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polenta tips

I've been pouring over various chow threads about polenta, as I'll be making it for a special dinner for dear friends this weekend. I'd like to make soft, creamy, and cheesy polenta. What I've gathered so far:
-finest ground cornmeal
-substitute half water for milk/cream/broth
- stir! stir! stir!
- the more fat, the better.

All these sound good, but I'd like a little clarification re the cornmeal. What I have in the kitchen now is just a normal old box of finely ground cornmeal, is that appropriate for polenta? And does anyone have a fail-safe recipe for creamy polenta they'd like to share with me? Thanks!

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  1. boy are you going to have fun. it takes me, on average, at least an hour to make a decent polenta. at its simplest, polenta is a blank canvas for flavors and complexities you feel like dialing in.
    yeah, keep stirring.

    1. The long cooking is really important. It allows the ground grain to "bloom" and that is what make that soft pillowy texture. I agree that a good hour is needed and a bit more won't hurt. The stirring is just to make sure that it does not scorch.
      Cornmeal might work if it is the mass produced kind, but the stone ground cornmeal I usally have for cornbread is to unevenly ground. Also polenta comes in a number of types and grades fine, medium and large as well as white.
      The finer it is the faster it cooks.
      Traditionally it is finished by stirring in grated Parmesano Reggiano and butter.
      Depending on what you are serving it with you could change the cheese, add herbs or pesto, or Creme Fraiche.
      Have fun!
      I use 6 liquid to 1 polenta. I would not use cream, there is plenty of opportunity to enrich at the end of cooking.

      1. i like to cook it in broth, sometimes broth that has been simmered first with garlic and onion, then strained. stir, stir, stir, then finish with butter and parmesan. i also often add in mashed roasted garlic cloves and herbs like parsley and/or rosemary, depending upon what i'm serving it with/under.

          1. re: goodhealthgourmet

            bingo. my fool-proof, go-to. perfect every time. i will never go back to being burned by molten corn lava on the stove.

            1. re: goodhealthgourmet

              Or throw convention out the window completely and make it in the microwave. http://www.cooksrecipes.com/sidedish/...

              1. re: alanbarnes

                that only works if you're conventional and own a microwave. :)

                1. re: alanbarnes

                  Microwave Polenta from Cooks Illustrated
                  Jan 1998

                  Makes 3-1/2 cups

                  **** Paraphrased recipe ****

                  1 cup medium-grind cornmeal
                  3-1/2 cups water
                  1 teaspoon table salt

                  Instructions

                  Use a 2-quart Pyrex measuring cup.
                  Mix the cornmeal, water and salt well
                  in measuring cup. Cover with plastic wrap.
                  Microwave cornmeal, water and salt,
                  covered with plastic wrap, at
                  100% power for 6 minutes.

                  Uncover and stir well. Continue
                  microwaving at 100% power for
                  5 - 6 minutes longer, until
                  polenta is creamy and cooked.

                    1. re: alanbarnes

                      I usually add some butter, grated cheese, garlic and onion powder. I also substitute chicken broth for the water. When done, I pour beanless chili over it. It's similar to pouring chili into a bag of Fritos. But I'm from California, so there is no accounting for taste. ;-)

                    2. re: Antilope

                      I use 6 cups water for the oven baked. Is that because there's less evaporation in the MW?

                      1. re: c oliver

                        The usual ratio for polenta is 4 to 1. I believe the 3-1/2 to 1 in this recipe is because there is less evaporation in the microwave. I usually use 4 to 1 even in the microwave.

                        1. re: Antilope

                          But the thew recipe for oven baked is 3 to 6 cups and I use the 6 cups for the perfect creamy version.

                          1. re: c oliver

                            Is the oven version covered or open? If open, there is quite a bit of evaporation in an oven.

                            1. re: paulj

                              Uncovered. I hadn't compared the stovetop method to the regular over and those amounts ARE similar. Thanks.

                  1. re: goodhealthgourmet

                    Ah, thew's oven baked polenta! I've made it numerous times and it's been just perfect. A few months ago I turned my 30 y.o. daughter onto it for a dinner party she was hosting. Blew her and her guests away. I'll never go back to stirring.

                  2. Oh, dear, no. Polents is not just "finely ground cornmeal." It's made from flint corn, not dent corn which is used to make great grits.That starch content is important.
                    Too often lately, vendors have offered "polenta, grits, cornmeal, whatever," as though they are all the same. NOT.
                    I've gotten away with using plain old grits as a subsitute, but it ain't the same thing - at least not for those who know the difference.
                    Once you buy the right product, you can cook it on the stovetop, in the oven, a crockpot, or however you choose. The crockpot method makes an amazingly soft smooth polenta.
                    But first, you gotta buy the right stuff. Capice?

                    8 Replies
                    1. re: MakingSense

                      so what is the right product? can you recommend a specific brand, please?

                      1. re: sourgirl

                        I am partial to Pheasant brand but I do not know if it is available retail.
                        MakingSense is correct, I only said it may work to use cornmeal. It is not preferred.
                        Oven method works great we used for years at the restaurant. I would imagine that a crock pot would be even better.

                        1. re: chefj

                          I use Pheasant brand and it's available retail, at least in NoCal.

                        2. re: sourgirl

                          I use Anson Mills polenta. http://www.ansonmills.com/polenta.htm
                          It's crazy expensive but when it's the centerpiece of a meal, I can turn backflips justifying the indulgence. Once I bought their organic polenta grown from heritage seed, I was spoiled. They mill it to order and ship FedEx, recommending that you store it in the freezer. Almost as much trouble as a new puppy.
                          Check stores for "polenta" and get it when you see it. Do store it in the freezer because it will deteriorate.
                          Good polenta should have a "corny" scent and flavor. Much commercial cornmeal has little to no real flavor. The germ has been removed and it's often old.
                          I think that's one of the reasons so many people are meh about grits. All they've ever had are supermarket varieties. When I cook real grits, they perfume my house.

                          Chefj is right about oven and crockpot cooking methods. Yes, there is something lovely and zen about slowly stirring the pot over a long period, but not many of us have that time any more. This is also true of traditional methods of making risotto.
                          If we have the advantages of new technologies that can produce a product of comparable quality, why not use them? Are you going to ignore iPhones and HDTV?

                          1. re: MakingSense

                            A number of good points here. Esp. the "technologies" comment. If my soon-to-be-sublime risotto is cooking away in the oven, then I'm free to turn my attention to other things, including sitting down and having a cocktail with my guests.

                        3. re: MakingSense

                          Isn't the most common corn meal in the States more like to be flint than dent? Anson Mills makes a big deal about how rare true Southern dent is these days.

                          1. re: paulj

                            Depends. In the South, it's dent corn which has a nice starchy inside that gives grits that smooth mouth feel. Polenta is made from flint. You can tell the difference between grits and polenta just putting it in your mouth. In the north, flint is more common according to Anson Mills.

                            Old heritage varieties of corn are the ones that AM always laments. They make better grits and other corn products than the newer hybrids.

                            1. re: MakingSense

                              After looking at the Wiki pages for flint corn, maiz, and polenta, I have a feeling the Anson Mills is over simplifying the dent v flint business. They may be right that the ideal grits corn is specific strains of dent, but it is less obvious whether the corn used commonly in the (US) north, and in Italy is flint.

                              I am also confused as to what constitutes the ideal Italian corn polenta. For example must it have an adent quality (slight resistance in the center), to borrow a term from pasta and risotto? Wouldn't that disappear after long cooking? The term polenta was being used before they got corn, and referred any number of porridges, often made with wheat or chestnut flour. Some places still like to use a mix of corn and buckwheat. Those are all going to have different textures. The polenta article also mentions that quick and instant forms of polenta are popular in Italy. Neither Americans or Italians are interested in stirring a pot of polenta for 3 hours each day.

                              It's worth keeping in mind that for many decades corn polenta was a poor man's food, so much so that it gave rise to a niacin deficiency. It's only in the more prosperous post war years that it has acquired a 'gourmet' status, and along with it opinions about what is the ideal form.

                        4. There are some dishes I make the traditional way, simply because I enjoy the process, Polenta is one of them. I stir, add liquid, stir some more, add more liquid, until it is perfect. I did it once in the oven and hated it. (Sorry, coliver.)

                          1 Reply
                          1. re: pikawicca

                            Well, you just come here and I'll fix it for you. You fix the rest :)

                            ETA: I did use the maximum amount of water and I think that was key.

                          2. This is just me, but when I make polenta or grits, I use a higher proportion of water than the average recipe calls for. I feel like it gives the grains the opportunity to really swell and soften. Creamy grits (or polenta) are good, but the texture achieved by using a coarser grain that is cooked with a lot of liquid over a longer period of time is both creamy and "bitey". So I just add a lot of water at the beginning, cook it with a lid on for a while, then take the lid off and stir it. letting any excess water evaporate. Then I add all of the other stuff.

                            1. I use coarsely-ground yellow cornmeal and cook my polenta in a crock-pot, one cup of cornmeal to four cups of water and a teaspoon of salt. I then make it the Argentine way, adding shredded cheese and a little hot pepper. I chill it, slice it, and saute it so the outside is crunchy.

                              1 Reply
                              1. re: Querencia

                                Querencia,

                                Could you comment on how long you cook in the crock pot and whether on high or low heat?

                                I've wanted to try polenta this way for a long time.

                                Thanks!

                              2. Thank you for all the advice and commentary. I ended up using King Arthur cornmeal, which advertises on the box that it's good for polenta. I followed Marcella Hazan's recipe, with a 7:1 water/meal ratio. It took about 45 minutes to stir, but it was very pleasant, as I had friends to relieve me and wine to stimulate me! I added cream, a ton of butter, parm, and pesto, and topped it with sauteed green beans and onions. It was delicious.

                                2 Replies
                                1. re: sourgirl

                                  Wow, I'll have to check out her recipe. I've never used cream or milk either for that matter.

                                  1. re: c oliver

                                    I followed Hazan's recipe only in using a 7:1 water/corn ratio. The additions were all instinctual and, I must say, very delicious.

                                2. Sounds like you already came up with a good method. Here's how I make my soft, creamy, cheesy polenta, in case you'd like a less labor-intensive option:

                                  Bring 1 1/2 c. of evaporated milk (full fat) with 1 1/2 c. 2% milk, 1 c. of water, and 1/2 tsp. of good-quality chicken or veggie bullion to a boil. Add 1 c. fine polenta and a decent amount of salt and white pepper (remembering that the Parmesan cheese you will later add is salty). Stir constantly until the mixture thickens to your preferred consistency, then add 1/4. c. finely grated Parm off heat and stir until smooth. Check for seasoning and serve immediately.

                                  I like this preparation because it reminds me of macaroni and cheese, so creamy, rich, and delicious.

                                  1. Why is it that I cannot stand polenta but adore grits?

                                    The same level of corn-starch and the same amount of long-cooking make the best of each corn-based dish.

                                    What is it about polenta (and, for that matter, risotto) that I can't stand? Perhaps the fact that more often than not at where I work they serve breakfast and Congee (rice porrige) is involved. I think, maybe, I've had enough of that kinda texture...

                                    3 Replies
                                    1. re: shaogo

                                      First, a caveat: I'm one of those who believe that polenta, grits, and cornmeal mush are all the same thing anyway. That said, what if you let the polenta cool, slice it up, and pan-fry it? Totally different texture...

                                      1. re: alanbarnes

                                        I'm not sure I've ever had cornmeal mush. But I grew up in Atlanta and taste a HUGE difference between polenta and grits. Is there a word bigger than "huge"? And I love both dishes.

                                        1. re: c oliver

                                          Lots of different ways to prepare them. Lots of different ingredients that you can add. But if you take a bag of (non-hominy) grits and cook 'em like polenta, they taste like polenta. Or you can grab a bag of Italian polenta and cook it like grits - it'll taste like grits. There are probably some differences, but they're very, very subtle.

                                    2. I tried making red, white, and blue polenta for the 4th - and learned that blue cornmeal doesn't make the world's best polenta. The stuff I found (which was more purple than blue, at least as compared to blue corn chips) was waaay too coarse and wound up with a texture more like bulgur wheat than creamy polenta.

                                      I usually make mine with 100% broth; I find getting flavor into it is vital. An interesting use for polenta: it makes a great healthy piecrust for quiches - or for nontraditional B'Stilla, which is how I used it.

                                      1 Reply
                                      1. re: mhays

                                        I've made a desert polenta, with cooked berries stirred into sweetened polenta. Depending on the fruit and stirring this can result in a nice marbelled look. I can imagine using a couple of types of fruit to make a tricolored desert.

                                        The recipe is in a classic microwave book (B Kafka), but would work with conventionally cooked polenta. Sweetened polenta used to be a common supper or breakfast dish among poor Italians who couldn't afford much more.