How to CookGrains

How to Make the Creamiest Polenta of Your Life

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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.

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Creamy Polenta with Mushrooms & Artichoke
Creamy Polenta with Mushrooms & Artichoke

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.

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Carlo Middione's Polenta Facile

Carlo Middione's Polenta Facile by Kristen Miglore

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A Genius Shortcut for Better, Faster Polenta

A Genius Shortcut for Better, Faster Polenta by Kristen Miglore

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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
Weeknight Ragù

Weeknight Ragù by Merrill Stubbs

Marcella Hazan's Tomato Sauce with Onion and Butter

Marcella Hazan's Tomato Sauce with Onion and Butter by Genius Recipes

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
Roasted Mushroom Salad

Roasted Mushroom Salad by cucina di mammina

Braised Moroccan Chicken and Olives

Braised Moroccan Chicken and Olives by Sonali aka the Foodie Physi...

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
Jamie Oliver's Roasted Shoulder of Lamb with Smashed Vegetables and Greens

Jamie Oliver's Roasted Shoulder of Lamb with Smashed Vege... by Genius Recipes

Joy the Baker's Olive Oil-Braised Chickpeas (More or Less)

Joy the Baker's Olive Oil-Braised Chickpeas (More or Less) by Sarah Jampel

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
Rao's Meatballs

Rao's Meatballs by Genius Recipes

Milk-Braised Brisket with Potato & Onion

Milk-Braised Brisket with Potato & Onion by Emma Laperruque

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
Cashew Chocolate Spread (Cashewtella)

Cashew Chocolate Spread (Cashewtella) by Amanda Hesser

My Mother's Strawberry Jam

My Mother's Strawberry Jam by Merrill Stubbs

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
Lamb Merguez

Lamb Merguez by MrsWheelbarrow

Blueberry Compote

Blueberry Compote by Josh Cohen

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
Vegetarian Arepas with Avocado and Plantains

Vegetarian Arepas with Avocado and Plantains by Kendra Vaculin

Shrimp with Coconut Milk Grits & XO Sauce

Shrimp with Coconut Milk Grits & XO Sauce by Alicia Lu

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

Tags: Grains