All About Polenta – And an Easy, No-Stir Polenta Recipe

How to Make Polenta

Polenta is a delicious, easy-to-make, gluten-free dish that can be stand on its own or serve as the start of some amazingly delicious meals.

Some people are intimidated by cooking polenta, but here is a fool-proof method that is so easy even a 4-year-old could do it.

But First … What is Polenta?

How to cook polenta


Polenta is a dish common in Northern Italy that’s made from a special kind of ground yellow corn. It’s usually eaten with a topping, such as a ragù or cheese.

It can be served freshly cooked and soft, or it can be poured into a dish, cooled, and then sliced and fried or baked.

Is Polenta Different than Grits?

Difference between polenta and grits

While it looks similar to grits (and sometimes has the word grits added to the label), polenta is made from flint corn, which is a completely different kind of corn than the corn used to make grits (dent corn).

Flint corn has a different flavor and mouthfeel than dent corn. And flint corn holds its texture better than dent corn and so the end result is less mushy.

Can I Use Cornmeal Instead of Polenta?

The name “polenta” actually refers to the final dish, not the yellow grain in the package that the dish is made from. When you buy a package labeled “polenta”, you are actually buying cornmeal made from flint corn with just the right grind for making polenta. (That is, if it is labeled correctly … ahem, get with it food companies.)

That said, medium- or coarsely-ground cornmeal can serve as a stand-in for polenta.

Don’t use finely ground cornmeal to make polenta. The cooked product will be pasty.

Polenta comes in medium-ground and coarsely-ground. If the package doesn’t say what the grind is, it’s probably medium.

The Secret to Creamy Polenta

How to Make Polenta


The secret to creamy polenta is to use at least 4 cups of liquid for every 1 cup of polenta.

Many polenta recipes call for 3 cups of liquid to 1 cup of polenta. This ratio allows the polenta to cook in about 30 minutes or less, but the end product will lack that rich, creamy texture that you’ll get if you use more liquid. In addition, cooking grains thoroughly makes them healthier and easier to digest.

Should I Use Water or Milk or Broth When Making Polenta?

If you plan to serve the polenta by itself or as a breakfast cereal, I suggest using milk as the liquid.

What kind of milk? I’ve tested this with several varieties of non-dairy milk (like almond milk) and, while they each have a different flavor (depending on the milk used), they’ve all been tasty. I’ve never tried this with dairy milk, but I think it would be fine.

If you are making a savory polenta dish with a topping like beans, meat, or cheese, then water or vegetable broth (or stock) will work well. Obviously, the vegetable broth (or stock) will add more flavor – which is sometimes desirable (if your toppings are simply flavored) and sometimes not (if you need a more neutral base because your toppings have a dominant flavor).

When in doubt, just use water.

What about Quick-Cooking Polenta?

Instant polenta or quick-cooking polenta is pre-cooked and dried so it can be prepared in just a few minutes. However, the flavor and consistency is lacking. And to add to the confusion, some polenta that is labeled quick-cooking isn’t really. Regardless of the variety you choose, I recommend long-cooking (see methods below) for the best flavor and consistency.

How to Cook Polenta

Most recipes tell you to bring the water to a boil, and then add polenta in a thin stream, whisking constantly.  In my opinion, this is just a lot of extra trouble. Below are the two methods I use that are a whole lot easier.

Cook Polenta in a Slow Cooker

Method #1: No-Stir, Slow Cooker Polenta

Cooking polenta does not need to be a long and laborious task. This is my favorite way to cook polenta. No stirring. No worrying. Put in ingredients. Come back in a few hours and it’s ready!

Easy, No-Stir, Crock Pot Polenta Recipe

Make polenta in your slow cooker – an easy, fool-proof method for cooking polenta.
Prep Time 2 mins
Cook Time 3 hrs 30 mins
Total Time 3 hrs 32 mins
Course Breakfast, Main Course, Side Dish
YIELD 4 servings
All recipes on jenniferskitchen.com are property of jennifer’s kitchen and cannot be republished without written permission.

Ingredients

  • 1 cup uncooked polenta
  • 4 cups water or milk
  • 1 teaspoon salt, scant

Instructions

  • Stir together water and polenta in a small 1 1/2- to 2-quart crock pot (or in an Instant Pot using the slow-cook function).
  • Cover and cook on high for 3 1/2 hours or on low for 7 hours. I use an appliance timer to start the polenta at the right time if I'm not going to be home.
  • After the allotted time, remove lid and stir polenta vigorously. Polenta should be soft and creamy, not runny and not too thick. If serving time will be delayed, keep covered with crock pot on “warm” setting.

Notes

1. All slow cookers cook differently. If you find that your slow cooker cooks too hot, reduce cooking time.
2. If your polenta sticks to the side of your slow cooker, turn it off 30 minutes before serving time keeping the lid on. Immediately before serving, remove lid and stir vigorously to incorporate polenta that was stuck on the sides with the rest of the polenta. This will only work if the polenta on the sides has not browned. If this is the case see note #1.

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Method #2: Stove-Top Polenta

Cooking polenta on the stove-top takes a little more actual hands-on time than does crock pot polenta, but it’s still fairly easy.

As I mentioned above, most polenta recipes tell you to bring the water to a boil, then slowly pour polenta in a thin stream while whisking constantly.  But I simply dump my water and polenta into the pan together and turn the heat on high. When it comes to a boil, I reduce the heat and stir occasionally.

How to Make Polenta – Stovetop Recipe

Prep Time 5 mins
Cook Time 40 mins
Total Time 45 mins
Course Breakfast, Main Course, Side Dish
YIELD 4 serving
All recipes on jenniferskitchen.com are property of jennifer’s kitchen and cannot be republished without written permission.

Ingredients

  • 1 cup uncooked polenta
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 4 1/2 cups water or milk

Instructions

  • Place water (or milk), polenta, and salt in large (at least 3-quart) heavy-duty saucepan or small pot. Bring to boil over high heat stirring often.
  • Reduce heat to very low, cover and cook for 30 to 40 minutes, stirring 2 or 3 times to prevent polenta from sticking to the bottom of the pan. (When polenta becomes very thick and starts pulling away from the side of the pan it is about 2 to 3 minutes from done.) Polenta should be soft and creamy, not runny and not too thick.

>> One quick request: if you like this recipe, please leave a rating and a comment. Ratings help more people find these healthy recipes!

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How to Reheat Polenta

Usually, polenta is made fresh and served right away, but if you have leftover polenta it is helpful to know how to warm it up again without having issues with it sticking to the bottom of the pan.

To reheat polenta, place approximately 1/4 cup of water in the bottom of a large saucepan with a lid. Bring water to boil. Add polenta, cover, and reduce heat to simmer. Heat for 2 to 3 minutes or until water cooks away. Remove lid and stir vigorously. Cook until heated through.

How to Serve Polenta

Polenta can be eaten in a number of ways, such as a breakfast cereal with fruit or pure maple syrup and coconut cream or …

Mexican Black Beans Over Polenta

… as a savory dish topped with garden tomatoes and onions, or sauteed greens, or Mexican Black Beans.


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16 Comments

  1. Hi Jennifer. Thanks for the helpful tips for cooking polenta. Have you ever tried using an Instant Pot or other pressure cooker? I have an Instant Pot that I haven’t actually used yet (so have no experience with it) and am wondering if the polenta could be cooked in it.

    1. Hi Debbie,
      Yes, polenta can be cooked in an Instant Pot. 🙂

      Here’s how I do it:
      Place 4 cups of liquid and 1 cup of polenta (and some salt) in the insert and select “Porridge” setting. Increase minutes to 32 minutes.
      When polenta is done cooking, allow steam to vent naturally. (If you vent the steam manually, the polenta will get in the steam release and clog it.)
      Stir vigorously before serving.

      It doesn’t really save much time over pan cooking, but you don’t have to stir it while it’s cooking.

      Happy cooking : )
      Jennifer

  2. Being a diabetic and loving polenta has given me problems.. Instead of corn what can I use that will taste and feel like the real thing.

    1. Hi DeAnne,
      There aren’t many very good substitutes for polenta, although we’ve used millet on occasion. I would suggest going with a whole grain polenta, like this one. Since it is whole grain, it shouldn’t have a negative effect on your blood sugar, especially if you eat it with high-fiber foods like the tomatoes and onions in this recipe. Add a salad on the side using this high-fiber Creamy Italian Dressing and you should do well.

  3. Jennifer,
    This looks amazing and super easy! I was hoping to use it on Christmas Eve for dinner with Beef Bourginon. I made it tonight as a sample, but here is the rub…I have 23 people coming. Can you double or even triple this recipe in the slow cooker?
    Thanks again!!
    Kelly

    1. Hi Kelly,

      Yes, you can double the recipe, but, depending on how your slow cooker cooks, you may need to stir it once toward the end. With a double batch, the polenta sometimes want to separated some.

      Merry Christmas!

      Jennifer

  4. I do mine in the microwave.. Four cups stock, one cup medium corn meal. 4 min on hi
    Whisk
    3 minutes.. Whisk
    One minute, ready to serve.

  5. This sounds delicious. I will try it on my friend who has to eat gluten free. Many thanks. Also a very helpful full detailed description. I now understand polenta.

  6. Thanks for all the info! My dad always made polenta the way his dad(from Italy) did…over a hot stove in a cast iron polenta pot and heavy wooden spoon…it always spit at him and it burns…ouch! Then he would roll it out in a clean towel, slice it with a string and layer it with butter and cheese and bake. Served with spaghetti sauce. Great fried left overs for breakfast. He used a lot of butter and always Swiss cheese because it added a tangy flavor. In St Michele and other northern parts of Italy it was used in place of bread! Thanks for letting me share a bit of my family history…myself and my boys both cook it “grandpas” way but I’m going to try your slow cooker way!

  7. We are piedmontese and I grew up on this. Traditional serving is “family style” on a board covered in red sauce and parmesano cheese, or fond memories of rabbit and polenta in a brown sugo.
    Milk makes it too rich in my opinion, BUT you should finish it with some butter stirred in at the end. This IS a northern dish after all.
    I have tried all of the “no stir” methods and like a risotto, yeah you can cook it without stirring, but you’re missing something. Cook real otto file polenta in a copper pot stirred for 45 minutes and you will see a real difference.

  8. 5 stars
    Thank you, Jennifer!
    I made this according to your slow cooker directions this morning and had it for lunch with a leftover ragu. It was fantastic and so easy. I’ve tried other websites and recipes but there is so much confusion about this subject. The package I have now (Bob’s Red Mill) says it is Corn Grits, also known as Polenta. It says Corn Grits are simply coarsely ground bits of dried corn – no mention of the type of corn. I’d really like to try the brand you use if you would post it. Thanks again!

    1. Thank you so much for your feedback, Mara. I’m so happy you liked it!

      There is a link for the brand of polenta I used in the recipe in the post, but I’ve used Bob’s Red Mill and it works fine too.

      Thanks again!

      Jennifer

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