Aly Walansky Contributor
Polenta is a simple dish involving a combination of ground coarse cornmeal and liquid, but there’s a lot of ways you can make it pretty special.
Ultimately, polenta is a labor of love. It takes time, care and quality ingredients.
“Start with a coarse ground polenta for better texture,” said Jeff Vucko, chef de cuisine at Travelle at The Langham.
Keep in mind that cornmeal comes in various forms, and if it is fine powder, it will cook faster. “Most local markets in the Midwest have farmer-grown organic heirloom corn and you could specify how you want to grind the corn,” said Vucko.
Then, it’s all about building your base, whatever that ends up being for you. “Add chicken stock, butter, heavy cream, salt, pepper and cheese of your desire.STIR, STIR, and anyone that walks by the pot, STIR again!” said Vucko.Recommended For You
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Seasoning is everything
The single most important tip for polenta is seasoning aggressively. “Polenta acts as a salt reducer so you must be heavy handed,” said Cory Harwell, chef and owner of Carson Kitchen, which has locations in Atlanta, Salt Lake City and Vegas.
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Play with the liquids
Many polenta recipes will say to cook the polenta in water. That’s fine, but for creamier, richer polenta you are going to want to switch things up a bit. “Modify the liquids used to cook the polenta in,” said Harwell. “Standard ratio is 4 parts water to 1 part polenta. Mix it up and use 1 part water, 1 part whole milk, 1 part heavy cream, and 1 part chicken or veg stock,” said Harwell. You’ll love the difference!
There’s no need to get fancy
There’s a lot of ways to buy polenta. There’s coarse cornmeal, there’s readymade tubes, and there’s boxes of instant polenta, too!
“Instant polenta is where it’s at!” said Frankie Celenza, a chef who is the host of Tastemade’s Struggle Meals. “It’s cooked and then dried out; texturally there’s no downside in my opinion, because ultimately, polenta is porridge,” said Celenza. Think of grits (yes, it’s true — corn came from the Americas and this dish is more American than Italian), but much creamier and smoother.
Normally, the downside to a precooked — or in this case instant — product is that it won’t be as crisp, but in this instance it’s an advantage. “One doesn’t need to stir endlessly, but monitoring hydration levels and anticipating the carryover cooking after the fact are paramount,” said Celenza, who cooks his polenta with water and adds some milk and parmigiano cheese towards the end. “For me, it’s the same as finishing a risotto. For whoever is eating it, it’s heaven!” said Celenza.
Get creative with cheese
“I always recommend stirring in butter and a firm cheese of some kind,” said EJ Hodgkinson, Culinary Director for Electric Hospitality, the Atlanta-based restaurant group including Ladybird Grove & Mess Hall, Golden Eagle and Muchacho.
You can always get creative with what cheese you chose.”Traditionally it would be butter and parmigiano reggiano, but I personally prefer to stir in mascarpone in place of butter. The firm cheese can be substituted with other types like, pecorino or extra aged cheeses (Der Scharfe Maxx, Challerhocker, etc.),” said Hodgkinson.
Polenta is an easy, versatile, kid-friendly (and gluten free!) option that makes for good leftovers if you do a creamy version day one, and a seared version (fry or cake) the next.
Perfect creamy polenta
Making creamy polenta at home is basically as simple as making rice or pasta. It’s about a ratio of ground cornmeal to liquid. “I will boil a mixture of milk and water then add in my polenta and stir; I like mine super creamy and a little wet,” said Rachel Haggstrom, executive chef at The Restaurant at JUSTIN, JUSTIN Vineyards & Winery.
The amount of liquid depends on how creamy you like it, and the beautiful thing about polenta is you can add more liquid to the mixture as you go. “Once I get the polenta to my preferred consistency I like to finish it with a generous amount of butter and parmesan,” said Haggstrom.
To spice things up for the adults at home, it can be fun to finish the polenta with a sprinkle of blue cheese, spiced pine nuts, or pepitas (for texture), and a drizzle of pesto, gremolata or other green herb sauces.
Here’s a simple recipe for creamy polenta from Michael Zentner of The Drifter, based in Charleston.
- 2 cups milk
- 2 cups water
- 1 tablespoons chopped thyme
- 1 garlic clove, minced
- 1 tablespoon salt
- 1 cup polenta, course
- 1/4 pound butter, diced
- Zest of 1 lemon
- In a 2 quart saucepan bring water and milk to a boil.
- Season the milk with salt and crushed garlic.
- Whisk in the polenta in a steady stream and cook over medium-high heat until it returns to a boil.
- Turn down the heat and cook for 15-20 minutes until thickened fully.
- Whisk in the butter and lemon zest and adjust the seasoning with salt.
Fun with leftovers
When putting the polenta away, store in a casserole dish or a cookie sheet (something with edges). “Place parchment paper down, followed by your favorite cooking spray, then spread your leftover polenta in an even layer and allow it to cool,” said Haggstrom.
Allow to set overnight in the fridge then cut into strips or squares – Haggstrom then says the best way to go about it is prepping in a cast iron pan over high heat sear polenta on each side in clarified butter or grapeseed oil. Serve warm.
“Seared polenta is great when eaten with charcuterie or tomatoes as an appetizer, or as a starch with your favorite entrée,” said Haggstrom.
Polenta truffle fries
This spin on polenta elevates a simple, inexpensive dish to something you may see in a high-end steakhouse: Truffle fries! Recipe is via Jack Peterson, the executive chef of Fine-Drawn Hospitality (Walnut Street Cafe, Sunset Social and The Post in Philadelphia).
- 1 tube of store bought polenta
- 2 tablespoons olive oil (if baking)
- Parsley (freshly chopped)
- Grated parmesan
- Truffle oil
- Kosher salt
- Cut polenta into desired french fry thickness — using a knife that has been run under hot water and cleaned between each cut by running under hot water repeatedly. Preheat the oven to 400F and toss the polenta in the olive oil. Coat evenly. On a sheet tray, bake in the oven for 20 minutes, flipping halfway through.
- If using an air fryer, also have preheated to 400F, and fry for 20 minutes. Again, flipping halfway.
- If you have a deep fryer, fry in 350F oil until crispy. Should be about 5 minutes, depending on your polenta.
- Once your fries are cooked, place in a mixing bowl. Drizzle with truffle oil, pinch kosher salt, parsley, and freshly grated parmesan cheese.
- Serve immediately!
Polenta is perfect for making cakes and biscuits, says Brendan Collins, chef of Fia Santa Monica. “This recipe is super easy to make and has a brilliant moist and crumbly texture, served with your favorite jam or curd and a dollop of whipped cream, you can be devilish and keto friendly all in one!” said Collins.
- unsalted butter for the pan
- 1 pound unsalted butter, softened
- 1 pound granulated sugar
- 1 pound ground almonds
- 2 teaspoon good vanilla extract
- 6 eggs
- finely grated zest of 4 lemons
- juice of 1 lemon
- 1/2 pound polenta
- 1 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
- 1/4 teaspoon sea salt
1. Preheat the oven to 320°F. Butter and line a 12-inch round and 3-inch deep cake pan with parchment paper.
2. Beat the butter and sugar together using an electric mixer until white and fluffy.
3. Stir in the ground almonds and vanilla. Beat in the eggs, one at a time. Fold in the lemon zest and juice, the polenta, baking powder and salt.
4. Spoon into the prepared pan. Bake for 45–50 minutes or until the cake is set and deep brown on top. Cool in the pan.
5. Serve with whipped cream and strawberry jam
Items to stock up on:
Ancient Harvest Heat & Serve Polenta
Anson Mills Artisan Handmade Coarse Rustic Polenta