Grains

A Genius Shortcut for Better, Faster Polenta

January 13, 2016

As you'll know if you've ever tipped a bag of coarse-ground cornmeal into simmering water without doing the math, polenta for dinner is a much bigger commitment than standbys like pasta or quinoa or rice. "Ready when you are!" the standbys say, while polenta lights up a cigarette and heads out the door.

Cooking polenta the traditional way will lock you down for the better part of an hour, standing and stirring and pawing at the film on the bottom of the pot, trying to keep it from scorching and adhering there forever. As your patience wanes, the hot sputter zone only gets wider and more volatile. How is this a staple food? And why have legions of nonnas insisted we follow these rules (and even more suspicious ones)?

Many of us break them anyway (we love you, nonnas, but enough already). That's why we've come up with conveniences like instant polenta—i.e. superfine or cooked-and-dried—and cooked polenta sold in chubs. Yes, chubs.

In the morning, do this.

But the key to great polenta is to keep the flavorful grains more intact, and give them ample time to plump up and lose their grit. We first learned this though a genius polenta technique from Carlo Middione back in 2013.

Middione liked to hold polenta in a double boiler for up to 4 hours, to allow it to sweeten and swell to its full potential. This was a boon for making polenta ahead for dinner parties, but not so much for when you've just pulled off your work clothes and are hoping for dinner before bedtime.

When you get home, dump in hot water and it will look like this (and in 15 minutes, it will be dinner)!

But there's a new genius technique in town, from Maria Speck—author of Simply Ancient Grains and an expert in the best, most efficient ways to cook them—that will, in those moments, make you feel like you have it all together, much in the same way that remembering to pack your lunch and not run out of toilet paper do.

Instead of that marathon of stirring and sputter-dodging, in less than 15 minutes, you will have polenta for dinner (or, if you wish, breakfast—Speck also makes a sweeter version called polentina with poppy seeds, strawberries, and lime zest, and Food52er hardlikearmour served one simply for brunch with cream and maple syrup, to raves).

This is all thanks to one thoughtful hack: Inspired by her favorite steel-cut oats method, Speck started pouring boiling water over cornmeal in the morning, then leaving it till dinner rolled around and she could finish it off. "This was one crazy idea," she told me. "I was soon faced with endless rounds of testing because of the many types of cornmeal on the market—and with way too much polenta to eat." But it worked.

But first, you'll want some cheese.

She wrote to food scientist Harold McGee to find out more about the forces at play. How could so much active cooking time—at least 2/3 of it—be shaved off?

As McGee told her, "The process that determines cooking time is not the absorption of heat but the absorption of water. Soaking overnight gives the water many hours to penetrate before the cooking begins, and therefore the cooking process goes much faster"—much like Ideas in Foods' One Minute absorption pasta method (and later barbecue-sauce variant). So why use boiling water to kick it off? "The hotter the soaking water, the faster it penetrates," McGee said.

The hot water does the work for you, so all that's needed from you is a little vigorous stirring and a brief simmer, for quickie polenta that tastes like the real thing (because it is).

And what should you serve it with? Well, that one's easy.

Got a genius recipe to share—from a classic cookbook, an online source, or anywhere, really? Please send it my way (and tell me what's so smart about it) at [email protected]. Thanks to Food52er hardlikearmour for this one!

Photos by Mark Weinberg

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23 Comments

Daniel H. January 18, 2016
I'd make Polenta every day but, I can't afford that much GF Butter, with my recipe! I'll never confess to using that much fat for a "single" dish.
 
Susan S. January 17, 2016
I had never before cooked polenta. I was going to cook a dish dressed on top with polenta. I can't remember if I used Lamb's or a vacuum block. It was cooked quickly. All I know is that every guest said add more polenta! Could I have been just plain blessed with beginner's luck?
 
GsR January 17, 2016
Why not just do as they in Italy? Pressure cooker. Eight min.
 
I_Fortuna January 18, 2016
I love this idea but have yet to replace my pressure cooker which is great for so many different foods. 8 minutes would be exceptional. Thanks for the tip.: )
 
Laura415 January 17, 2016
So many great polenta tips. For efficiency (if I am already baking or roasting) I like the idea of the oven method outlined here. The genius method of soaking in boiling water during the day and cooking for shorter times at dinner time is great efficiency also because I can reserve a small amount for the sweet breakfast polenta the next morning and make the rest savory for dinner that night. For me versatility is the key to efficiency in the kitchen. Love it!
 
Jeffro January 17, 2016
I agree with Keith Wright
 
Keith W. January 17, 2016
So glad I have an InstantPot! I feel sorry for y'all!
 
I_Fortuna January 17, 2016
TIP: Freeze leftover homemade polenta, defrost, fry and serve with caramelized onions. That is the way we love it.<br />It is also great with meatballs and spaghetti sauce. <br />Thank you for this tip to make cooking much faster. I usually stand at the stove for about half an hour stirring. But, homemade is worth it.<br />Instant polenta can also be found online. I have not tried it yet but it is probably just as good.<br />Thanks for the recipe and tips. : )<br /><br /><br /><br />
 
Susan W. January 17, 2016
I have been made paranoid by all this talk of loooonnnnggggg stirring times for polenta since I discovered the dish in Marcella Hazen's book close to 30 years ago. I have never stirred for more than 15 minutes! Due to paranoia, I always add more butter to stretch the time out but I can not stir something that is ready any longer than it needs to be stirred.<br /><br />The second from the last time I made polenta, I used a tip from the NYT and soaked the meal for a short time in 1/3 C water, which was not included in the water for cooking. It did make a lighter finished dish.<br /><br />I also notice that whether I use coarse or fine meal, the cooking time is the same, about 15 minutes. The coarse meal tastes better.<br /><br />I like stirring in between 1/8th and 1/4th of a cup of heavy cream -- depending on how much I make -- along with hand grated Parmesan at the end. That horrifies an Italian I know but Italy is a land of regions. Just think about all the fillings used in ravioli!<br /><br />I decided as I served the last batch that I will no longer be paranoid about my polenta which is wonderful without 30 minutes of stirring.
 
erinclancymiami January 17, 2016
Years ago the discovery of Estancia Organic superfine polenta put polenta back on the menu rotation. Glad to learn if other techniques, 'cause the traditional method ain't gonna happen at my house.
 
Eric B. January 17, 2016
The idea of adding boiling water and letting it sit helps reduce cooking time even if you only have a few hours. Reducing cooking time from an hour to 30 minutes still makes a difference.
 
Judith R. January 17, 2016
Like tia posted, the quick and easy way to make polenta, and truly on the spur of the moment, is in the microwave. I found the technique easily 20 years ago in Barbara Kafka's book "Microwave Gourmet." No preplanning, or leaving stuff out on the counters. (Have a curious cat?) Wish she'd publish a new, updated version of that book as its full of real food recipes, made from scratch fast.
 
jbrr January 17, 2016
+1. Microwave polenta comes out great.
 
sofiawadler January 17, 2016
If I want to make this but with no dairy (vegan), will it still work?
 
Author Comment
Kristen M. January 17, 2016
Yes! Just leave out the dairy. You can use a good homemade vegetable stock if you want, but even with just water it will be flavorful and creamy from the grains.
 
Michela R. January 3, 2018
Polenta is vegan.<br />No dairy, no broth/stock. Just water, cornmeal and salt.<br />Pressure cooker is fine for shorter cooking times (20 minutes). 4 hours on a double boiler a weird exaggeration. 45 minutes in a regular pot are quite enough.<br />The vast majority of Italian American nonne did not know what polenta was. In fact, most Italian Americans are of southern Italian heritage, polenta is a Northern Italian dish.
 
hardlikearmour January 14, 2016
I highly recommend the breakfast polentina: just substitute milk for broth, and stir in some honey (1-2 T) instead of the cheese for a very simple version. It's really yummy.
 
tia January 13, 2016
I microwave mine. Seriously. 1/4 cup polenta, 1 cup water, pinch of salt. Nuke it for 2 minutes, stir, nuke it again for another minute and it's ready to go. If I'm feeling fancy, I stir in Parmesan or pecorino at the end. Works like a charm and it requires no pre-planning.
 
LE B. January 13, 2016
now this, THIS, is a terrific tip! Thx so much.
 
whatshername January 13, 2016
What a brilliant idea! I can't wait to try it!
 
tammany January 13, 2016
Sounds great - and quick. Not as quick, but equally easy, is Russ Parson's (via the Golden Pheasant bag, I think) method of cooking polenta in the oven. Takes 60 + minutes (depending on how much you're cooking) but involves no effort whatsoever. And keeps beautifully on the stove a la Carlo Middione.
 
Greenstuff January 13, 2016
I still cook my polenta on the stovetop, but that Golden Pheasant method is pretty straightforward. Using one cup of polenta: butter an 8x8 square pan, add the polenta, 3 1/4 cups of water, 1 teaspoon salt, and 1 tablespoon butter. Stir with a fork until the polenta is combined with the water. Bake at 350 for 50 minutes, stir with a fork, bake another 10 minutes.
 
tammany January 13, 2016
I'm super lazy and I don't even butter my pan - and I'll use any vessel that holds the water and polenta. I usually use a small enameled cast-iron casserole. Then plop it in a bain marie until I'm ready for it (or just eat it right away) I'm a real fan of this method.