The Best Polenta Recipe
Recently we enjoyed dinner at our friend’s Madeline and Lou who recently moved into a new home. Madeline is a great cook and has been cooking for a large family for years before they all went to college and moved out.
For this dinner party, Madeline prepared a side dish of creamy polenta to go with the filet mignon and Brussels sprouts. She adapted this recipe from one of my favorite resources, Cooks Illustrated.
And by adapting, the recipe calls for 1 1/2 cups of coarse ground cornmeal and she by mistake added the entire bag which was about double that. No worries, she worked around it by adjusting ingredients and the polenta came out fine. It may just be one of the best polenta dishes I’ve ever tasted.
What Is Polenta?
Polenta dates back to 16th century Rome, Italy where it was according to Cooks Illustrated, “poured directly onto the table to soak up flavors from previous meals.” Wow, that’s different.
Polenta is basically cornmeal that is cooked in water for a good amount of time and flavored with butter and cheese and used as a side dish or as a base for stews and braises. As you know, cornmeal (think corn flour) is ground dried maize (corn) and can be ground to fine, medium or coarse.
To make polenta properly, you have to constantly stir the cornmeal so it doesn’t stick together and form lumps that impossible to break apart.
Or Do You?
The folks at Cooks Illustrated tested different types of cornmeal, different cooking techniques and one common ingredient that speeds up the cooking process with less stirring. This is what I love about CI!
The cornmeal they recommend for making creamy polenta at home is “coarse-ground degerminated cornmeal such as yellow grits.” Good luck finding this cornmeal at your local supermarket. Madeline looked everywhere and found coarse-ground cornmeal at a specialty market but it was not “degerminated”. I’ll see what I can find online and report back.
Stay Away From “Instant” Polenta
There are lots of cornmeal choices at most supermarkets with all sorts of interesting names but if you can, stay away from instant polenta unless you are in a real hurry and don’t care how it’s going to taste. I have tried many of them and they just don’t have much flavor and have a funky consistency. Think homemade grits made from scratch versus instant grits. Big difference.
The Secret Ingredient for Fast, Creamy Polenta
I guess it’s not a secret now but CI found that adding baking soda to the water breaks down the corn cell walls “weakening the corn’s structure and allowing water to enter and gelatinize the starch in less than half the time.” Sounds good to me.
Creamy Polenta Recipe
- 7½ cups water
- 1½ teaspoons salt
- 1 pinch baking soda
- 1½ cups cornmeal coarse-ground
- 2 tablespoons butter unsalted
- 2 cups Parmesan cheese grated, plus extra for serving
- freshly ground black pepper
- In a large heavy-bottomed pan, Madeline used a Le Creuset cast iron pot, heat the water over medium-high heat and bring to a boil. Stir in the salt and baking soda.
- Add the cornmeal to the pot in a steady stream and stir constantly until all the cornmeal is added. Bring the water back to a boil, still stirring constantly for one minute.
Keep the Heat Low
- Lower the heat to as low as you can go without the flame going out on a gas stove or the lowest possible setting on electric. You don’t want the polenta to “bubble or sputter” so if you lowest setting doesn’t do it, use a flame tamer or heat diffuser to lower the heat.
- Cover the pot and cook for 5 minutes. Remove the cover and remove any lumps with a whisk to remove any that may have formed. Be sure to scrape down the sides and bottom of the pan.
- Cover the pot and cook for another 20 to 25 minutes until the polenta is perfectly cooked. It should be tender but not mushy.
- Add the butter and cheese, stir, add the the black pepper to taste, stir again, cover and let it sit for 5 minutes.
- Serve with the extra Parmesan cheese.