What Is Polenta?

Get everything you need to know, including what polenta is made from, what it tastes like and how to cook it.

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Updated on October 03, 2023
Close up of a wooden spoon serving polenta from a plate on a dining table.

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What is polenta and how do you cook it: tips from Food Network

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Sergio Amiti/Getty Images

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By Layla Khoury-Hanold and Emily Saladino for Food Network Kitchen

Layla Khoury-Hanold is a contributor at Food Network. Emily Saladino is a culinary editor at Food Network.

Like grits, polenta is the name of an ingredient and the dish made with it. You may have seen polenta served at restaurants, or spotted it at grocery stores near the cornmeal. So, what is polenta, exactly? Is it the same thing as grits? Here's everything you need to know.

What is Polenta?

Polenta is a type of coarnmeal made from ground flint corn that shares its name with a dish of cornmeal porridge that originated among farmers in Northern Italy.

In recipes, the term polenta is often used interchangeably with cornmeal, but the two aren't necessarily the same thing. Polenta is cornmeal made from ground flint corn. Typically, it’s coarsely ground yellow corn, but sometimes it’s finely ground yellow or white corn. Grocers will often stock polenta as well as quick-cooking and pre-cooked varieties like instant polenta (which you cook by rehydrating it with boiling water) or pre-made polenta sold in a tube.

Polenta and stew

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Polenta and stew

Photo by: svariophoto/Getty Images

svariophoto/Getty Images

What Does Polenta Taste Like?

Polenta has a mild corn flavor. Its neutral flavor profile means it readily soaks up other flavors while cooking, such as chicken or vegetable broth, milk, butter or cheese.

Polenta vs. Grits

Polenta is made from flint corn, while grits are made from dent corn. Flint corn contains less starch than dent corn, which is why cooked polenta is less creamy than cooked grits.

Is Polenta Gluten-Free?

Polenta’s primary ingredient – cornmeal – is gluten-free, but if you have gluten sensitivities or celiac disease, be sure to check package labels to ensure that it is processed and packaged in a dedicated gluten-free facility.

Cooked polenta dish, with parmesan, butter, salt and pepper . Polenta is made when cornmeal is boiled in water and chicken stock.

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Cooked polenta dish, with parmesan, butter, salt and pepper . Polenta is made when cornmeal is boiled in water and chicken stock.

Photo by: Bartosz Luczak/Getty Images

Bartosz Luczak/Getty Images

How to Make Polenta

Polenta is made by boiling coarsely-ground cornmeal in water following a four- or five-to-one water-to-cornmeal ratio. Look for packages that are labeled as polenta or coarse-ground cornmeal. The basic steps to preparing polenta on the stovetop are:

Step one: Boil the cooking liquid. Bring four or five parts salted water to a boil. For additional flavor, you can use broth instead of water, or replace some of the water with milk.

Step two: Add the polenta. Add one part cornmeal and reduce the water to a simmer.

Step three: Stir and simmer. Stir the polenta occasionally, until the water has been absorbed and the polenta reaches a smooth consistency, about 45 minutes.

Step four: Season. If you’d like, you can stir in butter or cheese at the end for additional richness and creaminess.

Polenta can also be baked in the oven for a more hands-off approach.

Cooked polenta can be cooled and then cut into wedges, squares or rounds and then baked, grilled or pan-fried. You can also buy pre-made polenta, which comes packaged in a tube, and slice rounds of polenta to bake, grill or pan-fry.

What to Serve With Polenta

Polenta is extremely versatile. It can be eaten for breakfast as porridge; serve it as you would oatmeal or other warm breakfast cereals with toppings like dried or fresh fruit, nuts, milk or nut milk and honey or maple syrup. Or, take things in a savory direction and make a polenta breakfast bowl with a runny-yolk egg and butter.

Polenta also makes for an easy side dish at lunch or dinner. Try seasoning it with cheese, like this weeknight-ready Turkey Meatballs with Cheesy Polenta, or herbs, as with this fragrant Rosemary Polenta, ideal for pairing with roasted porkchops or chicken. Because of its neutral flavor, polenta makes a great base for saucy dishes like crowd-pleasing Spicy Braised Short Ribs with Polenta or Slow-Cooker Beef and Polenta. You can serve polenta with dishes you’d typically serve with rice or pasta, such as stews, chili and ragout. Grilled polenta rounds go well with other grilled fare, such as Grilled Salmon and Polenta and Grilled Shrimp and Polenta.

Polenta Recipes

Polenta is extremely versatile: you can fry it or bake it, take it cheesy or herb-y, and serve it with just about everything from skillet sauces to roast chicken.

Polenta can also step in to less traditional applications, including Polenta Fries, or casseroles, like this 25-Minute Cheesy Sausage and Butternut Squash Casserole. You can experiment with using finely ground polenta as a crunchy coating for chicken tenders or bake coarse-ground polenta into cobblers and cakes for added texture.

If you don’t have time to stand-and-stir coarse ground cornmeal to make polenta, opt for a quick-cooking polenta or pre-made polenta.

Here are our favorite easy polenta recipes.

For this crowd-pleasing side or snack, simply slice a tube of prepared polenta into half-inch rounds, dredge them in flour and fry in small batches until golden brown. Sprinkle with sea salt and grated Parmesan, then sit back and wait for the rave reviews.

Food Network Kitchen’s Instant Pot Polenta

Food Network Kitchen’s Instant Pot Polenta

Photo by: Matt Armendariz

Matt Armendariz

To reduce cooking time and the need for standing-and-stirring, try this Instant Pot polenta recipe. Simply combine polenta, water and salt in an Instant Pot – once it comes up to pressure, it takes just 10 minutes to cook. When it’s done, whisk in Parmesan and butter, and presto, you’ve got a restaurant-worthy side in a snap.

Photo by: Armando Rafael

Armando Rafael

Quick-cooking polenta mixed with shredded cheese plus a quick-and-easy tomato ragout add up to a simple yet satisfying supper. Pro tip: if the polenta is too thick, whisk in 1/4 to 1/2 cup warm water to thin it out. Round out the meal with a mixed greens salad dressed in vinaigrette.

Photo by: Armando Rafael

Armando Rafael

Polenta and a mixed mushroom sauce team up to create a savory base for this light-yet-satisfying dish. The key to achieving the polenta’s puffy texture is slowly combining the hot polenta and egg yolks, before folding in egg whites and adding shredded cheddar. The dish bakes up golden and is just the type of deceptively simple dish that wows company.

Food Styling: Jamie Kimm
Prop Styling: Pamela Duncan Silver

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Food Styling: Jamie Kimm Prop Styling: Pamela Duncan Silver

Photo by: Andrew Purcell

Andrew Purcell

Meet your new favorite one-pot comfort food supper. Fried rounds of prepared polenta are layered atop of a skillet sauce made with sausage, mushrooms and plum tomatoes, then topped with mozzarella slices and Parmesan and broiled till golden and bubbly.

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