What Is Polenta?

Buying, Cooking, and Recipes

Close-Up of sliced polenta with cheese and rosemary
Stefano Venturi / EyeEm / Getty Images

Polenta, (pronounced poh-LEHN-tah), is a cornmeal mush or porridge that originated in Northern Italy as 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 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.

Fast Facts

  • There are five types of polenta.
  • The finer the grain used to make the polenta, the creamier the final product will be.
  • Polenta is high in vitamins C and A.

What Is Polenta?

Polenta is a dish made of boiled cornmeal. Usually, yellow maize is used to make the cornmeal, but buckwheat and white maize are common too as are combinations of the three. Before the introduction of corn in the 16th century, other starches like farro, chestnut flour, millet, spelt and chickpea flour was used. To make polenta, the grain is simmered in four to five times the amount of water for a slow period until the water has been absorbed and an even gelatinization of the starch occurs within the polenta.

Varieties

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. 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.

How to Cook With Polenta

Cooking polenta is not complicated. Bring salted water to a boil, slowly whisk in the polenta, and then cook for around 45 minutes, stirring the polenta every 10 minutes. This long cooking time and stirring will allow the grains to swell and become cooked. Once prepared, it can be topped with anything from meaty ragu, a poached egg, fruit, or some butter.

What Does It Taste Like?

Polenta tastes like a hearty corn porridge. The cooked grains should taste sweet and cooked, not bitter and raw. The better the cornmeal you start with, the better your polenta will taste.

Polenta Substitute

How you are serving your polenta will dictate the best substitution. If your polenta is for breakfast, try oatmeal, grits, or cream of wheat instead. If you're planning on serving a hearty meat sauce on your polenta, you can swap in mashed potatoes, pasta, risotto, or roasted and pureed vegetables.

Polenta Recipes

Try a basic polenta recipe first. This will help you 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.

Where to Buy Polenta

Polenta is ground cornmeal, so look for either packaged polenta or ground cornmeal in your grocery store. It's normally in the baking aisle and sold in boxes or bags and retails for less than $5. Premade tubes of cooked polenta are also widely available. They are usually sold in a 16-ounce size and also cost less than $5. These can be sliced and then fried or baked. To buy in bulk, the best route would be to buy a large quantity of ground cornmeal from a club or restaurant supply store.

Storage

Store uncooked polenta in a cool, dark pantry for up to two years. Make sure any opened package is fully sealed. Moisture and pests will ruin your polenta. Precooked polenta that is not opened does not need to be refrigerated. Cooked polenta should be stored in the refrigerator in a sealed container for 2 to 3 days.

Nutrition and Benefits

One it's own, one cup of polenta has about 145 calories, 1 gram of fat, 3 grams of protein, and 3 grams of fiber. It does not have any cholesterol. Since it is usually consumed with toppings like cheese, butter, and sauce, keep in mind that the toppings will impact any calorie count and nutritional information.