How to Cook Polenta

What is Polenta?

Polenta is coarsely ground yellow corn meal and is a staple of northern Italy. It is served as an everyday starch, either by itself with a little tomato sauce, or as a starch accompaniment to a protein (as part of an entrée). Polenta is extremely versatile and absolutely delicious, making it a must-know addition to any cooks technical repertoire.

Polenta Ratio

The basic ratio for polenta is 4 parts liquid to 1 part polenta. You can use any number of liquids to make polenta - from plain water, to chicken, veal stock or fish stock. The decision on what liquid to use should be based on what the final application of your polenta will be.

Should I Use Water or Stock When Making Polenta?

As stated above, the liquid that you decide to use to make your polenta is based solely on what the desired flavor profile of the finished dish will be. One thing to take into consideration though, is the effect your stock will have on the color of your polenta. Some darker stocks may turn your polenta a drab color and make it look a little unappetizing (even though it probably tastes great). Remember, water is the classical choice.

Although a lot of polenta is made with just water, there is a little known secret that some restaurant chefs employ to enhance the flavor. That secret is chicken base. No, not bouillon cubes, but an actual chicken “paste” that is added to the water to give it a chicken flavor. These bases are heavily salted to preserve the flavor, so when used carefully it can add great salt content and flavor to your polenta, not to mention color.

If you use regular chicken stock (and there is nothing wrong with that), once the stock is worked into the polenta it would take away some of the polenta’s vibrant yellow color because true chicken stock is not exactly golden yellow - chicken base is, however. Although the use of chicken base is not widely used and is definitely not traditional, it is something to be aware of and to possibly experiment with.

Polenta Procedure

The procedure for making polenta is fairly straightforward: Just bring the appropriate amount of liquid to a simmer, and slowly stream in your polenta at the ratio discussed above. Continue to cook over low heat for about 20-30 minutes. Most cookbooks, along with your Italian grandmother, will tell you that you have to stir your polenta almost constantly throughout the cooking process. Although this is good advice, it’s not always absolutely necessary.

In our “on demand” world, most people don’t want to stand still over a pot of simmering water, mindlessly stirring it. A decent compromise is to stir it for the first 5 minutes to ensure no major clumping, then cover it with aluminum foil. Make sure your heat is on the “low” setting, set a timer for 25 minutes, and go open a nice bottle of wine.
 

Once the 25 minutes is up, go uncover your polenta. By now, the polenta has probably settled on the bottom of the pot with a layer of your cooking liquid on top. DON'T PANIC. Gently stir the liquid back into the polenta using a wooden spoon, finish with as much butter as you dare and maybe a little touch of cream. Taste and check for final seasoning. Serve and enjoy

Polenta Serving Suggestions

Polenta makes a great dish on it’s own or you can serve it as a side dish. If you are going to serve the polenta as a stand-alone dish here are some great serving tips:

  • Finish your polenta with the cheese of your choice - freshly grated parmesan, mascarpone, and goat cheese are some favorites.

  • Stir in some fresh herbs - chopped thyme, basil, and tarragon are a good place to start.

  • A flavorful tomato sauce poured over your polenta is a nice and impressive finish.

Creamy Polenta with Tomatoes, Oregano and Olive Oil

If you will be serving your polenta with meat:

  • A nice reduction sauce goes great with polenta and is a good way to tie in the flavors of your entrée.

  • Polenta serves as a great canvas on which you can paint a wide array of flavors.

  • Taking your polenta to the next level as a side dish is as easy as stirring in some caramelized onions, sautéed wild mushrooms, truffle oil, or even freshly shaved truffle itself.

Crispy Fried Polenta Topped with Tomatoes, Basil and Fresh Mozzarella

 

For more posts just like this, check out our ongoing Cooking Techniques Video Series. You can also view our complete How To Cook Video Index.

 

4 comments

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Joined: 12/27/2011
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First I have to preface the fact that I have never had 'polenta', but being a Yank I have had 'grits' many times on trips to Florida.

 

From what I understand, polenta is made from ground corn meal, ie, corn that hasn't been processed, while 'grits' are made from ground hominy, which is corn that has been soaked in an alkaline solution like lime, wood ash, or lye to soften the cellulose shell and make the corn more digestible.

 

I really do like the flavor profile of alkaline processed corn. An Odawa friend of mine shared his corn soup recipe, which uses hard wood ashes and water to soak the corn in. Corn tortillas made from Masa (another form of alkaline processed corn) are wonderful. And I do like grits, but who wouldn't if they have butter and cream in them. ;-)

 

Corn bread, from unprocessed ground corn, is not a favorite.

 

So is 'polenta' really just ground corn, or is it made from alkaline processed corn. And if made from unprocessed ground corn, what give it it's pleasurable flavor profile?

 

Thx Chef.

Jacob Burton's picture
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Polenta is basically a coarsely ground, high quality corn meal. It is not processed with alkaline compounds like grits, so it tastes slightly more like "fresh corn," although to say it tastes like fresh corn is a bit of a reach. What gives polenta its pleasurable flavor is the liquid, plus butter, cream and any other accompaniments you might add.

 

Think of boiling potatoes in unsalted water, mashing them up without anything else and serving them as mashed potatoes. They'd obviously be dry, bland and not much fun to eat. But just like potatoes, polenta is a starch that is capable of soaking up large amounts of fat and secondary flavors. Its basically a canvas and delivery system for fat and other yummy ingredients.

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Thx for the explanation. It does make sense that corn meal is just another starch that needs tweaking to make delicious. 

 

Oddly enough a gal from Alabama made her version of corn bread last night and it was delicious. It has onions, celery, okra and peppers and melted butter in it and was baked in a cast iron pan. Excellent.

 

Now my curiosity is piqued and I will have to try 'polenta' soon.

Nina's picture
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  When I make polenta, I do things a little differently in that I pour my polenta into cold water. Stir, bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer, and add base.  The rest is the same as your recipe.  It never clumps, and it saves you a minute or so.

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