If you’ve been living under the assumption that making polenta at home is an arduous task, achievable only by Italian nonnas and people who have time to stand by the stove stirring for hours, think again. Not only is polenta one of our favorite ways to make a fancy-ish meal out of the leftovers hiding in our fridge (we see you, wilting kale), it’s also filling, cheap and surprisingly easy to whip up. Here’s how to make polenta at home without stirring for hours and hours.
But first, what is polenta?
Polenta is an Italian porridge that relies on a few basic pantry staples: stone-ground cornmeal, water (or stock), salt and pepper. It’s similar in texture to Southern grits, but it’s made with a different type of cornmeal, so it isn’t quite as creamy.
Wait, there are different types of cornmeal? Yep, most grocery stores stock two main types: cornmeal and polenta. There are even different types within those groups (like fine- and course-ground cornmeal), but the most important thing to know is that polenta is coarsely ground, and you should skip the regular, run-of-the-mill cornmeal in favor of one that’s clearly labeled polenta. Course-ground cornmeal can be used in a pinch, but polenta will have a better texture, so use the real stuff if you can find it. (And skip the instant polenta. It’s pasty, mushy and not worth the shortcut.)
Polenta can be dressed up as much as your heart desires—adding butter or Parmesan cheese (or both) will make it more indulgent—but even with just the essentials, it’s equally delicious. The secret to foolproof polenta? It’s all about using the right ratio of liquid.
What is the ratio of polenta to water?
Forget what the package tells you, because it almost always errs on the side of too little liquid. Less liquid means the cornmeal won’t have enough time to get tender, so you’ll be left with either gritty polenta or a gloppy mess. For a firmer porridge, use 4 cups water to 1 cup polenta. For a looser texture, use 5 cups water to 1 cup polenta. (It seems like a lot, but trust us.)
How do you know when polenta is ready?
When your polenta is done cooking, it should be thick enough to coat a spoon but not so thick that it’s solid or congealed. The best way to check for doneness is to taste it: The grains should be tender and soft, not gritty or hard.
How to make polenta in two easy steps:
Cooking polenta is not as high maintenance as you would expect. All it needs is regular stirring and careful heat.
1. In a medium saucepan, bring 4 or 5 cups of water (or stock) to a boil, then slowly whisk in 1 cup polenta and 1 teaspoon salt in a steady stream. (This will prevent lumps.)
2. Whisk constantly for 2 minutes, then reduce the heat to medium-low and cook, stirring occasionally to keep the polenta from sticking, until thick and creamy, 35 to 40 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper. For a richer polenta, stir in 2 to 3 tablespoons unsalted butter and ¼ cup to ½ cup finely grated Parmesan cheese. Voilà—polenta in less than an hour and your arm didn’t even fall off from stirring, did it?
What goes well with polenta?
In restaurants, polenta is often served with hearty, slow-cooked meats like short ribs and tomato-based sauces or saucy chicken braises. At home, the world is your oyster. We like to use polenta as a fridge-cleanout moment. That means quickly sautéing hardy greens in olive oil and garlic, crumbling up the last piece of leftover bacon and calling it a day. Because polenta is such a blank slate, it’s an ideal pairing for roast veggies, runny fried eggs, random leftover meats from last night’s dinner, you name it. Need a few ideas for inspiration? Why not try polenta with roasted mushrooms and bacon or polenta with meatballs to start?