What the Heck is Polenta?


While in the grocery store the other day, I came across a tube of polenta. I immediately made a face as I remembered a horrible failed attempt at making polenta years ago.

It was a lumpy, gritty, mess.

So, this tube of ready-made polenta is for those who have trouble cooking polenta or who just don’t have time. It is probably a good idea, on the surface, but it is quite expensive for the amount you get.

I passed by the tube and then stopped. I wondered if I was going to let this little tube beat me that easily. Hmmm. Nope.

My mission was to figure out why polenta intimidated me so much, and learn what I did wrong.

What the Heck is Polenta?

According to Wikipedia:

Polenta (Italian pronunciation: [poˈlɛnta]) is a dish of boiled cornmeal that was historically made from other grains. It may be served as a hot porridge, or it may be allowed to cool and solidify into a loaf that can be baked, fried, or grilled. The dish is associated with Northern and Central Italy.


So, its just boiled cornmeal? Yes, it is. But, it needs to be given its due respect.

You can’t just boil cornmeal and expect it to be culinary perfection. This is where most people get tripped up.

Which Cornmeal is Which

Cornmeal Grinds
Cornmeal Grinds

This causes great confusion and is quite simple really. First and foremost – ALL GROUND CORN IS CORNMEAL. It is the size of the grind that is important.

Different countries, and companies, label each product differently. It is important to look for clues before you buy. Look more at the size of the grind instead of the name on the label.

Cornmeal is created by grinding whole, dried corn kernels while retaining some of the hull and germ. It is ground to either “fine”, “medium”, or “coarse”. You may see the following corn products on the store shelves:

  • Cornmeal = Usually designated as “fine”, “medium”, or “coarse”. If there is no designation, it is usually “medium”.
  • Polenta = Is just cornmeal that is considered a good grind size for making polenta (usually “medium” or “coarse”).
  • Corn Flour = Super finely ground corn.
  • Masa Harina =A super fine cornmeal made from kernels that have been cooked in lime water (usually used to make tortillas).
  • Corn Starch = Not milled from the whole kernel. It is extracted from the endosperm. (In Britain this is called corn flour). This is normally used as a thickener or anti-caking powder.

We have more info here.

When making polenta, you can choose a package that specifically says “Polenta” or just pick a generic medium or coarse ground cornmeal.

Going From Grain to Table

Whether you end up with grilled, baked, fried or porridge, all polenta starts as ground corn.

Every person has their preferred polenta:

  • Smooth and creamy
  • Smooth, but with more body and texture

The texture produced depends on the amount of time it is cooked and the size of the cornmeal grind.

If you prefer smooth and creamy polenta, buy cornmeal that has a very consistent grind. All of the grains will be quite uniform in size. “Stone-ground”, or coarse cornmeal, on the other hand, will have grains that vary in size. This will create a polenta with more noticeable texture because the larger pieces will not be cooked down as much as the smaller ones.

Many people assume that you have to make polenta with coarse cornmeal. This depends on how creamy you like polenta. If you like to use coarse cornmeal, allow for longer cooking time.

I prefer a smooth, creamy polenta so I buy “medium” cornmeal.

Now that you have your cornmeal, all of the end products mentioned (porridge, baked, grilled, and fried) start by cooking the cornmeal.

  • Cooked cornmeal = Polenta porridge
  • Cooked cornmeal, then placed in a greased or lined pan, and allowed to chill = a solid polenta ready for slicing and then fry, bake, or grill (Just like the tube I saw in the grocery store)

If you want to eat porridge, it is best to make it fresh and serve right away. It is very difficult to reheat porridge that has set. It will not reheat smooth and lump-free. It can be done with a little effort, but it is never as good as freshly made.

Traditional vs Instant

Traditional polenta, using medium or coarse ground cornmeal, does take time to make. But there are ways to shorten the time dramatically:

  • Stovetop method = 30 – 60 minutes (depends on the size of the grind) You can cut this time in half by pre-soaking the cornmeal for several hours before cooking. The cooking time can also be shortened by adding baking soda to the cooking water.
  • Microwave = 8 minutes
  • Pressure Cooker = 5 minutes (at pressure)

Many companies offer “Instant Polenta”. This is either very finely ground cornmeal or it has been pre-cooked and then dehydrated.

I have not personally tried this, but have heard mixed reviews. Some say it is great for those in a hurry, others say it is not nearly as good. Many households that eat polenta as a staple have switched to instant and only make it the traditional way on special occasions, or when time allows.

Word of caution: Be sure to double check the label to make sure that you are not buying “instant” or “quick cooking” if you are using it in a recipe that calls for regular cornmeal. The cooking times will be too long for “Instant”.

If you find a package of cornmeal with recipes on the back, have a look at the cooking times. If it says that you can make porridge in 5 minutes on the stove, it is probably either “fine” cornmeal or “instant”. If it says to cook for 30 + minutes, it is probably “medium” or “coarse” cornmeal.

Do Not Let Websites Freak You Out!

So many websites have very specific rules around making polenta on the stovetop:

  • Only stir in one direction
  • Use a wooden spoon
  • Add cornmeal slowly to boiling water
  • Stir constantly from start to finish

I am here to tell you that NONE of these apply to polenta. Don’t let these “rules” stop you from conquering polenta. If it were this difficult, it would not have been used as a grain staple for as long as corn has been available.

When I make polenta:

  • I use a whisk to start, then move to a wooden spoon or heat resistant stiff rubber spatula
  • I stir in any direction I like
  • I add cornmeal to cold water and bring it up to a boil
  • I stir constantly until I turn down the heat, then I give it a stir every few minutes

How to Eat Polenta

Polenta is a fantastic option that can be eaten as a porridge or solid. This is one of the unique things about polenta. It pairs well with virtually any flavour combinations, whether sweet or savoury.

A Porridge Staple

Polenta, as a porridge, is eaten warm and toppings or sauces and can be mixed in without the polenta absorbing the juices. It acts a lot like rice or oatmeal.

Here are just a few ideas for toppings:

  • Fried eggs with bacon
  • Fruit and nuts with honey or syrup
  • Grilled or roasted vegetables
  • Pulled pork with sauce
  • Chicken with gravy
  • Parmesan cheese

The list goes on and on. Use your imagination to come up with your favourite combinations. We have recipes making it on the stovetop and in the microwave.

Make it Solid

Once made, polenta can be placed into a pan or dish and then chilled. This chilled polenta becomes solid and is perfect for slicing. This is what the  grocery stores sell in “Polenta Tubes”. Yes, you can buy the tubes, but making it at home is so much less expensive.

Sliced polenta can be:

  • Grilled
  • Pan fried
  • Deep fried
  • Oven baked

The beauty is that you can cut them as thick or thin as you like. Cut them into fun shapes using cookie cutters, or just slice them into “french fry” shapes. After they are cooked, dip them into a yummy sauce or use them as a base for melted cheese or other toppings.

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