Why It Works
- A ratio of five parts liquid to one part cornmeal by volume produces polenta that's fully hydrated and cooked through, without any little raw, gritty bits.
- An optional presoaking helps hydrate the cornmeal and cuts down on actual cooking time.
There are a lot of rules people say you need to follow to make polenta, like using a wooden spoon, stirring in only one direction, adding the polenta to boiling water, and stirring constantly. Forget those. What's really important is using the right ratio of liquid to cornmeal and cooking the polenta long enough for the cornmeal to properly hydrate. This recipe allows you to choose water, stock, or milk as your liquid (though I'm partial to the light, clean flavor of a water-based polenta). It can be served right away, with braised meats or cheese like gorgonzola dolce, or chilled, cut into pieces, and seared, grilled, or fried.
If Using the Presoaking Method: Combine water with cornmeal in a large mixing bowl and let stand, covered, at room temperature overnight. When ready to cook, scrape soaked cornmeal and water into a large saucier or saucepan and set over high heat. Continue with step 3.
If Using the Standard Method: Add water, milk, or stock to a large saucier or saucepan and set over high heat. Sprinkle in cornmeal while whisking (water does not have to be boiling).
Bring to a boil, stirring frequently. Let boil, stirring frequently, until polenta thickens enough that it starts to spit. Lower heat immediately to prevent spitting and continue to cook, stirring frequently with a spoon or silicone spatula and scraping bottom to prevent scorching, until polenta becomes thick and pulls away from side of saucepan, about 30 minutes for presoaked cornmeal and 50 minutes for dry cornmeal. Season with salt.
Stir in butter or olive oil, using either a spoon, a silicone spatula, or a whisk. 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.
Serve right away with accompaniment of your choice, or scrape into a vessel and chill until set, then cut into pieces for grilling, searing, or frying.
Any medium- or coarse-ground cornmeal will work here, whether the package says "polenta" or not; avoid instant polenta, which promises a quick cooking time but delivers subpar flavor and texture. Cooking it in milk will produce a rich and creamy polenta that's delicious and indulgent, but also heavy; stock (vegetable or chicken) will infuse the polenta with more flavor, but that flavor can also cover up the taste of the cornmeal. Water produces the lightest polenta, with a mild corn flavor that pairs well with everything and won't leave you feeling weighed down after eating it.