What Is Polenta?
All your questions answered—what it’s made from, what it tastes like and how to cook it.
By Layla Khoury-Hanold for Food Network Kitchen
Layla Khoury-Hanold is a contributor at Food Network.
You may have seen polenta served at restaurants alongside short ribs or ragout, leading you to wonder, ‘is polenta a dish or is it an ingredient?’. Or maybe you’ve been at the grocery store and seen bags labelled polenta displayed next to the grits or cornmeal. What’s the difference? We’re here to answer all your polenta-related questions.
What is Polenta?
Polenta is a dish of cornmeal porridge that originated among farmers in Northern Italy. Today, it’s a staple on many Italian American tables and Italian and modern American restaurant menus alike.
Polenta is also billed as an ingredient, and in recipes, the term is often used interchangeably with cornmeal. 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. In addition to products labeled “polenta,” you can find quick-cooking polenta and pre-cooked varieties like instant polenta (which you cook by rehydrating it with boiling water) or pre-made polenta sold in a tube.
What Does Polenta Taste Like?
Since it’s made from corn, polenta tastes like corn but typically has a mild flavor. Its neutral flavor profile means it readily soaks up other flavors while cooking, such as 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 – and why polenta doesn’t need to be stirred as frequently as grits during cooking.
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.
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 stove-top steps are:
- 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.
- Add one part cornmeal and reduce the water to a simmer.
- Stir the polenta occasionally, until the water has been absorbed and the polenta reaches a smooth consistency, about 45 minutes.
- 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 is Polenta Served With?
Polenta can be eaten for breakfast. Serve it as porridge like you would oatmeal or other warm breakfast cereals with toppings such as dried or fresh fruit, nuts, milk or nut milk and honey or maple syrup. Or take things savory and make a polenta breakfast bowl with a runny-yolk egg and butter.
It makes for an easy side dish, especially when seasoned 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. Try serving 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 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.
Coarse-ground cornmeal is whisked into water and briefly cooked, then baked in the oven for a hands-off approach. We love the addition of fresh corn (you can swap frozen kernels in a pinch) plus cheese and butter to ensure an extra creamy interior. Broiling the baked polenta at the end is optional, but strongly recommended for a hit of textural contrast.
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.
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.
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.
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.