Cooking Q&A: Making Polenta?

corn meal in measuring cup
Photo: iStock

Q: How do you prepare polenta?

A: Polenta is a staple of northern Italian cooking. Until this question popped up, I had always assumed polenta and grits were one in the same and that “polenta" is just a fancier word for “grits." Turns out polenta is actually ground yellow or white corn; grits are made from ground hominy, which is corn that has been soaked and processed to remove the tough outer hull. The hull isn't removed before cornmeal is ground to make polenta. “And this matters because…" you ask? Because polenta isn't as processed, it's slightly more nutritious, has a richer flavor and thicker consistency, and takes longer to cook.

Polenta is also a bit more versatile when it comes to how it can be served. Unlike grits (which are typically ladled out steaming-hot a la oatmeal), polenta is dished up hot or cold; cut into dense slabs and pan-fried or grilled; or stirred with butter, gorgonzola, or parmesan cheese and served like a creamy, savory risotto.

The fat, plastic-encased tubes of plain or flavored polenta you see on grocery stores shelves are convenient because it's premade and easy to slice and pan-fry, but the flavor and texture of “homemade" polenta (prepared from uncooked course, medium or finely-ground cornmeal packaged as polenta) is deeper and more complex.

Cooking polenta is similar to cooking rice and other grains: Boil water, add salt and grain, and simmer until tender. The main difference is that polenta, like risotto, requires a lot of stirring to keep it from sticking or turning lumpy. The standard ratio is 3 parts liquid to 1 part polenta. You can also cook polenta using a 4:1 or 5:1 ratio of liquid to polenta. Using more liquid results in creamier, smoother polenta, but it also slightly increases the cooking time.

Once you master the basic polenta recipe, use it in dishes like Salmon Polenta Skewers or this Gratin of Polenta with Greens. You can also use polenta in any recipe that calls for cornmeal.

Basic Polenta:

3 cups water
1 tsp. salt
1 cup uncooked polenta

Bring water to a boil. Add salt and slowly pour in polenta, stirring constantly with a fork to prevent lumps. Reduce heat to a simmer, stirring for an additional 2 minutes. Cover and cook for 40-45 minutes, stirring every 10 minutes.

Slow-Cooker Polenta:

Because polenta is a classic "low and slow" grain, preparing it in a slow cooker is especially easy and convenient.

3 Tbl. melted butter, divided
1/4 tsp. paprika
6 cups boiling water
2 cups polenta
2 tsp. salt

Smear the walls of the slow cooker with 1 Tbl. butter. Add remaining ingredients to slow cooker (including the remaining butter). Stir well. Cover and cook on low for 6 to 9 hours (or 3 to 4 hours on high), stirring occasionally.

Transfer polenta mixture to a greased loaf pan. Chill thoroughly, then cut the polenta into 1/4-inch slices.

Preheat a skillet over a medium flame. Lightly grease the skillet with oil or butter and pan-fry both sides of the polenta slices until browned.