Saturday, February 27, 2010

Making Perfect Polenta

I've been making polenta the same way for the last 8 years: boil 3 parts water, add 1 part polenta, add a pinch salt and a splash olive oil, reduce heat to low, cover and cook 5 minutes. And I was content. I was happy.

Then in January I read a post from Nick at Macheesmo called Polenta with Spicy Tomato Sauce. It was the first time he'd made the recipe, and I was shocked to read that he spent 2 hours cooking his polenta. I made a comment on his post sharing first my amazement, and then how I make polenta in a fraction of the time.

Then 2 weeks ago I got my March-April issue of Cook's Illustrated in the mail. One of the articles was called "Almost No-Stir Polenta". Almost? I don't stir my polenta. As you can imagine I turned to that article first. After a quick initial read-through I was surprised and, I admit, a little disappointed that the article said to cook the polenta for 30 minutes. It also used a 5:1 ratio. Wha? How could my beloved Cook's Illustrated be so wrong?

Of course, I eventually started to doubt my polenta convictions. Had I been making polenta wrong all these years? Or worse, had I been eating half-cooked polenta? I immediately consulted a package of polenta, sure that I'd be vindicated by the instructions on the back. I read and re-read the instructions several times because I couldn't believe what they said. The ratio was the same I'd been using, 3:1, but the instructions said to cook the polenta for 30 minutes. And uncovered. Amazing. Until that moment, I would have sworn on the life of my children that I was following the instructions exactly.

I had to find out who was right and who was wrong, and in a fit of complete food nerdiness, I spent the morning making 9 batches of polenta.

First I made polenta the way I always have (bowl on the left), and polenta following the directions on the back of the package (bowl on the right). I knew the uncovered pot would never last the 30 minutes indicated in the instructions, but I gave it a go anyway; the water was gone after about 8 minutes. The result was similar to my usual polenta, but a little drier.

For the next pot I made the polenta my usual way, but I added something the Cook's Illustrated recipe added: baking soda. The author of the article said the baking soda helped the water penetrate the hard outside of the corn, making a more creamy finished polenta. Weird, but Cook's Illustrated is all about the science behind cooking, so I figured there must be something to it. The pinch of baking soda did nothing for my finished polenta, but it did make the pot boil over (Grrrr...), and turn parts of the corn orange so the polenta was flecked.

OK, fine, next I followed the Cook's Illustrated recipe: 5 parts water to 1 part polenta, a pinch baking soda, a pinch salt, and cooked it for 40 minutes (ridiculous). My pot boiled over, again, I got the same orange flecks (so weird), and the finished polenta was, well, not good. The article promises creamy polenta, but it was more gooey and gluey than creamy. If I made this polenta and I didn't know any different, I would write it off forever as inedible.

So I proceeded to make several more batches--different ratios of water to polenta, with and without the baking soda--to see if I could improve on my original recipe.

What did I end up with after 9 batches of the yellow stuff? My original recipe plus a little extra water. I know, pretty anti-climatic, but it was perfect: thick, hearty, and the grains cooked through, but still toothsome. I did find I needed to increase the cooking time from 5 minutes to 12 minutes.


According to the Cook's Illustrated article, most polenta recipes are a ratio of 4:1 (though not my package), which, for 1 serving, would be 1/4 cup polenta to 1 cup water (remember, my recipe for the last 8 years was a 3:1 recipe, 1/4 cup polenta to 3/4 cup water). I found the 4:1 ratio was a little too goopy, but my 3:1 ratio could use a little more moisture, so I did a 3.5:1 and thought it was just right. I know, can an extra 2 tablespoons water make that much of a difference? I thought it did. I gave up on the baking soda, though. I couldn't see that it made any difference in the finished polenta and it made my pot boil over every time. That I can do without.

I did try to solve the boil-over problem by using a "flame tamer" from the Cook's Illustrated article. It's a long piece of foil, scrunched together to make a long rope and then twisted into a ring. The Flame Tamer is supposed to sit on top of your burner to make the heat as gentle as possible, presumably to keep the polenta from burning and boiling over. It was silly, and it didn't stop the boil-over.

I have a hunch there is a lot of personal preference when it comes to cooking polenta, so don't take my word for what makes polenta perfection. Make it a few times to find the way you like it best.

Perfect Polenta (pictured with Italian-style Stewed Zucchini)

1 serving (about 3/4 cup)
3/4 cup + 2 tablespoons water
pinch salt
splash olive oil
1/4 cup coarse polenta

2 servings
1 3/4 cups water
pinch salt
splash olive oil
1/2 cup coarse polenta

4 servings
3 1/2 cups water
1/4 tsp salt
splash olive oil
1 cup polenta

Bring the water, salt, and oil to a boil. Add the polenta, stir well, reduce the heat to low, cover, and cook for 12 minutes. Let it sit, covered for 2 minutes, stir well, and serve immediately.


  1. Bake off's test kitchen! I do not have that kind of patience. You rock! Thanks! Think I'll make it tonight. Although I'm probably the only one who will eat it. More for me!

  2. I wish I liked polenta. :sigh:

  3. I will have to try this. I use Marcella Hazan's polenta method which is definitely more time consuming (45 minutes). 12 minutes seems more doable then 5 minutes. I can't believe the corn would even be cooked that quick!

  4. @Sara, my husband and I are often the only ones who will eat what I make. I make it anyway :)

    @Lori, my heart is sad for you ;) Maybe someday :)

    @Katerina, if you try this method I'd love to hear how you think it compares to the 45 minute method you've been using. Like I said in the post, I think personal preference plays a big part :)

  5. I just want you to know that I thoroughly enjoyed this post! I love that you tried it so many ways and still ended up with your original recipe ;0) I have actually never had polenta, weird huh?

  6. I've never tried polenta before because it seems like a difficult thing to cook (going off the instructions on the back of a packet I found in the supermarket) so I found this post really interesting!

  7. I tried the Cooks recipe & it worked great. No boil over & very creamy. I've been using Cooks for years & its not always perfect, but you do have to be picky about following the recipes. Another but, sometimes the moon just isn't in the right phase.

  8. @John, LOL! That darn moon! Maybe it's my high altitude...who knows... ;)

  9. hey there lady! I actually found you searching google for alfalfa sprout ideas and I love the one I found through your blog- so hey thanks!

    I'm your newest follower!


  10. This is my first time for writing. I'm Jude. I googled Polenta because I couldn't remember the corn meal/water ratio. My "ex" (who I'm still friends with) makes the best polenta ever(his mom's recipe.) The pictures here look nothing like his. These all look lumpy. Polenta is supposed to be almost as creamy as pudding. It isn't runny. Forms a nice semi-solid pool on the plate, and when cooled is firm enough to cut into slices to fry. Yes it does take hours to make, but it's worth it. And use a real "flame-tamer" defuser under the pot on the burner. Tin foil doesn't get it. I got one at the 99-cent store. Works great. What I got from this article is the rememberance of his proportions, 3:1. I really appreciate that memory-jog. I'm gonna stick with my stirring though. Guess the best polenta still comes with time and alot of stirring. Thanks.

    1. Thanks for sounds like you like polenta made with corn meal, which would have a very smooth texture. I prefer polenta made with corn grits. What looks like lumps to you in the pictures is simply the texture of the cooked, coarsely ground corn. Happy to have helped with the ratio you couldn't remember.

    2. if you use corn grits with her method, you do get smooth polenta. The cornmeal would turn to paste with that much cooking.

      Your method just doesn't cook the grains as long. I use the cook's illustrated method, except I use stock, and stir for 5 minutes before placing the lid. I use more of a 4or 5:1 ratio of liquid to coarse ground corn. Smooth, not pasty, and not gritty at all.

  11. This is an excellent polenta cooking method. I think the 3.5 is the trick! Also, half way through, I stirred it with a whisk which got rid of any lumps. Thank you!

    1. Thanks for letting me know--it doesn't work for everyone, but I'm glad it worked for you. :)

  12. make polenta for a 1/2 sheet pan
    3 cups milk, 6 cups water, 3 cups polenta, salt, pinch of baking soda and finish it off with sage and mascarpone cheese. Cooking time 45 minutes, 30 minutes covered stir it every five minutes on vey low heat then last 15 minutes un-covered to thicken it up added the mascarpone cheese and Sage pour it into then sheet pan to chill. It came out pretty good will see tomorrow after it chill planning on sautéing the polenta and serving it with cheese melted on top and tomato dice

  13. One can compose a suitable corn meal mush in a fifteen minutes.
    Polenta can and should take 45 minutes to 2 hours depending on the corn milling, reduction count and additives.

  14. A suitable corn meal mush can be completed in fifteen minutes

    Polenta can and should take 45 minutes to 1 hour 15 depend on the maize grind, the overall quantity, reduction count and additives.


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