Polenta often sounds fancy on a restaurant menu. But it originated as a low-cost, filling simple food from Northern Italy. And, it couldn’t be easier to make.
There are only two simple things to remember when making polenta: 1. Make sure your liquid to cornmeal ratio is right (see recipe, below). And, 2. When adding the cornmeal to your liquid, whisk fast and pour the cornmeal slow. That’s all you need to remember! Everything else is optional from which liquids you use to what seasonings you want. Think of polenta as a flavor sponge that you can customize any way you like.
What’s the difference between polenta, cornmeal and grits, anyway? Polenta is a completed dish using coarsely ground yellow cornmeal as its primary ingredient. Cornmeal is a single ingredient (dried and ground corn). Grits is also a completed dish, but uses finer, white cornmeal.
I often use a softer polenta as a base for my tomato sauce with braised or ground meat, or sausages, which can be served on individual plates or a family-style platter. Occasionally, I’ll make a firmer version and shape it in a bowl for impressive looking slices. Or, in a square pan for slices that I can then grill. The options are endless.
Here’s the recipe:
Polenta, Your Way
- 1 cup regular-to-coarse ground cornmeal (no need to buy special “polenta cornmeal”)
- 4 cups liquid for firm, shaped polenta that you can cut; or, 5 cups liquid for a softer spoonable polenta
- Choices! 1. All water, 2. All chicken stock, 3. A mix of milk and chicken stock (I make mine half milk, half chicken stock); 4. a mix of water, milk and chicken stock. You decide, but stick with 4 or 5 cups total liquid
- 1 teaspoon kosher, not table, salt (taste and adjust once polenta is made)
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 1 garlic clove, finely minced
- 1 teaspoon finely minced rosemary
- 1/8 teaspoon red pepper flakes
- 1/2 cup grated parmesan cheese, optional (but I mean, why wouldn’t you add cheese?!)
- Heat a large (3-4 quart) sauce pan to medium. Add olive oil, butter and heat until the butter is melted
- Add the salt, garlic, rosemary, red pepper flakes and heat for 30 seconds or until fragrant. Do not let the garlic brown
- Add your liquids and bring to a soft boil
- Place your cornmeal in a pourable container. With one hand, begin whisking the sauce pan with liquids in fast a circular motion. With your other hand, slowly pour in the cornmeal. Keep whisking until all the cornmeal is incorporated and there are no lumps
- As the cornmeal thickens, switch to a wood spoon. Cook and stir occasionally for about 10 minutes (Watch out for volcanic polenta eruptions, they’ll burn you. Use a screen guard or a lid and allow steam to escape)
- Off the heat, add the grated cheese, if using
- If you made the softer* polenta, you’re done! Just serve
- If you made the firm polenta, place it into your bowl or pan. Let it rest to room temperature and then refrigerate for at least three hours. When ready for use, bring it to room temperature and serve as is, or place in a 300F (149C) oven for 25 minutes to heat through. Slice and serve