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 step 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. And yet, of all the things worth knowing about how to cook great polenta, those might be some of the least important (and, frankly, partially incorrect) lessons.
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.
What Is Polenta, Anyway?
Polenta, in short, is a cornmeal porridge that's a common dish in Northern Italy. 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, which some prefer over the more generic stuff, for all practical purposes, any medium-ground or coarsely ground cornmeal will do. Even grits, which are often ground more coarsely 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.
That's the first thing that's helpful to know: 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 it does 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 has a more consistent grind, while the Bob's Red Mill product is stoneground, producing a more irregular texture. Stoneground grains can range from a 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 made either from an incredibly fine grind of cornmeal or from precooked polenta that's been 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 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 with either milk or 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. One 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 afterward. More often than not, I opt for water instead, which, when the polenta is cooked right, still leads to incredibly creamy (but less heavy) results.
The Polenta Ratio
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 four parts water to one 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 five parts water to one 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, 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 one 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.
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. 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 presoak 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 presoaking, I was able to fully cook polenta that otherwise would have taken an hour in just 30 minutes.
Alternative Methods For Cooking Polenta
As part 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 doesn't result in much effort saved.
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 cooked directly over the flame. Plus, it took a while longer to cook, since the heat was gentler. 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 (three and a half 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 four 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 two-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 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 and liquid it's holding, lest it spill over during cooking.
Finally, 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. Once finished, 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. Polenta will become glossy from the added fat, and should feel rich, creamy, and smooth. 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 continue with step 6 to sear or grill.
To Sear or Grill: Grease a rimmed quarter sheet pan with olive oil. Pour hot polenta into pan, then use a spatula to spread evenly. Place a sheet of parchment or plastic wrap against surface to further smooth and even surface. Wrap pan well in plastic, and refrigerate until completely chilled and set, at least 5 hours or up to overnight.
Using a thin spatula, loosen block of polenta. Invert onto a cutting board. Cut polenta into squares, rectangles, triangles, or circles, as you desire.
To sear, heat a large cast iron skillet over high heat. Coat bottom of skillet with oil, then, when shimmering, add polenta. Cook undisturbed until browned, crisp, and easily releases from skillet, about 3 minutes. Flip and repeat on second side. To grill, heat charcoal or gas grill over high heat. Clean and oil grates. Add polenta and cook undisturbed until browned, crisp, and easily releases from grill, about 3 minutes. Flip and repeat on second side.
Serve topped with accompaniments of your choice.
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.