Polenta's Potential Predicated

  1. Polenta. What is it exactly?  It sounds like something exotic and crazy.  But really, it is such a simple dish that has the potential to be extraordinary!  For those of you who grew up in the south, polenta is no more than Italian grits.  Now I know some will cry out that "Grits and polenta aren't the same thing!"  Well, yes and no.  You see polenta and grits share some very fundamental and basic attributes.  Polenta and grits are both essentially dried ground corn that is slow cooked in hot liquid to make a porridge like concoction.  Both can be cooked with water alone, but we all know they are better with butter and cream.  And both can be creamy and runny or as hard as mortar. The key differences are really what they are made of and what you put in them.  Polenta is generally made with ground yellow cornmeal while traditional grits are made from hominy.  Polenta has an Italian slant to it, meaning that any spices or seasoning as well as cheese added to it will be Italian.  Grits usually are associated with Southern cuisine and served as a side dish with little to nothing added although cheesy grits are an exception. 

    Now that we have that comparison out of the way, lets talk more about polenta.  At work I have become somewhat of an expert polenta maker.  In fact, I had to save my sous chef's polenta when he was about to do a chef's table!  That polenta turned out so well that one of our customers insisted on the recipe (provided below).  Since I usually make large quantities and I usually make mine by feel and instinct, I had to sit down and think about it.

    So what makes a good polenta?  The first thing you have to know about polenta is how you want to serve it. As stated previously, polenta can be creamy and almost fluffy like good mashed potatoes, or nice and firm like a piece of cornbread.  Knowing what you are going to do with your polenta before you start goes a long way to achieving that goal.  Next, you have to let the polenta dictate how it will cook and how much you will need.  As much as a recipe calls for certain amounts and times, it really comes down to how the food behaves and how you react to that.  Lastly, good polenta takes fat and calories.  It is difficult to make really good polenta that is low cal.

    Here are a couple of tips and tricks for good polenta making:

    When buying your ingredients, don't be fooled into buying fancy packages of "polenta mix".  It is all just cornmeal.  The cornmeal is just as good for about a third of the price.

    Don't get cornflour.  You generally want coarsely ground cornmeal.  Cornflour is just really finely ground cornmeal. For whatever reason, I have found that it does not make for good polenta.  It just ends up grainy.

    Polenta will continue to cook even after you take it off the fire.  That means it will get thicker.  Take it off the heat a bit before your desired consistency.  Keep in mind when you are adding your cheese that it will also add density.

    If your polenta ever ends up too thick or dense, just add some hot liquid to loosen it up.  At work I use hot water from the pasta machine.

    If you are transferring your polenta to a serving dish, spray your dish and whatever utensils you are using to transfer with cooking spray.  This makes serving it easier. 

    For firm polenta that can be cut into shapes, add enough cornmeal to make it difficult to stir, but not impossible.

    When making polenta for cutting, make sure you spread it in your dish or baking pan before it sets.  You can now cool it and save it for later.  Once you are ready to serve it, you can reheat it by baking, grilling or searing it.

    Polenta is versatile.  You can add anything from mushrooms to sundried tomatoes.  Get creative.


    1 cup milk (2% works well)
    1 cup cream
    1/2 cup water
    2-3 cloves of garlic minced (garlic powder works in a pinch)
    3-4 tbsp Italian Seasoning  or fresh herbs1/2 to 1 cup coarsely ground cornmeal (grits can serve as a substitute)
    1/4 to 1/2 cup grated Parmesan or your favorite Italian cheese
    1/4 to 1/2 stick of unsalted butter
    Salt and Pepper to taste (if you can, use white pepper)

    Mix your milk, cream and  water in a sauce pan big enough to hold double the volume of the liquid.

    Add your minced garlic to the liquid. You can also choose to add the dried herbs now, or wait until later.  If using fresh herbs, it is best to wait.

    Heat your liquids on medium high heat until they simmer.  Do not allow liquid to boil over or scorch on the bottom. 

    Once the liquid is simmering, begin to add the cornmeal a little at a time slowly, whisking continuously to avoid lumps.  As the cornmeal cooks it will thicken slightly.  Once you have reached your desired thickness, lower the heat.

    Add your cheese, butter, seasoning and herbs(if you have not done so already).  Keep stirring the mixture until the cheese and butter are completely incorporated.

    Serve and enjoy!

    Share This Article


To make a comment simply sign up and become a member!
  1. jimdandy2rescue
    For all the constructions workers and truckers I cooked for over the years-not one of them asked me if the polenta was home made-I buy it in a tube from the grocery, slice it into one inch slices and pan fry it in a bit of Hot pepper oil-put it on a plate and top it with a meat sauce (recipe passed down to anyone who watched and learned ) it made a simple long cooked 5 hour-pork and beef short ribs tomato sauce. Next-Thank the Lord for the food and hard work He provided---and sprinkle on the grated parmesian. Just enough heat from frying the polenta slices in the hot pepper oil a short amount of time on each side-----makes it pretty blasted good.  
  2. linecook854
    Is it just me or is a 4:1 liquid to cornmeal ratio not enough for creamy polenta? I have used both stone-ground cornmeal and par-boiled "15 minute" polenta and I usually end up using more liquid. Anyone else with similar thoughts?
  3. colleens
    If you add a photo then we can pin this to pinterest. : )
  4. dhmcardoso
    I really like it. It's kinda regional here in Brazil. Basically, we serve it 4 ways, always as a sider. 1) thick on 2/3" slices. 2) make them not so thick, pu in the fridge, slice it and deep fry is (it's an good alternative for french fries). 3) roasted, as previous, but just go for the oven and finally the best the 4) soft. Softs means less thick than a mashed potato or any puree (this is the perfect combinations with any stew or roasted chicken).
    this is not difficult to make if you go slow when adding the corn meal. The main mistake I usually find with Polentas is that people put too much stuff in it, changing it characteristics, what end up as an other dish. Its better to play simple and being perfect on the technique than the other way. In my point of view this the best way! ;-P
  5. deepsouthnyc
    I think some of the best polenta coming out of the US is from Anson Mills in South Carolina. They are using new crop yellow flint corn to produce it, taste incredible.
    Also, if I were adding garlic to polenta, I would cook it first, not just add it raw to the cooking liquid. Saute it in the butter you plan on folding in.
    Loose polenta, the kind I would serve with roasted or braised meat, calls for a ratio of 4:1 liquid to polenta. Hard polenta, the kind meant to be grilled or fried, calls for a ratio of 3:1. Its not that eyeballing it doesn't work, but there is less need to adjust.
    I'm more into the Italian preparation, never milk, cream or stock. We make it with water and finish it with parmigiano and sage-brown butter.
  6. chefmannydlm
    No, I am not a fan of the quick cooking polenta. I believe if you want something good, you should have to take the time to cook it correctly. Not only that, but I don't t think quick cooking polenta gives you as much control.  And truth be told, I just usually buy the cheapest coarse ground cornmeal I can find.  I have read, however, that what polenta you use does matter.  This might be true for Italy,where polenta is usually prepared and served very simply. Since I add so much stuff to it, that it is not a big concern for me.
  7. nicko
    Nice article thanks for sharing. Do you like using quick cooking polenta? Is there a specific brand you recommend?