How to Make Polenta
Dish up soft and creamy polenta right from the saucepan, or spread it in a pan, chill it, and slice. Learn how to make polenta, what polenta is made of (it's only 3 ingredients!), a bit about polenta nutrition, and our favorite polenta recipes.
What is Polenta?
Polenta hails from Northern Italy and is basically a cornmeal porridge. In America, it is also called cornmeal mush. What is polenta made of? Three super-simple ingredients: cornmeal, water, and salt. What's especially enticing about this humble, three-ingredient dish is its flexibility. You can substitute broth, or a mix of broth and white wine, for the water and salt.
Polenta Tip: To prepare polenta for breakfast or dessert, consider using milk instead of water.
Polenta Tip: Cooled until firm, polenta can be sliced or cut into designs and pan-fried until brown and slightly crisp.
There are seemingly endless polenta recipes to try, but a popular one right now is short ribs with polenta. Try our Short Ribs Arrabbiata over Polenta recipe to see why it's so trendy. Or try a vegetarian polenta recipe that's still full of protein and seems meaty thanks to lots of mushrooms with our Grilled Polenta with Mushrooms recipe.
While any kind of cornmeal will work, coarse ground cornmeal gives this dish the best texture. Look for cornmeal labeled "polenta" or "coarse ground" at a grocery store or specialty market. Cornmeal also comes in both white and yellow styles. Either can be used, but yellow is the more traditional and more colorful choice. If you use regular cornmeal, you may need to increase the water in the saucepan and decrease the cooking time, depending on the recipe.
Creamy Polenta Recipe
1. Pour 2-1/2 cups water into a medium saucepan. Bring the water to boiling over medium-high heat.
Tip: If using regular cornmeal instead of coarse ground, increase the water in the saucepan to 2-3/4 cups. Also, reduce the cooking time to 10 to 15 minutes after the mixture boils in Step 4.
2. Meanwhile, in a medium bowl combine 1 cup coarse ground cornmeal and 1 teaspoon salt. Use a wire whisk to stir in 1 cup cold water. Combining some cold water with the cornmeal mixture helps keep the cornmeal from clumping when added to the hot water.
3. Slowly and carefully add the cornmeal mixture to the boiling water, stirring constantly. The continual stirring helps the cornmeal mixture distribute throughout the boiling water without clumping.
4. Cook and stir until the mixture returns to boiling. Reduce the heat to medium-low and continue to cook for 25 to 30 minutes or until the mixture is very thick and soft. During the cooking time, the cornmeal will soak up the water and become thick. It is important that you adjust the heat as needed to maintain a slow boil, and stir frequently to keep the mixture from scorching.
Tip: Use care not to get too close to the pan, because the hot mixture can splatter as it thickens.
5. At this point, you are ready to divide the polenta into bowls and serve as a side dish on its own or as a base for a sauce. Or you can season it with the stir-in suggestions below or your own favorite ingredients.
- Decrease the salt by half and, after cooking, stir in 1/2 cup (2 ounces) of your favorite cheese, such as shredded Parmesan, Fontina, cheddar, provolone, crumbled feta, or goat cheese.
- Decrease the salt by half and, after cooking, stir in 2 tablespoons salted butter or finely chopped prosciutto, ham, or cooked bacon.
- After cooking, stir in 2 tablespoons snipped fresh basil or Italian parsley, or 1 teaspoon snipped fresh oregano or thyme.
How to Make Polenta Cakes
For the most basic polenta cake recipe follow these directions.
1. Prepare the soft cornmeal as directed until cooked. Carefully pour into a 9-inch pie plate, spreading into an even layer. Let stand, uncovered, for 30 minutes to cool.
2. Cover and place in the refrigerator for at least 1 hour or until firm.
3. To bake, preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Uncover the polenta and bake until heated through, about 25 minutes. Transfer to a wire rack for 5 minutes. This gives it time to firm up a bit and, in turn, slice better.
4. With a sharp knife, cut polenta into six wedges to serve. Or use a cookie or biscuit cutter to cut polenta into shapes.
1. Prepare soft polenta as directed until cooked. Carefully pour polenta into a 7-1/2x3-1/2x2-inch or 8x4x2-inch loaf pan. Let it stand, uncovered, for 30 minutes to cool.
2. Cover and place in the refrigerator to chill for 4 hours or overnight.
3. Uncover and run a thin metal spatula around the edges of the pan. Remove the loaf from the pan and use a sharp knife to cut it crosswise into 12 slices.
- Presentation tip: You can also use a cookie cutter to cut shapes into your firm polenta
4. To pan-fry in a large skillet or on a griddle, heat 1 tablespoon butter over medium-high heat. Reduce the heat to medium. Cook half of the slices for 16 to 20 minutes or until browned and crisp, turning once halfway through cooking.
5. Repeat with remaining slices, adding 1 tablespoon butter to the skillet before frying.
There is a bit of confusion around polenta nutrition. Nutrition-minded folks often wonder, does polenta have gluten? Can I make vegan polenta recipes? And how many carbs are in polenta?
Polenta and gluten:
With only water, salt, and cornmeal as the ingredients in polenta it should be gluten free; however, cornmeal is where this could get complicated. Cornmeal is not often labeled as gluten free because many brands of cornmeal are made in factories where other gluten-containing products are made, so there's a chance of cross-contamination in the production chain. If you follow a strict no-gluten diet, be sure to buy a product labeled gluten free. Then you can rest assured the cornmeal was made in a gluten-free facility. But no, there are no gluten-containing ingredients in polenta.
Polenta and a vegan diet:
Very often, polenta is combined with cheeses and meats to make a hearty main dish, but polenta itself is vegan, and you can make plenty of vegan polenta recipes like our Sweet-and-Firey Polenta Fries or our Broccoli Rabe Over Polenta (pictured above).
To answer the question about carbs in polenta, it helps to have an overall breakdown of macronutrients. 1/2 cup of polenta (made with water) contains about 103 calories, 1 g fat, 2 g pro., 22 g carb., and 2 g fiber