How to make perfect polenta

A stirring satisfaction

October 15, 2010

It sounds obvious, but I became a cook because I enjoy the hands-on work of food.

What’s great about cooking is that you feel it. To transform raw ingredients into dinner is to engage all five of your senses. Cooking is the material world up close and personal.

That must be why I want to change the mind of the person who goes online to download recipes for no-stir polenta.

You see, there is no such thing as no-stir polenta. I know the Internet tells you otherwise. I have seen those recipes for no-stir polenta: you put hot water and cornmeal in a baking dish, pop it in the oven, and forget about it.

But that is not polenta; that is just cornmeal baked in a dish with hot water. Soul food it is not.

Food that makes you feel good is food that someone has paid attention to.

When I say “polenta,” I mean coarsely ground cornmeal that is stirred and cooked slowly on the stovetop with water (or, for luxury versions, with broth or milk) until it yields and unifies into a thick, creamy mass resembling a porridge — or even a soft cheese.

Polenta needs to be stirred. Stirring breaks down the bits of corn and develops starches. Once finished, polenta should be lightly textured, smooth, and rich at the same time.

Stirring polenta makes it creamy and soft.

But here’s the deal. While it is necessary to stir polenta, it is not necessary to stir it constantly. This is a myth, perhaps coming from the use of easy-burn thin-bottomed pots, which has discouraged potential polenta makers for too long.

Instead, here are two good methods for making polenta. Both are easy.

The first — Italian cooking authority Marcella Hazan’s method — results in soul-satisfying, creamy polenta. It requires that you stir the polenta for one full minute every 10 minutes for an hour.

If you cannot give your polenta that much attention, and you don’t want to risk a scorched pot, try the second method instead: the double-boiler tactic. The resulting polenta is very good, although it’s not as developed as Hazan’s. Double-boiler polenta takes an hour and a half, yet much of that time is hands-off.

The Marcella Hazan method

I have always followed the uncomplicated stir-for-one-minute-every-10-minutes approach that Hazan teaches.

Altogether, the method requires a fair amount of stirring, but you don’t want to skip that, because stirring releases the corn’s starches and hastens the cooking process. You will be finished in one short hour.

It sounds simple, and it is. But it is certainly possible to wander astray. With polenta, I often hear people complain about lumps, burns, and unbearable cleanups. So here are some tips for the classic Hazan method.

Use a heavy-bottomed pot to prevent scorching, and use a wooden spoon for stirring, because you need to scrape along the bottom of the pot.

herbed polenta
Kelly Myers’ Chicken with Herbed Polenta.

Use a ratio of four parts water to one part polenta. I have never seen a 3:1 ratio create polenta that is creamy enough. (This also helps with bitterness. Sometimes cornmeal is bitter if it’s not cooked long enough, and starting with more water cooks the polenta thoroughly.)

Add salt to the boiling water before you add the polenta. It is much easier to season a starch as it absorbs water rather than at the end of cooking.

Lumps happen at the point of adding the cornmeal to the water. Prevent them by whisking the polenta as you add it to the boiling water. Whisk constantly with one hand while with the other you pour a steady stream of the cornmeal.

Once the polenta is incorporated, turn the heat to low and whisk a few more times in the first 10 minutes. Then switch to a spoon for the rest of the stirring.

Keep the heat low to guard against burning-hot splatters of polenta, which can erupt from a pot over high heat. I also partly cover the polenta with a lid, just to be safe.

Polenta is done when it is sweet and soft. It should appear more like a single substance, and less like individual bits of corn.

For cleanup, fill the polenta pot overnight with cold water and the crust should peel off the bottom the next day. But with the double-boiler method, cleanup is a snap.

The double-boiler method

Basically, with this method polenta is whisked into boiling water in a large mixing bowl, which is then set over a pot of simmering water to create a homemade double boiler.

The bowl is covered tightly with foil. The foil must be peeled back to stir frequently in the first 20 minutes, and at 20- to 30-minute intervals until done. (Be careful doing this, as hot steam can burn.) The entire process takes about an hour and a half.

It’s a long cook time, but the advantage is that you can’t scorch it. You just have to remember to add water to the bottom of your double boiler if it runs low.

This is the perfect method to use when you are working on multiple dishes for a party. The polenta cooks so slowly in the double boiler that you don’t need to stir it as often.

Just don’t leave stirring out of the equation. It’s what transforms coarsely ground corn plus water into something that is more than the sum of its two parts, something delicious that reflects your efforts.

Eating polenta

The classic way to finish off freshly cooked polenta is to stir in butter and grated Parmigiano cheese to taste. Butter makes soft polenta even creamier, and Parmesan lends the depth of flavor that only comes from a complex aged cheese.

Of course, polenta is great with other cheeses, too. For a winter lunch, pour just-made polenta into a small baking dish, stud it with small chunks of Gorgonzola, sprinkle Parmigiano and black pepper over the top, and bake at 350 degrees until the Gorgonzola melts. With a salad on the side, this is heaven.

Try polenta as a versatile side for any number of cold-weather foods. Its gentle flavor makes it the ideal bed for braised meats, beans, and vegetables. Anything stewed tastes right with polenta. Serve saucy dishes (such as beef stew) with polenta instead of mashed potatoes. On the lighter side, try polenta with a mess of garlicky sautéed greens or sweet bell peppers stewed with onions until syrupy.

Chilled polenta sets up, lending itself to more uses. Pour leftover polenta into a small container and let it chill overnight, uncovered. (There’s no need to oil the container first, as the polenta will still pop right out the next day.) Then slice it about a half-inch thick and fry it in a nonstick pan filmed with oil until the polenta is speckled brown and its edges have crisped.

Kelly Myers is a chef and writer in Portland, Oregon. She is also the co-director of Market Chefs, an organization dedicated to inspiring and teaching consumers to cook local foods.

There are 30 comments on this item
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1. by Benjamin Barton on Oct 25, 2010 at 5:28 PM PDT

I have always found polenta a hard sell. Why? Cooked it once a week for a winter season in Chamonix trying to convince my boss of its merits. 17 attempts and he admitted once it was ok, it was almost more dairy than polenta. I like the double boiler method thanks

2. by Linear Girl on Oct 27, 2010 at 11:39 AM PDT

I love polenta and find it soothing to prepare. I grab a book (yes, I have no kids) and stand in the kitchen stirring it every few minutes. I love to taste it as I go, seeing how the flavor develops over time. I think it just has a bad reputation - it’s not more difficult to prepare than mashed potatoes, though. Also, it looks beautiful on the plate or bowl, has a nice flavor, is low in calories, made from whole grains (I think), and is complementary to many stews, meats and vegetables. It can be layered into lasagne style casseroles. Thanks for the primer on its preparation.

3. by kelly on Oct 28, 2010 at 6:48 AM PDT

Linear Girl, Whole grain polenta is starting to come on the market. If you live in Portland, look for it from Ayers Creek Farm at the Hillsdale Farmers Market. It should be available starting sometime in November. Check the ratio of water to polenta for the whole grain version, though. And its cook time is longer. But once you try it you may not want to go back!

4. by anonymous on Oct 29, 2010 at 3:45 PM PDT

It’s grits, people, it’s grits. Yum.

5. by JudithK on Nov 8, 2010 at 2:12 AM PST

Singin’ the prasises of polenta...brava! And singing the praises of stirring! Well done.
In central Italy, it’s frequently served with a red game sauce like wild boar. Delicious!

6. by anonymous on Jan 12, 2011 at 2:39 PM PST

I have become addicted to the Marcella Hazan method. To get a steady stream of cornmeal, I use a sifter.

7. by Elizabeth on Mar 10, 2011 at 7:59 PM PST

I read somewhere that when cooking polenta you should continue until you smell the, can’t remember... yeasts breaking down or something. Well, I tried that, and its true, you can smell something being released or breaking down quite a long way into the cooking process, and once that has happened, you have yourself a lush creamy rich polenta. Sorry for the lame description, but if you stay aweare of the aroma you will know when “it” happens.

8. by Ayls on Oct 23, 2011 at 3:00 AM PDT

This is exactly the post I’ve been looking for. I tried cooking polenta a while ago, using the packet instructions; they were nothing like the above. I ended up with a saucepan of grainy, uncooked lumps in mush - not very appetising. I will try the one-minute-stir method and hopefully get to sample the type of polenta that my Dad insists does exist!

9. by Hollow Barista on Jan 16, 2012 at 7:32 AM PST

Not Parmesan. Polenta is a dish from Brescia and Bergamo cities of northen Italy so the cheese should be local. Gran Padano would be the choice. I’m currently working in a restaurant in Northen Italy and I’v had a tour in Gran Padano factory. Not years but of that and half a year spent here, I a bit know of witch I speak of. Hopefully anyway.

10. by anonymous on Mar 9, 2012 at 6:17 AM PST

I will try this method of cooking polenta but I am surprised at the hype over polenta.When I was a kid this is what we ate for breakfast as a hot cereal in Louisiana,we called it cush-cush.It was the cheapest food out there and now it is so respected.I am

11. by anonymous on May 23, 2012 at 9:23 AM PDT

I had problems with lumps until I started with cold water, then added hot water. The cold water didn’t make it clump up as much. Any thoughts? I then incorporated boiling water slowly and it worked much better, at least for me.

12. by anonymous on Jun 11, 2012 at 10:46 PM PDT

GREAT advice on the 1 minute every 10. I’ve made polenta before, and never wanted to again for the exact reasons you talk about. Going to try this out tonight!

13. by frances roehm on Sep 19, 2012 at 8:34 PM PDT

When I make polenta, I use Bob’s Redmill Corn Grits. I use a double boiler. I set water to boil in the lowerhalf. Then add 1 cup of corn grits to three cups of cold water, 1tsp kosher salt and a drizzle of olive oil into the top half. Cover and set over lower pan.Lower the heat to medium when the polenta starts to thicken I stir when I think about it. It takes about an hour. Have never had clumps or complaints about this method. At the end I add in other ingredients like Romano cheese or butter and fried sage leaves. It is really good reheated for breakfast with a softboiled egg or two. Buon Apetit!

14. by Kenny Wayne on Oct 9, 2012 at 1:50 PM PDT

Last weekend I attended a “HOT DISH” dinner party out of town and one of the plates was of little bitty polenta balls with tossed mushrooms and casarecce pasta in a butter sauce. I have been eating polenta for over 50 years and never had it that way in the past time. I thought I had polenta and noodles in everyway you can imagine as in breakfast, lunch, dinner, supper and just sliced and toasted with butter and preserves for a snack. I cannot get the recipe from the lady as she was a guest and has since went back to her country. Please>>>>HELLLLLLP!

15. by kelly on Oct 11, 2012 at 8:36 AM PDT

Kenny, I wish I did have the recipe you describe. It sounds unique and emblematic of the creativity you find throughout Italian regional cuisines. Good luck!

16. by themastiffgirl on Oct 27, 2012 at 11:58 PM PDT

Omg, I can’t wait to fix this tomorrow. Yum. Funny I never think of polenta as grits and I am a virginia girl. I also don’t think you can go wrong with any cheese. Sometimes the oddest combinations just seem to work. Thank you.

17. by anonymous on Nov 4, 2012 at 4:19 AM PST

Polenta. Rolled out on a cloth surface, cut using baker’s string, plated and smothered with sougo (sauce made of veal, pork, tomato paste and stewed/diced tomatoes). YUM!

18. by anonymous on Jan 14, 2013 at 12:51 PM PST

So 1 cup cornmeal and 4 cups of water?

19. by Kim on Jan 14, 2013 at 3:53 PM PST

Yes, anonymous, that’s a good ratio. Here’s the recipe.

20. by anonymous on Jan 14, 2013 at 5:04 PM PST

Thanks Kim!

21. by tradewind on Jan 18, 2013 at 3:05 PM PST

Well to be sure Polenta is a tasty dish. Much like risotto one must put in the pot time, but it is well worth it and it also gives one an excuse to sip a little wine while doing so. However, please do not confuse polenta with grits or cush cush they are certainly different. Yes, they are both made from corn but there the resemblance ceases. Since grits are actually the coarser bit of ground corn their name comes from the grit of the corn or grits, the rest would be meal or flour. Grits are prepared by boiling them until they become a porridge and cooked long enough for them to become semi solid. No stirring is required other than to keep them from sticking, yet stirring is an very important, necessary step in making Polenta and results in an entirely different product in taste and texture. Grits are very tasty as well and are used in many dishes other than breakfast, but they are certainly not Polanta. Shrimp and grits are great.
Cush Cush is similar to Polenta but only to a point. Cush Cush is prepared from cornmeal that has been moistened only enough to form a ball. Then it is fried in a small amount of oil in order to dry the meal out again. In the process some of the water is absorbed and puffs the meal up a bit drying in the end of the process. The whole process does not take more than 10 or 15 minutes. The result is a cereal like product that is generally eaten with milk. Where one would likely mix about 6 ounces of water to a cup of cornmeal for Cush Cush, a minimum of 24 ounces should be used for the same amount of cornmeal in making Polenta. That being said Cush Cush holds its own in the yummy category. The old time recipe called for it to be combined in a bowl with a little sugar and clabber milk. You don’t see clabber milk anymore and butter milk is a poor substitute. Most folks just use regular milk instead

22. by tradewind on Jan 19, 2013 at 9:41 AM PST

Incredible Kelly! Using the Hazan method, as you subscribe to, the results were fantastic. I did modify it in some ways but the method was followed to the minute. To begin rather than all water I used 2 cups of chicken stock to 4 cups of water for 2 cups of corn meal. After I had whisked in the corn meal, I thought it was a bit dry so I worked in two more cups of water and then proceeded as Hazan describes. Now that is better. Towards the end I added my seasonings, salt, black pepper, 1 Tbs butter, Garlic powder, a bit of Onion powder, and after removing it from the heat a mixture of Parmesan and Romano. I let it set up in a large casserole dish so that I could cover it. That evening right after preparation I served it with two separate dishes over beds of soft Polenta. One was a Batali recipe for sweet shrimp and the other my own recipe for Shrimp etouffee. The next morning the Polenta had chilled in the frig and warmed slices in the Micro and covered them with soft scrambled eggs. Wow! That is the smoothest, most buttery tasting Polenta I have ever prepared. Thanks for the words of advice.

23. by tradewind on Jan 25, 2013 at 4:58 PM PST

Yep, it is me again. I thought I would share with you that I have found that cooking Polenta in the microwave works very well. Preheat 3 cups of water in a covered casserole dish for each cup of cornmeal until boiling, add the cornmeal, whisk, recover and pop back in for 5 Min intervals at 50% power and stir between each interval. It was done after 8 stirrings. And the biggy, the cornmeal does not stick to the casserole dish resulting in super easy cleanups. It might not be quite as buttery as the Hazan method but it surely surpasses the quick stuff.

24. by anonymous on Feb 3, 2013 at 7:03 PM PST

My dear friends. “Polenta” is a bit of a gimmick. Giving an Italian name and pedigree to an ancient dish native to American soil is a farce. It isn’t quite grits, which is made from hominy; it’s cornmeal mush. And, it makes no sense to add the cornmeal to hot water as it will lump. Add it to the salted cold water and stir constantly with a whisk as you bring it to a boil over medium to medium high. This achieves the starchy creamy-ness without taking an hour to make. Add the cheese and butter at the end and stir until incorporated. Since this IS NOT AN ITALIAN dish, add the cheese of your preference. Think of this as cream of wheat made with cornmeal. This is a bland starch needing any flavor profile you might like. Anything you might add to mashed potatoes will likely be very good in your cornmeal mush. As with any starch, it can go sweet or savory.

25. by Nikkikling on Feb 13, 2013 at 7:09 AM PST

My Jamaican mom cooked this (yellow cornmeal with plenty water and milk) and called it cornmeal porridge. We enjoyed it with brown sugar. Last night, following your suggestion on the liquid /meal ratio, I prepared a delicious baked lamb and polenta. Thanks for the tips!

26. by Mairin on Apr 10, 2013 at 5:14 PM PDT

Polenta is called “Nachynka” in Ukraine as has been one of their traditional dishes since time immemorial.
I was introduced to this dish by my mother-in-law, Tillie, and I immediately fell in love with it. I have eaten it at many Ukrainian celebrations where it was cooked by other family members and “church ladies”, but there is no one who can make the soft creamy version like Tillie a.k.a. Baba.

27. by anonymous on Jun 7, 2013 at 5:16 PM PDT

“Nachynka” just means “Stuffing” Does not have to be made out of corn.

28. by anonymous on Oct 18, 2013 at 4:55 PM PDT

Anonymous, what is the origin of “sougo”? Is it native american, african? I had never heard of it before, but I’m going to try it. My Grandmother (who always said she was Black Dutch) and Mother always cooked cornmeal with pork broth and they called it “succotash”. Webster says that is a Native American corn and bean dish. Does anyone have any insight on this? I am so glad to find this information on Polenta. I have some but didn’t know how to cook it and am eager to try it. I only knew it was not cooked like cornmeal mush. Thank you, Margaret

29. by JudithK on Oct 19, 2013 at 2:45 AM PDT

Ciao anonymous! Are you sure you don’t mean ‘sugo’? That’s an Italian catch-all word for various types of red sauce. (What you call a dish depends on where you live in Italy.)
The most common way to serve polenta is with a good size dollop of meat sugo on top. In Umbria, in the fall, it’s traditional to serve it with a wild boar (cinghiale) sugo, other times of year an oca (goose) sauce is very tasty.

30. by anonymous on Apr 8, 2014 at 5:54 PM PDT

I used a combination of both recipes I put a cast iron pan below a small sause pot it came out pretty good but a bit gummy do I need to clock it longer to get a creamier texture or maby add more butter?

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Chef Kelly Myers shares her expertise in the professional kitchen with the home cook, focusing on ingredients, equipment, and techniques.

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