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