Perfect Polenta

April 7, 2006 at 8:55 am (Alma's faves, B plus (3 stars, like a lot), breakfast, Grains, Instant Pot, Italian, Monthly menu plan, My brain, Quick weeknight recipe)


As of 2019, I now make polenta in the instant pot. It comes out well every time! I need to remember to return to this post to write the ratio of liquid to polenta I use, the amount of salt, and the timing. I always make extra (usually 2 cups of polenta) and whatever we don’t eat I pour onto a cookie sheet and let cool, then put in the fridge. A few days later I cut the thin polenta into strips and bake it at 350 or 375 degrees (NOT 400) on an oiled cookie sheet. (No need to oil the polenta itself.) The result is delicious polenta chips. We usually eat them with refried beans. Alma won’t eve eat the soft polenta, but she loves the polenta chips.

Original text from Apr 7, 2006:

I was having a new group of friends over for dinner and wanted to make at least one dish I was positive that even the pickiest eater would enjoy. Thus, out came the polenta.

1 cup coarse polenta
4 cups water
1 tsp. salt
ground fennel seeds (optional)
paprika (optional)
cayenne (optional)
parmesan (optional)

I’ve been quite confused lately about the difference between cornmeal, grits, hominy grits, and polenta, but what I can tell you is this: the polenta I buy at the co-op is bright yellow and a very coarse grind. I store it in the refridgerator because I noticed that it starts to smell rancid very quickly if I leave it in the pantry.

In every polenta recipe there is always a discussion of lumpy polenta, but I don’t understand the obsession. Just add your polenta to cold water and voila!– no lumps. Another key ingredient is salt. Undersalted polenta is boring and tasteless, but use a sufficient amount of salt and your polenta will be addictive. I’ve been using 1 cup of polenta, 4 cups of water, and 1 tsp. of salt to make hard polenta. This sounds like a lot of salt, but you have to remember that this recipe makes about 5 cups of polenta (check this amount), so it’s not quite as crazy as it looks. It’s very tasty, but quite salty, so I might try with 3/4 tsp. salt and see what I think. Another common addition is olive oil, but I couldn’t detect any difference when I added it to the mix, so might as well leave it out at this step.

Stirring–another matter of debate. They say if you want a quick recipe than you can just keep the heat up and stir constantly, but I’ve found that with a coarse-ground polenta this is a lot of work and that no matter how much you stir the texture always comes out a bit gritty. A better strategy is to stir only while you bring the water to a boil initially. You should keep the heat quite high, and keep stirring, until the water and polenta congeal into one solid mass. Then immediately turn the heat as low as it will go (I use 1/2 of my warm setting on my electric stove), cover, and don’t touch it for an hour. Most cookbooks say to stir every 10 minutes or so, but I haven’t found that it makes any difference. It sticks in either case, so I might as well just not touch it. So I lose a bit of polenta at the bottom of the pan, no big loss. Just soak the pan for a few hours and the stuck bits will peel right off. Many recipes say to cook it for 40-45 minutes, and it will definitely be cooked by then, but I’ve found that with a coarse ground polenta 60 minutes is even better.

When it’s done it will be soft and porridge-y, a total comfort food. This is the point when high fat ingredients like cheese, butter, and cream are typically added. I’ve found that all that is needed for marvelous flavor is a little grated parmigiano-reggiano. It doesn’t take much to infuse the whole dish with great flavor, maybe 1 ounce of cheese, grated? Put that cheese in and stir to mix, because the soft texture won’t last for long. The polenta is delicious at this stage. Top with some sort of sauce or vegetable saute for a marvelous, comfort-food dinner. However, as soon as it starts to cool it will firm up, so pour whatever you’re not going to eat immediately into a 9×13 pyrex pan or onto a cookie sheet to cool. Sometimes I pour it into a 9×9 square pyrex pan, then when I cut it into squares I cut the pieces in half midway through to halve their height and ensure that the final pieces are nice and crispy. If you only want soft polenta you can start out with more water, I’ve heard 8 cups water to 1 cup polenta is a good ratio, but I’ve never tried it myself because the 5 to 1 ratio gives you the best of both worlds. Soft polenta right when it’s done and hard crispy polenta at another meal.

Once it’s firm you can cut it into square or triangles, place them on a lightly oiled cookie sheet of the polenta with olive oil as well. Cook at 425 degrees until crisp, or under the broiler if you really watch it. Flip to crisp the other side, then serve. They’re great hot right out of the oven, but also marvelous once they cool as well.

I still need to figure out exactly how much oil is needed (if any), and how long it takes to broil.

I made this recipe for a party lately, and everyone really liked it. It was the first thing to get eaten. I followed the seasoning suggestions of my friend Amy and added ground fennel, paprika, and cayenne to the polenta as well. This really “kicked it up a notch”… but in a good way.

Nutritional Info for Polenta from Bob’s Red Mill. According to this site one cup of coarse-ground polenta has 520 calories. An ounce of parmesan has about 129 I think, and if you use one tablespoon of olive oil to bake the polenta, that’s 119 calories. All together that’s 768 calories. That’s under 100 calories a person for 8 servings and under 200 calories a person for 4 servings (each of which is extremely large). Pretty low calorie for an amazing, perfect polenta.

What happens if you want to serve soft polenta, but not as the first course at a dinner party? Can you just leave it on the barest heat until you’re ready to serve? I’ll have to test this. An alternative (baking the polenta) is discussed by the author of the Vegetarian Epicure. I saw another tip that it’s best to use a mixture of cornmeals to get the best texture, say 75% coarse and 25% fine. I’ll have to try this and see if it’s any different.

Update Dec 2006: I tried a recipe for polenta in one of my cookbooks that called for 1 cup of polenta, 5 cups of water, and 1 cup of pumpkin puree. I used frozen butternut squash puree. I tasted the polenta when it was done and it tasted pretty normal, maybe just a tad sweeter than usual. When I baked it in the oven I couldn’t tell it had pumpkin puree in it at all–it crisped up the same as always, and tasted identically. I’ll have to keep this in mind next time I have extra pumpkin or squash puree around, or if I just want my polenta to have more beta carotene. I might even try more than 1 cup next time since it was barely detectable. The same recipe also called for topping the polenta with a few spoonfuls of black bean salsa. I made the salsa according to their directions, and it was nice, but I didn’t like it on the polenta–it just overpowered it, so I couldn’t taste the polenta at all, just the black beans. The minced jalepeno, on the other hand, went wonderfully with the polenta. I think I should one jalepeno in next time I make it, like people do with cornbread.

Update 9/2007: I used Bob’s Red Mill Corn Grits. In a 3 quart pot I combined 1.5 cups of grits and 6 cups of water. with 1.5 tsp fine salt, 1 tsp. ground fennel, 1 tsp paprika, and 1/8 tsp. cayenne. Brought to a boil until water combined with corn, then reduced to very low, covered, and cooked for 1 hour. The amount of fennel flavor was good, as was the cayenne. It was definitely salty but not too much for me. It had just a little kick from the cayenne, which wasn’t noticeable at first but after you finished a bit warmed your mouth nicely. If you’re feeding someone who doesn’t like any spice at all it might be too much. I didn’t like the texture of the soft polenta at all–way too thick (you could stand a spoon up in it) and fluffy, with big noticeable corn bits rather than a perfectly smooth, almost pourable consistency.

Rating: B

How to make crispy polenta sticks

I make these occasionally (usually with refried beans and guacamole and salsa) and they’re always a big hit. I just make polenta as I normally would, and we eat it soft for dinner (often with ratatouille or roasted veggies or something like that, and a side of cannellini beans or chickpeas). I make the polenta in my instant pot which has the added benefit of keeping the polenta warm until we are done with dinner, then when dinner is over I pour whatever is left onto an oiled cooked sheet. (If I made roasted veggies then I don’t wash the cookie sheet first, just use it as is, since it still has oil on it.) The polenta cools while I clean up the dinner dishes, and then I cut it into large slabs and put it in the fridge (using parchment paper between layers so they don’t stick).

When I want to make the sticks I oil a cookie sheet lightly and cut the polenta into long rectangles (size is up to you, skinnier will crisp up faster but is more work) and arrange them on the cookie sheet until they are as crisp as we want them. (You may have to rotate the cookie sheet halfway through if you have hotspots in your oven.) If you want them super crispy you can spray/brush oil over the tops as well, and flip them over halfway through, but it’s not necessary. My daughter loves them even when they’re not super crisp.

That said, my Italian friends say that you should *never* cook/heat leftover polenta in the oven. They do it in a frying pan with just a bit of oil to prevent it from sticking. I haven’t tried it that way as it sounds like way more work given the quantity I usually make.

I once mixed a seasoned rosemary white bean puree in with the polenta and while *I* thought the sticks were quite yummy, my daughter wouldn’t eat them. I’ve been considering trying it again, or trying adding something like finely chopped broccoli.

5 Comments

  1. paperfreeme said,

    My friend tried my recipe. Here are her comments…

    Polenta…hrrm. I bought the coarse grind from the bulk section at Whole Foods that was marked “Polenta”.

    So I served the soft (porridge) polenta along with the chard and a grilled skirt steak for dinner.

    I did put in 3/4 teaspoon of salt (my eyeballs estimated) and 1/4 cup of grated parmesan, but the polenta was just OK. Unremarkable. I poured the leftover half into a 13 by 9 pyrex glass pan that I had first sprayed with PAM to let it harden. I let it sit out overnight, so I covered it with a plastic wrap. I was planning to serve it fried the next night for dinner along with leftover bean and hamhock soup.

    The “hard” polenta came out kind of rubbery. And it was very thin. I cut it into 8 rectangles, and had trouble to remove it from the pan without some of them folding over in half and breaking.

    I fried them on my pancake griddle sprayed with olive oil PAM. They got a little crispy, but mostly still pretty flimsy. Everyone ate at least one piece with their soup. In fact, I’m the only one who ate 2. I didn’t put any additional cheese on the polenta after frying. Maybe I should have.

    Again, it seemed unremarkable, and we threw the leftovers out as it seemed no one would be interested in eating them.

  2. Greg said,

    Alright, here are some suggestions: I like to add about 2 cloves of minced garlic per cup of polenta and a minced shallot both of which I leave in the entire cooking time. Instead of using just water try adding 2 1/2 cups of Miso broth or Vegetable stock – this will give it a huge depth of flavor that water can’t add (and for those of us who aren’t vegetarian chicken or veal stock or some clarified duck fat do even more…). After the Polenta is finished cooking stir in some mascarpone and butter with the cheese and some fresh chopped chives. The addition of fat from the butter and mascarpone will give it that succulent moisture creaminess that makes it so addictive, and it will help it to be less rubbery upon gentle re-heating.

  3. Alex said,

    Wow Greg those were some awesome ideas. I’m definitely going to try putting garlic, shallots and chives In. And also cooking from miso soup broth. Really good ideas.

    I have found this post one of the best accounts of cooking polenta on the net. Had to dig deep in google to find it though.

  4. Healthy vegetarian breakfast ideas | The captious vegetarian said,

    […] that I liked, but I haven’t made it since Alma showed up. Other ideas? Maybe broccoli polenta for […]

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