Culinate

How to make perfect polenta

A stirring satisfaction

By
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.