There was a time when I shied away from making polenta at home.
Much like risotto, I had categorized it in my head as a challenging dish you needed to babysit every step of the way until it was done, otherwise, you’d be left with a lumpy, dry sticky mess. I thought it was both challenging and time-consuming to prepare this dish.
Well let me set the record straight today: polenta is easy. I wouldn’t even consider it a labor of love, I’d consider it just love.
Polenta is pure and comforting and you can take things slow when you cook it. It might take 40 minutes to cook, but really, most of that time is hands-off cooking over low heat. You only have to stir it a few times during the process.
That’s a win-win in my book.
It doesn’t hurt that I’ve found the simplest recipe for nearly-fool-proof polenta. It’s not even really a recipe, it’s a process, and I urge you to just memorize it.
I have a horrible memory for recipes and cooking processes and ratios, etc, but this one is even easy enough for me to remember without looking it up each time.
I also love polenta because it’s a nice change from our typical rotation of pasta, rice, and beans. We eat a lot of one-pot meals and a lot of veggie bowls. Polenta is perfect when I’m feeling like I need something simple yet filling to stand up to a hearty dish with a rich sauce or strong flavors.
A polenta mishap
The first time I attempted to cook polenta at home, it didn’t go so well.
It was years ago and we were back in our tiny apartment in San Francisco. I’d found an awesome veggie polenta dish online I wanted to make – I think it was some sort of skillet dinner that you finish off in the stove after you assemble everything. I think there was goat cheese involved.
I was working with the wrong ingredient. It was Instant Polenta.
Either that or I had the water boiling too vigorously.
As soon as I poured the dry polenta into the pot (all in one go), before I even had a chance to stir the damn thing, it morphed into a thick, bubbly mass that began violently catapulting piping hot balls of cement-like corn-meal substance all over the kitchen, and me. OUCH.
We probably left a little polenta on the ceiling of that apartment 😛
After that, polenta scared the crap out of me and I didn’t try cooking it again for… years.
Until last year, I hadn’t attempted polenta at home, but it was always something I’d choose at restaurants. That and grits, but really they are the same thing!
One of my first Kale & Compass dishes featured a pre-made tube of polenta. Yep. But homemade polenta is exactly the opposite of the polenta that comes in a tube. It’s creamy and rich and buttery (if you want) and as decadent as you want to make it. It’s also pretty much a blank canvas so you can flavor it however you like.
Tips for making great polenta at home
Use a large, heavy-bottomed pot. Enameled cast iron is great (like the one I used in the photos here). Heavy stainless steel would be great too.
Use vegetable broth or stock (if you have that available). Like any type of starch, if you can build flavors into it from the beginning, you’re setting yourself up for a tastier final product.
Turn the boiling water down to medium before pouring your polenta into the pot. If you don’t, you’ll risk the spackling your ceiling with the stuff!
Add a little at a time. Once the water is boiling, and you’ve turned it down to medium, add a little at a time and then whisk to avoid lumps.
Use a whisk for fewer lumps. I don’t think it’d come out as smooth with any other utensil, so use your whisk while you’re adding the dry polenta to the boiling water if you have one!
Use butter. We cook with a lot of butter over here and if you do too, I give you full freedom to go heavy with the butter. Why do restaurant grits and polenta taste so good? Fat (aka butter).
Use enough salt. You’re making cornmeal mush, so if you don’t add enough seasoning to it, it’s going to fall flat. Don’t be afraid to add plenty of salt.
A couple more polenta notes:
You can reheat it multiple ways. It thickens quite a bit as it cools, so if you’re reheating it on the stovetop, add more water to thin it out (and taste to see if you need to add more salt). On the other hand, you can fry chunks of it much like you’d do with the rounds that come from the tube.
At the store, you don’t have to specifically buy a bag marked “polenta,” you can just buy a bag of “cornmeal.” And it can be any type of ground corn meal, too: fine, medium or coarse.
Sweet or savory. Though I typically only cook polenta as a savory dish, you can absolutely use it as a sweet porridge for breakfast, for example. Just use less salt when pairing it with sweet toppings.
Life updates unrelated to polenta
Nick and I are about to head to Austin, TX for vacation!!! We’re going to eat all of the food. So excited. Hopefully I’ll come back with lots of food-related inspiration for the blog!
While we’re there, I’m sure we’ll be snapping away all the lovely sights and sounds, but I’ll be taking a bit of a break from this here blog.
I know we’ll have plenty to share when we return!
Before we go…
Some ideas of what to pair with your polenta:
A hearty stew or chili ladled over a generous portion of rich and creamy polenta? Um, yes please!
Stewed tomatoes, straight from the pot, over polenta with freshly grated parm and some freshly torn basil? My mouth is watering now.
How about polenta huevos rancheros style with thick black bean ragout, a fried egg, avocado, pico de gallo and some fresh cilantro or salsa verde?
Okay, now I’m hungry and I’ve got to start packing.
Yield: At least 4 large servings, probably closer to 6.
Don't be afraid of cooking polenta at home, it's really easy! Especially with this super simple recipe.
1 cup ground cornmeal
4-5 cups water (or broth)
salt & pepper
Bring a medium, heavy pot of water to boil over high heat.
Once boiling, turn the heat down. Salt the water generously (~1 tsp to start).
With a whisk, slowly pour in the polenta, a little at a time, whisking as you go to avoid clumps.
Once polenta is fully incorporated, turn heat down to your lowest setting, set the timer for 40 - 45 minutes, and stir with a wooden spoon every 10 mins or so.
Polenta will be thick and creamy and plump when it's done. If you have to add more water to thin it while it's cooking, that's fine, but it should be rather thick as it cooks. As long as you've got the heat turned down it won't splatter.
Once polenta is cooked, remove from heat and stir in butter (we start with 1-2 tbsp). You can add any flavors you'd like at this point. Parmesan cheese, green onions, any type of cheese really. Taste test and adjust seasoning as needed.
Polenta thickens as it cools. To reheat, thin with a little water and heat over low heat.