Grains

How to Make the Creamiest Polenta of Your Life

April  3, 2018

Polenta is just water and coarse-ground, usually yellow cornmeal. Or is it? There’s salt, too, right? How much? And how much water? Are other liquids okay? Do you combine, then bring to a boil? Or bring to a boil, then combine? Do you really have to stir constantly? What about soaking overnight? What about mix-ins? What to serve with? What’s the weather? What’s the meaning of life?

Eh! Don’t worry about any of that. When it comes to polenta, there’s no one right answer. Actually, there are a lot of right answers, and that’s the best part. You just have to pick your destination (garlicky sautéed kale! weeknight ragu!) then follow the yellow, uh, cornmeal road. Today, we’re talking creamy polenta—so, eaten immediately, like porridge. Here’s how to forge your own path.


METHOD

Grains-to-liquid ratio

In Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking, Marcella Hazan recommends 7 cups water for 1 2/3 cup polenta, or a little over 4 parts water to 1 part cornmeal by volume. This 4:1 benchmark is pretty standard—but not for me. Over at Serious Eats, Daniel Gritzer recommends more liquid: “A ratio of five parts liquid to one part cornmeal by volume produces polenta that's fully hydrated and cooked through.” Our contributor Alexandra Stafford does, too. Me, three! Recommendation: anywhere between 4 to 6 parts liquid to 1 part polenta by volume.

When to salt

It’s sort of like seasoning pasta water. If you don’t do it from the start, there’s no hope for you your polenta, no matter how much salt you add at the end. The amount depends on your liquid (are you using plain water? salty broth?) and your mix-ins (are you planning to add grated Parm?). Recommendation: For 5 cups liquid and 1 cup polenta, add anywhere between 1 and 1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt to the liquid. I use Diamond Crystal. If you use Morton’s, halve that amount. (Psst: This is when you’ll add seasonings, too! More on those soon.)

Stir constantly? No, thanks

Polenta has a needy reputation. You have to babysit the stove. You have to stir constantly. You have to do a handstand and walk around the kitchen three times. It doesn’t have to be like that. In her Genius Recipes column, our creative director, Kristen Miglore, has unearthed two life-changing (okay, or at least polenta-changing!) methods, which significantly cut back on stirring: One, cook it over a double-boiler. Two, before you even cook it, add hot water and let soak.

Recommendation: Either of these are gems. Or try this hodgepodge technique, pieced together from Daniel Gritzer’s recipe (above) and The Kitchn: Combine the liquid, salt, seasonings, and polenta in a pot. Set over medium-high heat and whisk. Bring the mixture to a boil, then lower to a sturdy simmer. Cook, stirring constantly, until the mixture thickens enough for the whisk to leave a trail. Cover the pot and lower the heat as much as possible. Set a 10 minute timer. When it goes off, give it a good whisk. Repeat this—whisking every 10 minutes—until the polenta has cooked for 40 or so minutes.


LIQUID

We just talked about the magic of mixing and matching your braising liquid. In some ways, this is even more dramatic. Yes, dramatic! Going from dry cornmeal to creamy polenta is no more than the grains drinking up their surroundings, releasing their starches, and swelling into their very best selves. So it makes total sense that changing up the liquid changes, well, everything. I put seven options to the test. Here’s how they fared:

Water

  • Appearance: bright yellow, like a sunflower or the sun; bumpy and grainy
  • Flavor: pretty dang corny; also sort of bland; would not recommend sans bonuses
  • Pros and cons: as free as it gets; can’t carry its own weight
  • Seasonings: black or white pepper; crushed red pepper flakes; minced garlic
  • Mix-ins: butter or olive oil; grated hard cheese, like pecorino, Parmesan, or cheddar; crumbled creamy cheese, like fresh goat or Gorgonzola
  • Soul mates: weeknight pork ragu; grilled merguez and fennel; tomato sauce; poached eggs

Chicken stock

  • Appearance: amber and golden, like honey; bumpy and grainy
  • Flavor: tastes like chicken—no, seriously, this tastes like straight-up chicken
  • Pros and cons: turns even boxed stock into something intense; perhaps too intense (solution: dilute with water)
  • Seasonings: black or white pepper; crushed red pepper flakes; minced garlic
  • Mix-ins: butter or olive oil; minced woodsy herbs, like rosemary or tarragon
  • Soul mates: confident vegetables, like roasted mushrooms, or spicy, saucy chicken

Vegetable stock

  • Appearance: even darker than the chicken, like maple syrup; bumpy and grainy
  • Flavor: corny and vegetal, each uplifting the other, like a duet
  • Pros and cons: vegetarian and flavor-forward; might distract from toppings (solution: dilute with water)
  • Seasonings: black or white pepper; crushed red pepper flakes; minced garlic
  • Mix-ins: butter or olive oil; minced, soup-y herbs, like thyme, parsley, dill, rosemary
  • Soul mates: big-personality meats and vegetables

Whole milk

  • Appearance: quite pale and opaque; smooth, barely detectable grains
  • Flavor: creamy and rich, mostly milky, with corn somewhere in the background
  • Pros and cons: amps up coziness for wintry recipes; adding cheese would be overkill
  • Seasonings: black or white pepper; crushed red pepper flakes; minced garlic
  • Mix-ins: none, too rich for any more fat
  • Soul mates: hearty, meaty recipes that throw caution to the wind

Half-and-half

  • Appearance: somehow even paler and more opaque than the whole milk; even smoother, too
  • Flavor: so creamy and so rich, might as well be eating pudding
  • Pros and cons: dessert-able polenta (a thing!); too much for anything savory
  • Seasonings: none, this has enough going on already
  • Mix-ins: same as above
  • Soul mates: fresh fruit, especially berries; drizzles of honey or maple syrup; hunks of dark chocolate or chocolate-nut spreads; dollops of jam

Buttermilk

  • Appearance: pale and buttery in hue; smooth, barely detectable grains
  • Flavor: holy cow, this is tangy! reminds me of yogurt pasta, polenta-fied
  • Pros and cons: this could go sweet or savory; maybe too tangy for some (solution: dilute with whole milk or water)
  • Seasonings: none, this has enough going on already
  • Mix-ins: same as above
  • Soul mates: fruity, breakfasty situations; any entrée you’d dollop with yogurt

Coconut milk

  • Appearance: pale and buttery, like the buttermilk, but with a sheen, even a shimmer!
  • Flavor: super coconutty, with a subtle corniness
  • Pros and cons: has its own personality; needs a relatively lean topping
  • Seasonings: none, this has enough going on already
  • Mix-ins: same as above
  • Soul mates: black beans, avocado, and fried plantains; jerk chicken or pork; spicy seafood

What's your go-to way to cook polenta? Tell us all about it in the comments below!

Tags:

11 Comments

Erica June 6, 2018
I use Giustos polenta which is very coarse, mix in water and milk (generally half and half), stir a bit on the stove and add tons of sharp cheddar cheese when it's just about done. I don't use as much liquid as most people have noted, but per the first Moosewood Cookbook, I always soak the polenta in some water while I'm getting everything else ready and it doesn't really ever take more than 15-20 min.
 
Maryfran J. April 5, 2018
I'm also a big fan of the baking approach. I may try the 5-to-1 recipe, but so far have done it with 4-to-1. I bake it for about 40 minutes at 400 in a rich bone broth, then stir in 1/2 cup parmesan, turn off the oven and let it sit for another 10 minutes or more. It's glorious every time.
 
patricellen April 4, 2018
I bake it in the oven! No stirring necessary! The recipe comes from Golden Pheasant via the L.A. Times. 4 to 1 ratio, 350 degrees, uncovered for 45 minutes to an hour. It comes out perfect and creamy every time. Stir in a little butter at the end, top with fontina cheese and grilled mushrooms if you like. So easy and so good! https://circle-b-kitchen.squarespace.com/food-and-recipes/2013/3/4/meatless-monday-polenta-gratin-with-mushrooms-and-fontina.html
 
BakerBren April 3, 2018
This is all very interesting. I'm in the vegetable stock camp in a way, but it's because I use porcini bouillon cubes from my Italian grocer. I always add butter and usually grated hard cheese and a little white pepper. Then I finish it with white truffle-infused oil just before serving or cooling. I also only use 1:3 water, but I like it thick and I usually put it into a deli container to cool overnight then slice it into slabs and pan fry it in butter.
 
mirsk001 April 3, 2018
Zojirushi Rice Cooker. Porrdige setting. 5:1 liquid to grains ratio. Works every time. Doesn't need more than one or two stirs.
 
AntoniaJames April 3, 2018
If one has the time (and such time will be 99.9% hands off), use your slow cooker. I've made it following various rubrics over the years, but my recent discovery of Sarah DiGregorio's recipe (Adventures in Slow Cooking) is really the best. It's much easier than my prior favorite way, in a double boiler, with a long, post-cooking sit, covered, over the hot water, which I believe was Judy Rodgers' technique. With this slow cooker method, you get the same soft, plump "grains" of polenta. <br /><br />For each 1.5 cups of polenta, whisk in 6 cups of boiling water, 1.5 teaspoons kosher salt and a hunk of butter (about 2 tablespoons). Stir occasionally (once or twice). On low heat, it will take 3 - 4 hours. If serving at a dinner party, you can make it in advance, let it sit in the slow cooker with the heat off for a few hours, and then crank it up to high to get it good and hot, then turn it down to low or off, covered, until you're ready to serve. Add more butter and salt to taste. It may develop a light skin; just whisk that back in. You could also oil some plastic wrap and sit that on top, I suppose. I've thought about doing that, but have never bothered.<br />Also delicious with a touch of nutmeg and some chopped fresh thyme leaves, when topping with a Piemontese ragu. ;o)
 
FrugalCat April 3, 2018
I use some Better Than Boullion (usually chicken flavor) and its just like cooking in stock. Does anyone know about the little motorized stir robot that goes in the pan and stirs it for you? I recall seeing one at Bed Bath and Beyond.
 
tia April 3, 2018
I cook my polenta in the microwave. Sacrilege, I know. Is it as good as making it on the stove over the course of an hour? Probably not. Does it mean I actually eat polenta at home? Yes, yes it does. I just combine the water and corn meal with a pinch of salt and whisk them together with a fork. Then nuke it on full power for about 2 minutes, stir again, then nuke a few more minutes until all of the water is absorbed. Mix in some cheese and you have a great weeknight starch.
 
Author Comment
Emma L. April 3, 2018
Whoa! Do you use a specific kind of polenta—instant or a finer grind?
 
Laura G. April 3, 2018
Me too! Especially if I'm planning on shaping and pan searing it; more typically, I do the oven method. I've just always used the Golden Pheasant brand.
 
tia April 3, 2018
No, no special type, just my standard polenta. I actually find the finer stuff turns out worse in the microwave. Too clumpy. I think I usually use Bob's Red Mill.