Polenta is a real ‘love it or hate it’ ingredient – but perhaps the haters just haven’t had it served correctly. We talk you through authentic, Italian-style preparation of this thrifty cornmeal product, plus exciting ways to serve it.
Polenta gets a bit of a bad press, but then again maybe it’s just misunderstood – of the many Italian-origin products on British supermarket shelves, it’s not one we’ve embraced as enthusiastically as pasta, pesto or pizza.
But once you’ve got your head around the different kinds of polenta – and the fact that you don’t just have to serve it as a pile of gluey mush - you might just fall in love with its versatility and pastoral charm. Still not sold? Read on and you may be convinced…
What is polenta?
Polenta is made by grinding corn into meal - it's available in different grades ranging from coarse to fine. For the pedants out there, polenta isn't actually polenta until it's cooked, and it's not strictly Italian either - the American breakfast dish of grits is essentially polenta dressed up as something else. You'll also find versions of polenta in parts of Africa where maize or corn is farmed and a porridge-y version is eaten as a regular dietary staple.
What kinds of polenta are available?
Traditional polenta can take up to 50 minutes to cook, depending on the coarseness. There are more opinions on how to cook polenta the ‘proper’ Italian way than there are grains of the stuff in a packet, but generally it’s cooked in boiling water or milk. It takes up to an hour for the starch to break down to a smooth consistency, and importantly it requires regular stirring – treat it a little like a risotto, i.e. don’t take your eyes off the prize. If you want to adhere to the unspoken Italian rulebook, cook your polenta in a copper pot.
Quick-cook or instant polenta takes just a few minutes to make as it comes part cooked, but purists may sniff at such a shortcut. This varient is, however, ideal for using in cakes. Polenta also comes ready-made in tubes or blocks, ready to be sliced and reheated.
You’re most likely to find traditional yolk-yellow polenta in standard supermarkets, but if you branch out into specialist delicatessens you may find more delicate white polenta. Favoured in northern Italian regions like Venezia, it’s delicious served with seafood or fish, while hardier yellow polenta is best served with rustic meaty ragu sauces.
How to cook perfect polenta
As mentioned above, the key to perfectly cooked, smooth polenta is to keep that wooden spoon rotating. Our food editor Cassie advises that when you add the polenta to the pan, make sure the water is boiling, then continually whisk it while you pour in the polenta in a thin steady stream. Add flavourings once it’s cooked – traditionally, a generous knob of butter and a handful of grated Parmesan are added to make it extra creamy, but the key is plenty of seasoning.
Other ways of cooking with polenta…
To add crunch
Fine polenta makes a great coating for anything that requires a satisfying crunch. Try polenta dusted onto potatoes before roasting, or on fish or chicken. One particularly effective way of using it for bite is by adding it as a Southern-style coating for fried chicken.
Ready-cooked polenta comes in a firm block, which is an ideal shape for cutting into chips, which can then be oven cooked. Assistant food editor, Miriam always cooks extra polenta and pours it into an oiled dish to set, mimicking a pack of ready-made polenta, but giving you more control over the flavour.
Polenta can be used in cake in two ways. The first is to use polenta in place of part of the flour content, giving the cake a golden colour and crumbly consistency. Second is to use it in place of flour altogether, making it an ideal choice for those following a gluten-free diet as it’s likely to be cheaper than specialist flours.
Cornbread certainly gives a regular white sliced loaf a run for its money. Dense, moist and daffodil-yellow, it’s ideal dunked into American-style chowders and Creole gumbo, or with Caribbean curries. This recipe is totally gluten-free and contains a fiery chilli hit, although before you get started remember that the polenta needs a couple of hours to soak before baking.
As a base
Try using instant polenta as a semi-set base for a baked tart. Cook it quickly then spread it onto a baking tray in a 2-3cm-thick layer. Top with Italian sausage and cheese, fresh herbs or sautéed garlic mushrooms.
As a mash substitute
Cooked using the ‘boil and stir’ method above, polenta makes a fine alternative to mash, especially if you want to cut back on heavy spuds. Add as many flavourings as you like, although you might prefer to leave it neutral and add a super-tasty, saucy topping like mushroom or sausage ragout.
Try baking ready-made, cubed polenta into a bacon and cream stuffing – it works to add body to the stuffing in place of traditional breadcrumbs, and it’s delicious served with chicken flavoured with hard herbs, lemon, fennel and lots of delicious caramelised garlic.
A traditional Italian dessert to make your tastebuds (and arteries) quiver is deep-fried polenta slices tossed in sugar and lemon zest and served with a dollop of mascarpone. Come hither dolce principe!
Have you been convinced of the perks of polenta? We’d like to hear your thoughts on our serving suggestions – and whether you think you have the knack for making it better than the most experienced nonna…