Sides

Creamy Polenta (Italian Cornmeal)

April 20, 2020 by Emily

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How to make silky soft Creamy Polenta from scratch. This super simple recipe is made with basic pantry ingredients and is the perfect side dish to roasted meats, vegetables and stews. 

An overhead shot of creamy polenta in a bowl

Polenta is one of the most comforting things you’ll ever eat, it’s creamy, smooth and so delicious.

Polenta or farina di mais is commonly known as yellow cornmeal outside of Italy. There are a few different varieties like cornmeal with added buckwheat but polenta gialla is what’s most commonly used.

It’s a pretty important part of Italian cuisine especially in the north of Italy although nowadays it’s commonly found all over Italy (and sparks a few debates on how it should be cooked).

In the north they usually add butter and cheese to the polenta just at the end of cooking (usually fontina, toma or taleggio) so it’s super creamy and insanely delicious!

There are different ways of serving polenta, here are the main versions;

  • Smooth, creamy and quite loose – how I love to serve it with stews and meat casseroles
  • Thick and creamy – you get this result from a coarsely-ground cornmeal
  • Super thick almost like the consistency of mashed potatoes – it’s often served on a wooden board and can be cut into slices although it’s still soft and not set.

Everyone has their own preference on consistency and I’ll often make it differently depending on what I’m serving it with.

If I’m making it to simply grill or fry later on a coarsely-ground cornmeal or quick-cook cornmeal works best.

If I’m serving it as a side dish with stews, ragu, meat or vegetables I love to serve it really smooth and creamy (this recipe).

And if I’m serving the polenta as the main dish with sausage or meat through it (see the variations below) then a medium-coarse ground polenta works best. You can achieve this result with this recipe but cook it for a little longer (around 45 minutes).

Regular polenta vs instant or quick cook polenta

There’s a huge difference between regular (traditional) polenta and quick-cook polenta.

Firstly there’s a big difference in cooking times, regular polenta can take anywhere from 30-60 minutes to cook depending on how coarse the polenta is but quick-cook polenta takes no more than 5 minutes!

Because quick-cook polenta cooks so fast it’s more grainy in texture.

Quick-cook polenta is perfect if you’re making the polenta to then grill, fry or bake it because it sets and firms up super quick.

It’s also great if you’re short on time but you won’t get as good results (flavour and texture) as you would with regular polenta.

Traditional polenta on the other hand is heavenly! 

It’s smooth, luxurious and super creamy (completely and utterly worth the extra effort every single time).

Check out the photos below for a comparison between regular polenta and the quick cook variety before and after cooking. Can you see the difference in texture and colour?

An overhead shot showing the difference between medium ground and coarse cornmeal

Two photos showing the difference between cooked regular polenta and quick cook polenta

How to make Creamy Polenta – step by step

Put the milk and water in a heavy-based saucepan or pot and bring to a boil (photo 1-3).

Once boiling gradually pour the polenta into the liquid whilst constantly stirring to avoid any lumps (photos 3 & 4)

Step by step photos showing how to prepare cornmeal

Keep stirring the polenta until it starts to thicken then turn the heat down to low, let it cook in the pot stirring every now and then so it doesn’t stick to the bottom of the pot (photo 5).

After 30 minutes add butter, cheese, salt and pepper and stir until everything has melted and mixed through (photo 6-8).

Step by step photos showing how to make creamy polenta

How to avoid lumps

It’s important to gradually pour the polenta into the hot liquid whilst stirring for a smooth and creamy consistency.

If you dump the polenta in all at once it’ll clump together and it’ll be difficult to get rid of any lumps.

What to do if your polenta is already lumpy

A few small lumps in your polenta is totally fine and you probably won’t even notice but if there are a lot of lumps and whisking isn’t working you can blitz the cooked polenta in a food processor right before serving.

It’s not exactly a traditional method but it works!

Variations and different flavour ideas

You can experiment with different flavours and cheeses depending on what you’re serving it with, here are some ideas;

To make cheesy polenta

  • Freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano
  • Freshly grated pecorino
  • Gorgonzola 
  • Toma cheese
  • Taleggio
  • Fontina cheese

Other variations

  • Cooked Italian sausage cut into slices and mixed through at the end
  • Slow cooked caramelised onions mixed though at the end (also delicious with sausage)
  • Italian salami cut into cubes
  • Cavolo nero or kale (pre-cooked and stirred through)
  • Finely chopped fresh basil, stirred through

How to store leftover polenta

There are so many ways to use leftover polenta but the thing to bear in mind is that the polenta will solidify and set so you won’t be able to serve leftovers in the same creamy way.

If you have leftovers it’s a good idea to pour it into a baking tray or casserole dish immediately because it will start to set fairly quickly.

Once it’s cooled cover it with plastic wrap and place in the fridge for up to 4 days.

How to grill or bake leftover polenta

Once the polenta has set you can cut it into slices and either grill, bake or even fry it.

Drizzle the slices in a little olive oil then cook until crispy on all sides.

We have a delicious recipe for Crispy Baked Polenta Fries, it’s one my favourite ways to use up leftovers!

A side shot of creamy polenta in a bowl

Top tips for making the best creamy polenta

  • If you can’t find bags of cornmeal labelled polenta then make sure to buy yellow cornmeal medium ground.
  • If you can only find coarse cornmeal and prefer a smooth and creamy polenta then blitz the cornmeal in a food processor before cooking with it. This will give it a finer texture.
  • I like to use a mixture of water and milk for the cooking liquid but you can use all water or even use a little cream for a little extra indulgence.
  • leftovers can be stored in the fridge for up to 3-4 days.
  • Cut leftovers into slices, drizzle in oil and grill or bake them. Check out our recipe for crispy baked polenta fries for using leftovers!
  • Polenta is perfect served with Peposo – Tuscan Red Wine Beef Stew.

More delicious Italian sides you might like

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5 from 1 vote

Creamy polenta

How to make silky soft Creamy Polenta from scratch. This super simple recipe is made with basic pantry ingredients and is the perfect side dish to roasted meats, vegetables and stews. 
Course Side Dish
Cuisine Italian
Prep Time 5 minutes
Cook Time 30 minutes
Total Time 35 minutes
Servings 4 - 6 servings
Calories 322kcal
Author Emily Kemp

Ingredients

  • 1 cup polenta or medium yellow cornmeal (175g)
  • 3 cups water (710ml)
  • 2 cups milk (470ml)
  • 2-4 tbsp butter (30-60g)
  • ½ cups freshly grated parmesan or cheese or choice (80g)
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Instructions

  • Heat the water and milk in a large saucepan or pot until boiling. Once boiling slowly pour the polenta into the hot liquid whilst whisking to avoid any lumps. Constantly stir the polenta until it starts to thicken then turn the heat down to low.
  • Cook the polenta on a low heat for at least 30 minutes or until it starts to come away from the edge of the pot, stirring occasionally with a wooden spoon (different brands and how fine or coarse the polenta is will make a difference in cooking times but generally 30 minutes is enough time for medium ground cornmeal).
  • Add the butter, parmesan (or cheese of choice), salt and pepper to taste and stir until melted and combined.
  • Serve immediately or pour into a baking dish to cool.

Notes

  • If you can't find bags of cornmeal labelled polenta then make sure to buy yellow cornmeal medium ground.
  • If you can only find coarse cornmeal and prefer a smooth and creamy polenta then blitz the cornmeal in a food processor before cooking with it. This will give it a finer texture.
  • I like to use a mixture of water and milk for the cooking liquid but you can use all water or even use a little cream for a little extra indulgence.
  • If you prefer a thicker consistency then omit 1 cup of liquid or cook it for longer (around 45 minutes).
  • leftovers can be stored in the fridge for up to 3-4 days.
  • Cut leftovers into slices, drizzle in oil and grill or bake them. Check out our recipe for crispy baked polenta fries for using leftovers!
  • Polenta is perfect served with Peposo - Tuscan Red Wine Beef Stew.

Nutrition

Calories: 322kcal | Carbohydrates: 38g | Protein: 12g | Fat: 13g | Saturated Fat: 8g | Cholesterol: 36mg | Sodium: 313mg | Potassium: 227mg | Fiber: 1g | Sugar: 7g | Vitamin A: 558IU | Calcium: 291mg | Iron: 1mg
Helpful Info for All Recipes
  • I always use extra virgin olive oil in all of my recipes unless stated otherwise
  • When I use canned or jarred tomatoes of any kind I always use this brand for the best results and flavour
  • All vegetables are medium sized unless stated otherwise
  • All recipes are tested and developed using a fan (convection) oven
  • Find out more about how nutrition is calculated here
  • Check out our must have Italian Pantry Staples here
  • You can also find all our Essential Kitchen Tools for Italian Cooking here
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4 Comments

  • Reply
    Lisa
    May 9, 2020 at 10:50 pm

    My husband and I absolutely loved it. Cannot wait to have crispy fries tomorrow.

    • Reply
      Inside the rustic kitchen
      May 10, 2020 at 10:13 am

      Hi Lisa, I’m so happy you enjoyed it! The baked fries are such a great way to use up leftovers 🙂

  • Reply
    Mary
    April 29, 2020 at 5:00 pm

    Delicious! Thank you for the tips.5 stars

  • Leave a Reply

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