta out it should have set into a solid block. Using a thin spatula, make sure it's not stuck to the sides or bottom.
Then invert the vessel onto a work surface, turning the polenta out onto it. It should come out in a single piece. Cut the polenta into squares, rectangles, triangles, or circles, as you desire.
You can deep fry, sear, or grill the polenta at this point. Here I'm showing the polenta being seared in a cast iron skillet, but the tips hold true for the grill as well. Namely, you want the skillet or grill to be clean, well-seasoned and oiled, and hot when you set the polenta in it.
Now here's the secret: Do not give in to the temptation to move the polenta. It will almost definitely stick at first and any attempt to lift or move it will cause it to tear. Just wait!
After a few minutes of high heat, the polenta should release all by itself. You'll know when it's ready because it'll just come free and offer no resistance when you try to lift it. At this point, turn the polenta over and cook the other side.
As soon as it's browned and crisp on the outside, you're all set.
The polenta is ready to serve. Here I've put some gorgonzola dolce on top, and let it melt slightly from the polenta's heat.
This part doesn't make me laugh. It just makes me hungry.
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