Polenta Practicalities

If you cannot imagine how mere cornmeal can be turned into a tasty meal, then undoubtedly you have never eaten polenta prepared in an Italian kitchen. Once considered peasant food, polenta is now appearing in even the most elegant restaurants. Earlier in this century, polenta was a staple food eaten out of necessity, sometimes two or three times a day. Some families would dump a big mound of polenta onto a board, and everyone would sit around sharing it. It would be flavored with broth, a little sauce, vegetables or sausages. Polenta is still a staple in many homes in northern Italy today, particularly in the regions of Veneto, Piedmont, and Tuscany, although generally considered “home cooking” and not served for company.

Polenta has had a reputation for lengthy and extremely laborious cooking that originates in its Italian roots. Throughout history polenta was cooked over a wood fire in a central hearth or on a wood stove in a traditional curved bottom copper pot with a long handle called a paiolo. Copper was preferred as it conducts heat evenly, and the curved bottom of the pot exposed a greater portion of the cornmeal to the heat which insured there was no corners for the polenta to get stuck in and allowed for even cooking. The long handle of the pot kept the cook a comfortable distance from both the fire as well as the sputtering cornmeal. Constant stirring with a long-handled paddle, stick, or spoon was necessary to keep the polenta from burning. Today, there are very few of us that still cook over a wood fire, and our heavy bottomed cookware and modern stoves that have burners we can maintain at a constant low heat, allow us to let the polenta simmer away on its own with just occasional stirring to prevent lumps.

Polenta can be creamy, served soft with a scoop of sauce, or firm served as a side dish to grilled or roasted meats, or stirred into soups and stews to thicken and add flavor. Whatever way you choose to eat polenta, the basic principles of preparation remain the same. Although you now can buy instant polenta that can be prepared in under 5 minutes, or even precooked polenta ready to be sliced and fried or grilled, I find the effort it takes to prepare polenta the old fashioned way to be the best.

Basic Polenta Recipe
6 Cups Cold Water
1 Tablespoon Salt
1 Cup Cornmeal
3 Tablespoons Butter
2 Ounces Grated Parmesan Cheese

Bring the water to a boil in a medium saucepan. Add the salt and reduce the heat to medium low. As soon as the water begins to simmer, start pouring in the cornmeal in a thin stream, very slowly while stirring constantly with a wooden spoon to prevent lumps. Once all the cornmeal has been added, keep the water at a simmer, and stir frequently. It should take between 25-30 minutes to fully cook the polenta. Once cooked, the polenta should pull away from the sides of the pot easily. Just before it has completely cooked, stir in the butter and the cheese. Once your polenta is finished cooking, you can serve it the following ways:

Soft Polenta: Use polenta directly out of the pot, topped with sauce or vegetables as desired.

Firm Polenta: Once completely cooked, pour onto a wooden board or a greased baking sheet about 2 inches thick and allow to set. Cut into squares and serve as desired.

Baked Polenta: Cut the firm polenta into slices, and place in a buttered baking dish. Add desired topping, and bake at 375 degrees F. until golden.

Grilled Polenta: Cut firm polenta into squares, brush with oil and grill lightly on both sides.

Fried Polenta: Cut the firm polenta into slices and fry in a few inches of hot oil until golden brown and crispy.

Now that you have the basics of polenta mastered, why not try a few recipes? One of my family favorites is soft polenta served with a tasty tomato sauce as shown in the photo below. Sprinkle on some freshly grated parmesan, and you have a hearty meal. You might try cooking polenta with greens as in the popular recipe Polenta Verde Calabrese. Add grilled sausages for a very tasty, filling meal. You can even use polenta in place of pasta in a lasagne-like dish, layered with sauce and cheese in Polenta Pasticciata. If you prefer a simpler polenta preparation, what could be better than grilled polenta and vegetables?

Old Calabrian Proverb: “If you want your polenta to taste good, only add the flour when the water is singing!”

Deborah Mele 2011


  1. I love love love your blog! I was wondering what sauce is pictured with the polenta in the above photo? It looks amazingly delicious! Thank you

  2. I haven’t tried cooking polenta yet but am inspired to do so by your useful article. How much polenta would be required to thicken a soup or stew, in place of a teaspoon or so of cornflour, please, and how long would it take to thicken?

  3. Its right Debby, I remember when I was a child eating polenta every day with dry figs or anything else some time even with a peace of fresh bread.
    Some time we fried or grilled some sugar or tossed with honey after heated up.
    The flour here in the USA is not the same as in Italy, is more coarse.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.