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Making Polenta

How to Cook Creamy, Baked or Grilled Polenta

Making Polenta

I feel the need to admit, that although I love polenta now, I absolutely hated it the first time I tried it. I grew up in an Italian family, but we never ate polenta - we were more of a meatballs and pasta crew. One holiday, my grandmother decided to have all the grandkids try polenta, and she pulled out a tube of pre-prepared polenta and cut us off each a little bit. It was bland, had a weird texture, and was overall just entirely lacking in charm.

For years, I thought that's what polenta was like. Thankfully I was reintroduced to it years later as an adult, and discovered that polenta that was homemade and well-seasoned is actually one of Italian cuisine's loveliest side dishes. In fact, we have used polenta in several recipes here on Easy Food & Wine. Here, we'll highlight what polenta is, how to cook with it, and the different styles of polenta that you can make.

What is Polenta?

Polenta is an Italian dish, made from cornmeal, that's boiled in a hot liquid into a porridge. It can then be served right after boiling in a soft, creamy style, or it can be baked, grilled or fried after boiling to produce different textures and styles. Although corn wasn't introduced to Italy until after the discovery of America, polenta dates back well before the 16th century. It was originally made with barley-meal or other starchy ingredients, but today is made almost exclusively from corn. It can be made using either white or yellow corn, as well as from coarse- or fine-ground cornmeal.

How to Cook Polenta

Polenta made from scratch is prepared by boiling the cornmeal in a hot liquid (water or a flavored broth) for 30-45 minutes. The ratio of liquid to cornmeal is between 4-6 times more liquid than corn - it will absorb all of this liquid during cooking. It requires quite a bit of attention during cooking to ensure the appropriate low simmer is maintained. It also needs regular stirring to avoid burning; the mixture becomes quite dense so it doesn't easily release bubbles during boiling. Polenta also comes in an 'instant' variety that takes only 3 minutes to cook. It's good in a pinch, but doesn't have the same flavor or texture.

Styles of Polenta: Creamy, Baked, Grilled or Fried

Creamy polenta is made just by boiling it until cooked through, while the texture is still a bit loose. Fine-grain cornmeal works best when preparing creamy polenta. Baked, grilled or fried styles start the same way, but the polenta is then cooked again after boiling. In addition to changing the texture, the additional browning from these cooking techniques can provide extra depth of flavor. To make baked polenta, the cooked, boiled polenta  can be put into a baking dish and cooked in the oven. For grilled or fried polenta, the polenta should be allowed to set for some time after boiling so it will hold its shape better. It can then be pan-fried, deep-fried, or grilled over open flame.

Make It Flavorful

As I learned the first time I tried polenta, it can be a bland ingredient when no additional seasoning is added. This makes it an ideal canvas for adding flavor, or an excellent foil to meats, vegetables, or sauces. First off, don't forget to add salt and fresh ground pepper at minimum. You can increase the polenta's flavor by cooking it in stock, or a mix of stock and water. It also is excellent flavored with various cheeses, which can be mixed or melted in at the end of boiling, or can be stuffed into the polenta before baking, grilling or frying.

Easy Food & Wine Recipes with Polenta

Shrimp & Swiss Chard with Goat Cheese-Stuffed Baked Polenta
Braised Short Ribs with Creamy Cheddar Polenta

What's your favorite way to cook polenta? Share with us at amyandmike@easyfoodandwine.com.

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