This creamy polenta has it all - great creamy texture, fantastic depth of flavour from the cheese, chicken stock and milk. It's a seriously easy, underrated side dish that will carry you through the year.
Polenta was never on the radar for me growing up, but I'm now making up for lost time. For me, it's like the greatest of side dishes (mashed potatoes), but with a slightly different flavour and texture. This creamy parmesan polenta is my basic go-to recipe, but I frequently mix up the flavours that go with it, especially if it's meant to stand on it's own as a side. This recipe is super quick, and takes less than ten minutes.
Polenta is an Italian dish made from cornmeal (coarsely ground corn). It's very versatile and can be prepared a number of different ways, including as a creamy porridge like dish, grilled, pan-fried, and many more.
You can buy polenta in most supermarkets, often in the hot cereal section of the store. Polenta can also be pre-made and sold in tubes in the pasta aisle.
It usually takes about 10-15 minutes to make polenta.
Keep it in an airtight container in the fridge for 3-4 days.
What is Polenta?
Polenta is cornmeal dish that first emerged in Northern Italy as a food that peasants would eat. It still hasn't caught on as a super popular dish in the States, but remains a staple in it's homeland. Often, the term polenta and cornmeal are used interchangeably. Polenta tends to solidify as it cools, and once it does that, you can use it for any number of different purposes. In it's raw form, it's often used on pizza dough to keep it from sticking to the pan (kind of like ball-bearings).
Polenta vs. Cornmeal
Cornmeal and polenta are very similar, it's the end product that usually differs. Usually, cornmeal is used in baking - think cornbread muffins, cornbread or biscuits. Meanwhile, polenta usually turns into a creamy, porridge-like side dish that serves as a vehicle for braised meats, sauces, and other hearty fare. You can grill it, fry it, or even make it into French fries.
Polenta vs. Grits
Polenta and grits are similar, but do have some differences. Both are made from corn, but different types. Polenta is made from yellow corn, and grits are made from white corn. This also gives them a slightly different texture: polenta more coarse, while grits tend to be smoother.
Texture and Cooking
One of the amazing things about polenta is the many different ways you can manipulate it's texture. Traditionally, it's served as a porridge-like texture. In this form, it goes great with braised short ribs, osso buco and other stews. However, as it cools, it starts to thicken and firm up. At this point, it can be baked into a bar or cut into rectangular fries (you've maybe heard of polenta fries before - delicious). The flavour of polenta itself is pretty unassuming, so it can carry other delicious ingredients really well, like bacon, thyme, cheese and mushrooms.
Cooking polenta is ridiculously easy. Heat up the milk and chicken stock, whisk in the polenta, wait five minutes until it thickens, stirring occasionally. Done. If you want to make it ahead of time, it will thicken as it cools. You can reheat it on the stove or in the microwave, just add a bit of water to thicken it up.
Liquid to Cornmeal Ratio
For a creamy, porridge like consistency, use four parts liquid (here we split it between chicken stock and milk), and one part cornmeal. If the end goal is to make something firmer, like fries, add slightly less liquid.
This recipe couldn't get any easier. There's five ingredients (plus salt and pepper), and all of them are easy to find.
- Polenta - try to avoid the instant or quick cooking kind. This stuff takes almost no time at all anyway, and the quality is way better. You're also not looking for the polenta in a tube that comes pre-made. Homemade all the way!
- Chicken Stock or Vegetable stock - polenta is usually made with water, but these stocks at so much more flavor.
- Whole milk - here's where the creamy texture comes in. If you want to do dairy-free, just swap the milk with more stock.
- Parmesan cheese - for a little bit of salt and depth of flavor, plus more creaminess.
- Butter - A little extra something something for the end.
How to Cook Polenta
Cooking polenta is quick and easy, but there are some specific steps to follow to make sure you get that perfect creamy consistency. Let's go through it step-by-step.
- Measure and combine your stock and milk in a large sauce pan. Heat over medium high heat until just starting to simmer. Stir occasionally and keep an eye on it to make sure it doesn't scald or overflow.
- Using a whisk, slowly pour in the polenta in a steady stream. Whisk constantly. Continue to whisk until the polenta starts to thicken. This should take between 3 and 5 minutes.
- Once it reaches a porridge-like consistency, take it off the heat. Add the parmesan and let it melt. Add salt and pepper to taste.
- Serve as desired (I like to put a tablespoon of butter on top to melt).
Storage & Reheating
Keep any leftovers in an airtight container in the fridge. To reheat, put in a saucepan back on the stove on medium heat. The polenta likely thickened up a lot as it cooled, so loosen it by adding some water or milk, and then whisking until you get back to that smooth consistency.
Pro tip: I had to add more salt at this stage.
There are honestly so many. Parmesan and mushrooms are a classic for sure. Jalapeño, bacon and cheddar are great. Swiss chard and shallot and eggs. Garlic and chili oil. Top it off with a meaty ragu. Spicy sausage. Roasted vegetables. Anything your imagination can dream up, it likely will work with this basic recipe.
Can you Make it Without Cheese?
Totally. If you want to make it vegan, you can also swap the chicken broth for vegetable broth, and forego the dairy completely.
Like the different types of flavour pairings with polenta, you can serve it with a wide variety of dishes as a side. Here are a few of my favorites:
Creamy Polenta with Parmesan & Butter
- 1 C polenta
- 2 C chicken stock no salt added
- 2 C whole milk
- 1 teaspoon salt
- ⅗ C parmesan cheese grated
- 1 tablespoon butter for serving
- freshly ground black pepper for serving
- Heat the chicken stock and milk together in a medium saucepan over high heat. Do not let it boil.
- Add the polenta, whisking continuously for the next three minutes. Once it's thickened to your desired consistency, turn off the heat.
- Add the salt and parmesan cheese. Stir until melted.
- Serve with butter, fresh parmesan, and pepper.