I’ll confess, the first time I had polenta it came from a tube (like breakfast sausage) brought home from the grocery store. To be polite, it wasn’t my favorite thing.
And a good while passed before I had it again. I avoided it at restaurants too.
I hope that hasn’t happened to you because it really is quite good and easy to make.
I keep several different grinds of corn in the pantry. Because I’m me.
As you can see from the picture below, polenta is normally a very coarse grind.
Regular corn meal, used in my corn bread for example, is next but you can use this for polenta if you want. It works just fine.
Then masa harina, which I thicken my chili with (and other dishes).
And finally, plain masa for making tortillas.
The ingredients for plain polenta are water, polenta, and a bit of salt. I almost always add other things at the end but this is all you need to get started.
Depending on what you’re serving your polenta with, you could substitute milk or even stock for the water.
I usually don’t but you certainly can. To me they mask the taste of the corn.
For the water-to-polenta ratio I use 4:1.
In my experience, if you use less than 4 cups it won’t be fully-cooked and still a bit chewy. If you use more, say 5 cups, it will be more tender but will take a bit longer to cook. Which is fine. You do you. For me, it can get a bit too close to Cream of Wheat texture when I use any more than 5.
So, bring 4 cups of water and a teaspoon of salt to a boil. Then stir in the polenta until it’s well-mixed and without any lumps.
Now I know full well most people think you have to stir polenta constantly for 45 minutes. And you can do that but you don’t have to. The results are almost identical.
I use a technique I read about somewhere along the way where you stir for a minute, cover and cook for 10 minutes, and repeat until done.
The key here, like cooking pasta, is just taste it and keep cooking until it’s done the way you like it.
About 45-50 minutes start to finish for me.
Wet down a bowl, shake out the water, and transfer the polenta from your pot to the bowl to cool. Trust me, it’s too hot to eat right now anyway.
Served Hot (with shrimp)
Like I said earlier, I usually add a bit of this or that to punch up the flavor at this point.
As an idea, and while it’s still warm, stir in a tablespoon of butter and about a quarter cup of grated Parmesan cheese. In a small fry pan, heat a couple glugs of olive oil and quickly sauté a handful of shrimp and a clove of chopped garlic. (Yes, it’s frozen shrimp but it is wild caught from the Gulf of Mexico and I’ll take that any day.)
Spoon some polenta onto a plate and some of the shrimp over top.
C’mon, look at how beautiful that is! And it tastes as good as it looks.
Served Cold then Fried
This happens one of two ways. First, on purpose, this is what you wanted all along. For me more often, this is how to use leftover polenta from supper the night before.
By the way, this works great for breakfast with an egg or some avocado or berries or jam. (Survey that refrigerator for the food you need to use and want to eat but don’t know what you’re going to do with yet!)
Once the polenta has completely cooled, it can be easily sliced. I’m just using my bench scraper here but a knife works just as well.
If the shape matters to you, rather than just turn it out of the bowl in the dome shape like I did below, spread it onto a sheet pan (while it’s still warm, of course) about an inch thick and let it cool flat. Then slice it like you would a pan of brownies. Really, you can cut it into whatever shape makes you smile.
Then, over medium-high heat with a glug of olive oil in the fry pan, just let it cook. It will take a bit longer than you think so be patient. Five minutes on a side or more depending on how done or browned you want it. You could also use butter instead of olive oil if you feel so inclined — just watch your heat, you don’t want the butter to burn.
So, another quick supper idea is simply a couple pieces of lightly-fried polenta and some fresh vegetables. Use whatever you have that begs to be made — it doesn’t have to be fancy. (Lightly sautéed mushrooms are amazing and you can use the same pan!)
And that’s all there is to it. How something can be so versatile and yet so simple is just amazing to me.
If all you’ve had before is instant polenta or the stuff from a tube, please give it a try the old-fashioned or more traditional way. I think you’ll love it.
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- 4 cups water
- 1 cup polenta
- 1 teaspoon sea salt
Bring water and salt to a boil.
Slowly and gradually stir the polenta into the water until very well mixed.
Reduce heat to simmer.
Cover the pot and let gently cook for 10 minutes. Then, stir for 1 minute. Repeat for a total of 4 times or 40 minutes.
Let cook uncovered for 5 more minutes. Stir for 1 minute.
Transfer cooked polenta to a bowl that's been wiped down with water. Smooth the top. Let cool for 10-15 minutes.
If serving hot, spoon servings immediately. If serving cold or frying, turn out onto a cutting board and let cool completely before slicing.
If you have polenta stuck on the bottom of your pot, and it won’t just wipe out, that’s okay. Let the pot soak with some water in it for a good while. Even overnight.