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.
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.
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.
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).
- 2 cups (11 ounces) polenta, preferably medium-grind, not instant or quick-cooking
- 3 cups boiling water
- 3 cups low-sodium chicken broth or water, or more as needed
- 1 teaspoon fine sea salt
- 3 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 1 cup (2 ounces) finely grated Parmesan, plus more for serving
- 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
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