Polenta is particularly popular in Italian cooking. In this review you will learn what polenta is, how to cook it properly on the stove, in the microwave, pressure cooker and multicooker. Learn the classic ways to serve it and the unusual use of polenta in various dishes.
Polenta is a porridge made from cornmeal and widely used in northern Italy. The term polenta is also used to refer to the flour itself used to make it. Prior to the importation of corn into Europe, polenta was made from coarse buckwheat or rice flour.
Polenta is inferior in popularity to the other “Italians” in cooking – pasta, pesto sauce, and, of course, pizza. But I think this is completely undeserved.
Polenta is not only delicious, but it also opens up new possibilities in cooking because it is a multifaceted ingredient. It can be cheesy, creamy, hearty, tender and sweet.
Perhaps someone has already had a bad first experience with polenta. And the resulting pile of sticky and tasteless porridge put an end to your enthusiasm. To avoid such a result, let’s together understand what polenta is and how to cook it correctly.
Table of Contents
When we explore the annals of culinary history, certain dishes shine through not just for their flavor, but for their remarkable journey through time. Polenta’s story is one that spans millennia and predates its cornmeal identity, connecting ancient civilizations with the modern tables of today.
From Ancient Grains to Golden Corn
Long before maize (corn) found its way to Europe, ancient civilizations were consuming a precursor to what we now know as polenta. Roman soldiers, for instance, would often eat “puls,” a porridge made from spelt, barley, or other available grains. It provided sustenance and was easily prepared over campfires during military campaigns.
However, polenta’s destiny took a significant turn in the 16th century. As explorers ventured into the New World, they came across a plant the indigenous populations had been cultivating for thousands of years: maize. When maize was introduced to Europe, particularly Italy, it was quickly adopted due to its high yield and adaptability to different terrains.
Northern Italy, with its cooler climate and mountainous regions, found maize to be a suitable crop. Here, the transition from ancient grain porridges to maize-based polenta began. The term “polenta” itself is derived from the Latin “pollen,” meaning fine flour.
Polenta: A Food for All
What made polenta a staple in many Italian households, especially in the north, was its affordability and versatility. During times of economic hardship or crop failure, polenta served as a reliable source of nutrition. Its humble nature made it a food for both the rich and the poor, though the accompaniments and variations might differ.
The art of preparing polenta, involving the slow addition of cornmeal to boiling water and the continuous stirring, became a familiar ritual in Italian kitchens. Its warm, creamy consistency was a comfort during the cold months and its ability to be cooled and set into cakes made it a versatile ingredient for various recipes.
Legacy and Global Influence
While polenta’s roots are deeply embedded in Italian soil, its influence has now reached global proportions. As the Italian diaspora spread across continents, they carried with them their culinary treasures, introducing the world to the wonders of pizza, pasta, and, of course, polenta.
Today, polenta stands not just as a testament to Italy’s rich culinary history but as a symbol of adaptability and resilience. From ancient Roman puls to the golden-hued cornmeal delicacy we relish today, polenta’s journey is a remarkable tale of evolution, culture, and timeless taste.
Flavor Profile & What Does It Taste Like.
Polenta has a mild, slightly nutty flavor. Its taste isn’t overpowering, which is why it’s often paired with robust sauces and toppings. The cornmeal base gives it a hint of earthiness, reminiscent of other corn-based dishes.
Comparisons to Similar Flavors
If you’ve tasted grits, a Southern U.S. staple, you’ve tasted a cousin of polenta. While grits are made from white corn and polenta from yellow, their taste profiles are notably similar. Both are corn-based and have that characteristic grainy yet creamy taste. Masa, used in tamales and tortillas, can also draw some parallels in flavor, though its preparation and texture are different.
Factors Influencing the Taste of Polenta
The flavor of polenta can be influenced by several factors, including the type and quality of cornmeal used, the liquids (like water, broth, or milk) it’s cooked in, and any additional ingredients or toppings added during or after cooking. A cheese-infused polenta will have a richer, more savory flavor, while one cooked in a vegetable broth might carry subtle notes of the veggies.
Texture of Polenta
Exploring the Consistency: Polenta’s texture can be as varied as its flavor. When freshly made and still warm, it has a creamy, porridge-like consistency. However, when left to cool and set, it solidifies and can be cut into slices that can be grilled or fried.
Impact of Texture on the Overall Flavor Experience: The texture of polenta plays a significant role in its flavor experience. Creamy polenta tends to absorb and meld with the flavors of accompanying dishes, making it a perfect bed for rich stews or grilled vegetables. On the other hand, fried or grilled polenta slices have a crispy exterior, providing a delightful contrast when topped with softer, saucy dishes.
Types of polenta
The versatility of polenta is due not only to the way it is prepared, but also to the different types currently available. On store shelves you can find polenta in coarse, medium and fine grind, instant and even ready-made porridge in tubes.
Some varieties of polenta have buckwheat or rice flour added to them. Coarse-grained polenta will be thick and textured after cooking, while finely ground polenta will be smooth and creamy.
What is the difference between polenta and grits?
Although both polenta and grits are very similar, there are a few key differences.
- Place of origin. Polenta comes from Northern Italy, and the grits come from the southern United States.
- Corn variety. American grits are traditionally made with the more starchy, light-colored varieties of corn. Polenta, on the other hand, is made from Italian Otto File or Flint corn, which has a dark yellow color.
- Flavor and texture. For flour, the corn is finely ground and the outer shell sifted off. Polenta uses a coarse grind that retains more husks and nutrients and makes the texture denser.
What is the difference between polenta and cornmeal?
The simplest answer is that polenta is a dish and cornmeal is an ingredient. In addition, polenta is made from a special kind of corn flour derived from Italian stone-ground corn.
With this grinding method the shell and germ of corn kernels are not sifted out. The texture of the flour is coarser, with a noticeable corn flavor.
How to cook polenta: ways and tricks
A polenta side dish is a great alternative to potatoes, pasta or rice, but has several key health benefits.
- Corn consists of complex carbohydrates, which take longer to break down and provide a longer supply of energy than the simple carbohydrates found in processed or refined grains.
- Corn does not contain gluten. This means that it is safe for people prone to allergies.
- Corn contains fiber, protein, and vitamin A3. These three dietary components help you feel full without overeating.
Classic creamy polenta
Before you start making polenta, make sure you have the right tools.
You will need a large, thick-bottomed pot (copper in the classic Italian version), a whisk, and a wooden spoon.
- Boil five cups of water in a saucepan. Pour in an even stream of one cup of polenta, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon or whisk. Do this as thoroughly as possible to avoid lumps.
- Reduce heat to low. Continue to whisk the polenta until it no longer sinks to the bottom of the pan. This will take about two minutes.
- Season with salt and continue to simmer over low heat, stirring occasionally, until the polenta becomes thicker and eventually begins to pull away from the sides of the pan. This will take about 30 minutes. Remove from the heat.
- Add 4 tablespoons of butter (olive oil in vegan version), ground black pepper to the hot porridge and mix thoroughly. Add ¼ cup grated Parmesan if desired. Cover and let stand for 5 minutes.
Delicious creamy, creamy polenta is ready. Serve it with vegetables, chili, meat or fish – The possibilities are endless. Freshly cooked hot polenta is especially good with dishes that are cooked with gravy.
Polenta soaks up the flavor of the flavorful gravy and you have a wonderful side dish. It’s also served with grill menu.
Special features of cooking in a pressure cooker/multi-cooker
Cooking in a multicooker/ pressure cooker is a popular method because it does not require constant stirring, and the chance of sticking is minimal.
To cook in a pressure cooker, mix 1 cup polenta and 5 cups water and whisk with a whisk. Close the lid and pressure cook on high power for 15 minutes. Then release pressure.
Cooking time in the multicooker is almost the same as on the stove – 45 minutes. In the “Multicooker” mode set the temperature to 105 degrees Celsius or select the “Milk porridge” mode.
After the end of cooking, open the lid of the pressure cooker/multi cooker and season the porridge.
Cooking in the microwave
If you’re making a small batch of polenta, such as for two people, you can speed up cooking by using the microwave. Whisk together ½ cup polenta and 2½ cups water in a microwave-safe bowl.
Cover and cook on high power for 7-8 minutes, stirring every 2 minutes. Season the porridge to taste and serve at once.
Six tips for making the perfect polenta
Here are some ingredients and techniques to help you make delicious and hearty polenta at home.
- Replace the water with chicken or Vegetable broth. Cornmeal itself has a fairly neutral flavor, so cooked in broth will be much more flavorful.
- Do not overcook the polenta, or it may become too soft. Determine in advance the desired texture of the porridge.
- Add a pinch of baking soda when cooking. Polenta in an alkaline environment will cook faster and be creamier. Just don’t overdo the baking soda, or it will give the polenta a soapy flavor.
- If polenta bubbles and sputters even on the lowest heat, place the pot on the flame spreader.
- Be sure to add oil (butter or olive oil) at the end of cooking, it not only gives polenta a delicious sheen, but also a richer flavor and a silky texture.
- Cheese is another great addition to polenta. Together with butter you can add parmesan cheese, pecorino Romano or even gorgonzola or taleggio to make a cheese polenta with a thick and creamy texture. Use only good quality cheese, as its flavor will be dominant.
Soft, creamy polenta is not the only dish you can make. Be sure to treat your family to fried polenta.
- To begin, boil the polenta as described earlier. Before removing the porridge from the heat, oil a baking dish or mold. Use a large dish for thinner slices and a smaller diameter but higher rimmed dish for thicker slices.
For a more dietary option, you can bake the polenta in the oven. While the polenta is cooking, preheat the oven to 180 degrees Celsius. Add butter to the already cooked hot polenta.
- Stir the porridge with a wooden spoon until the butter is completely melted and the polenta is smooth.
- Add thyme (a teaspoon of fresh or ¼ tsp. dried is sufficient) and season to taste with black pepper.
- Place the polenta in an oiled baking dish and place in the oven. Bake for 20-25 minutes until the polenta is lightly browned.
- Take the dish out of the oven, allow to cool and slice.
Serve with a variety of sauces, such as creamy mushroom or tomato sauces. Try using muffin tins to make the polenta look interesting. Children will especially enjoy this.
Ideas for unusual dishes with polenta
Polenta can be added to many dishes. Below, I have collected unusual, but in my opinion, noteworthy ideas for using polenta in cooking.
Finely ground polenta is great for breading anything that needs a nice crunch. Try sprinkling polenta on potatoes, fish, or chicken before baking.
Cut the frozen polenta into thin strips and bake in the oven. The chips can be crunchy or you can use them to decorate salads and other dishes.
Replace half of the wheat flour with polenta fine flour and cook according to the recipe for regular bread. A denser baking texture allows you to make bread with various additions, such as tomatoes, herbs, olives, or peppers.
Place cooked polenta (you can use instant polenta) in a 2-3 cm thick layer on a baking tray. Add sausage and cheese, fresh herbs or mushrooms roasted with garlic on top.
Cut the frozen polenta into small slices. Fry in a deep fryer. Sprinkle with sugar and lemon zest and garnish with a spoonful of mascarpone.
Dice cooked or baked polenta. Wrap each cube with bacon and place on a baking tray. Pour over cream and bake in oven. Serve with baked chicken.
Cut the cooled polenta into strips about the same size as the French fries. Heat a cast-iron skillet with enough vegetable oil to submerge the polenta in it.
Fry the polenta until it is golden brown and crispy. “Polenta fries” make a good side dish or appetizer. Serve it with tomato sauce or pesto sauce for dipping.
Use fine polenta instead of some of the flour when making pies. The dough will turn out crumbly and beautifully golden in color. And if you’re on a gluten-free diet, polenta is a budget-friendly substitute for special flour.
Spread the cooked hot polenta on sheets of parchment paper the thickness of a regular lasagna sheet and refrigerate. Then cook according to the recipe for regular lasagna.
Though polenta sheets soften a bit when cooked, they hold up to any sauce, meat or cheese in the lasagna layers.
Use fried polenta instead of bread to give your guests a different take on a classic appetizer. Top the slices with fresh tomatoes, cheese, olives or any other ingredient of your choice.
Use cooked, coarse polenta instead of other grains in stuffed vegetable recipes.
Place the cooked polenta on a pizza tray or any other round form to set. Bake for 20 minutes at 200 degrees Celsius until lightly browned and crispy. Top with the pizza toppings and place in the oven for another 10-12 minutes.
Finely ground polenta is used as a thickener in American soups, Creole gumbo, Caribbean curries and others.
Polenta is truly a favorite dish in Italy. There is even an annual celebration in its honor. In the town of Cermonetta in the province of Lazio, on this day polenta is cooked right outside on bonfires. They boil it in copper cauldrons, and the central square has a huge cauldron where all the town’s residents and guests can sample the beloved dish. All this action is accompanied by live music, various contests and street performances.
Cook polenta to discover something new. I’m sure it will surpass all expectations and become a regular on your menu.
- Wayane Gisslen – Professional Cooking Study Guide
- The America’s Test Kitchen – Cooking School Cookbook
- Food Wishes