What Is Polenta or Italian Porridge?

Close-Up of sliced polenta with cheese and rosemary
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Polenta, pronounced poh-LEHN-tah, is a cornmeal mush or porridge that originated in Northern Italy as a peasant food. It may not be particularly popular in the United States, but it's a staple that many Italian Americans enjoy as a part of their heritage. Though the dish was once known as a food for the poor, it has been elevated to gourmet status through food critics and can be found on the menus of some of the most elegant restaurants. Though most typically made with coarse yellow cornmeal, polenta can also be made from finely ground yellow or white cornmeal. Traditional recipes call for slow cooking in water or broth, though much of the cooking time can be unattended. Modern shortcuts include the use of instant or precooked polenta. Polenta is often served as a soft, thick mush, which may be topped with sauce, a hearty ragoût, or cheese. Cooked polenta can also be cooled until firm and cut into wedges, rounds, or other shapes, which can be baked, grilled, or pan-fried.

5 Types of Polenta

Like oatmeal or rice, polenta is versatile and can be served in a variety of ways at any meal of the day. What's added to it and how it's presented can make it feel part of an elegant meal or just a simple lunch. There are different types of polenta based on the preparation of the dish. Different They are:

  • coarse ground polenta
  • finely ground polenta
  • instant polenta
  • white polenta
  • precooked (tube) polenta

Polenta Uses

Polenta is used in different ways depending on the meal of the day in which it is being served.

  • Serve soft polenta, either plain or with herbs or cheese, as a side dish.
  • Use polenta as the base for the vegetarian main dish, topped with sauce or a hearty vegetable ragoût.
  • Serve polenta instead of pasta or rice as an accompaniment to meat sauces, stews, or chilis.
  • Try soft-cooked polenta as a hot breakfast cereal, topped with fresh or dried fruit, nuts, cinnamon, and milk.
  • Use baked or grilled polenta rounds as a base for hors-d'oeuvres or appetizers.
  • Use precooked or homemade polenta in casseroles.
  • Use polenta to replace the biscuit or puff pastry topping on pot pies.

Polenta Recipes

Here are just a few recipes for polenta that are varied. Try a basic one first, to get the feel of the dish as a base ingredient in more complex dishes. Dial up the extras as you get more familiar with what works best for you and your palate.