Nona’s Best-Ever Polenta
You want coarse, stone-ground yellow corn to make the most delicious polenta. Instant polenta is parboiled, and while it does cook in less time than it takes to boil water, the trade-off is that the final product is often a gummy, gloopy mess. So, always avoid it.
For the real deal, the extra time is worth it. When shopping for polenta, go for anything that says “polenta” on the bag. If you can’t find that, any yellow cornmeal labeled coarse or extra coarse will do fine. If you have the option, always go for the stone ground varieties, as the process of grinding this way yields a better texture in your finished polenta.
In Italian cooking, polenta is made with water. Some more Americanized recipes will prompt you to start with milk or stock, but (in my opinion) they are wrong. Hydrating your polenta with water will allow the flavor of the corn to shine, and it will allow each individual grain to absorb salt more readily.
When made with stock, the flavor of the polenta gets muddy, and you end up with a bowl that tastes like, well, stock, not the delicate flavor of the corn. Polenta made with milk is often way too heavy, and adding butter or cheese will make it unpleasantly rich and dairy forward. Plus, when made with milk, polenta usually has a texture akin to wallpaper paste. Making it with water is traditional, and using a smaller amount of milk, later on, will give a luscious texture without making a milk-flavored gloop.
The great thing about the recipe I’m sharing below is that you can scale it up or down to suit your needs. This works for one serving or 100 servings, with a bit of math. The basic polenta to liquid ratio is technically 1:5, though to start, I use four parts water to one part polenta and add in one part milk later on in the cooking process. So, I use 4 cups of water, 1 cup of polenta, and 1 cup of milk here to make about four servings (or dinner for two plus enough for leftovers with a poached egg for breakfast the next morning.)
Old wives’ tales about stirring polenta say it has to be clockwise or it has to be with a wooden spoon. But, like much of Italian superstition, it’s not very practical. A whisk, especially at the beginning of the process, is the best insurance policy against lumps. The most important thing to remember is that you really can’t stir polenta too much. The more you whisk it, the fewer lumps it will have and the smoother it will be.
At its core, polenta is corn. And like other starches, such as pasta or potatoes, corn needs a lot of salt to reach its full flavor potential. Don’t be afraid of the salt here; unless you have dietary concerns about sodium, go hard with the salt. Trust me, the difference between underseasoned polenta and adequately seasoned polenta is night and day. In addition to salt, several good cracks of black pepper go a long way here.
Growing up, this was usually the extent of the seasoning unless my grandmother served polenta with one special-occasion dish: braised lamb. My grandmother didn’t make it often, but when she did, a handful of roughly chopped rosemary was always mixed in. Rosemary is strong, so just a few sprigs are enough to make a fragrant and earthy batch.
In my opinion, the only things that should be added besides seasoning and milk are butter and Parmesan or Pecorino Romano cheese. Personally, I think Pecorino Romano is the better choice here. It has more of a sharp funk than Parmesan, plus a much creamier texture that melts more readily into warm polenta.
In general, other cheeses aren’t a good match for this recipe. Although, my grandfather’s sister married a man from further north, and he makes a version with chunks of pungent Taleggio mixed in at the end. As this semisoft Italian cheese is so strong, you usually wouldn’t pair this version of polenta with a super flavorful dish that would compete with it.
1 Cup Polenta
1 Qt. Water
¾ – 1 Cup Whole Milk
⅓ Cup Parmesan Or Pecorino Romano Cheese
3 Tbsp. Butter
Salt And Pepper To Taste
Bring 1 qt. of lightly salted water to a boil.
Once boiling, slowly pour in the polenta in a thin, steady stream while whisking vigorously. Reduce heat to low, whisking regularly, paying particular attention to the corners of the pan to prevent sticking.
Taste the polenta after about 10 minutes, it should be very thick, and the individual grains should be beginning to soften. Add 3/4 cups of milk a splash at a time whisking well in between additions and a few cracks of black pepper.
Let cook another 10 minutes or so and taste again, there should be no grittiness, and it should taste smooth and creamy. If it’s still a bit thick for your preference, add in the last quarter cup of milk. I like mine very pourable, so I tend to add the whole cup.
Whisk in cheese and cook until melted and homogenized. Once the cheese is incorporated, remove from heat and stir in butter. Taste one last time for seasoning and adjust as needed.