by Michele Anna Jordan
"No other food requires such a precise ritual, such particular utensils, perfect measuring of water, salt, and flour, such scrupulous and attentive care: if today we wish to make "good" polenta, we must follow that ancient ritual, use the same equipment, the same ingredients, use the same proportions and carry out the same ancient gestures." —from The Knights of Polenta handbook
The source of polenta's reputation for lengthy and laborious cooking lies in its Italian roots, its history of being cooked over a wood fire in a central hearth or on a wood stove. In such circumstances, the curved bottom and long handle of the traditional polenta pot, a pounded copper cauldron called a paiolo, is essential. Copper conducts heat evenly, the curved bottom exposes a greater portion of the cornmeal to the heat and insures there are no corners for the polenta to get stuck in, and the long handle keeps the cook a comfortable distance from both the fire and the sputtering cornmeal. Constant stirring with a long-handled paddle, stick, or spoon is necessary to keep the polenta from burning.
Today, few of us cook over a wood fire. with easily controlled burners and heavy-bottomed pots that encourage even cooking, polenta can simmer away on its own, with occasional stirring all that is necessary. An Italian friend who remembers his grandmother's polenta suspects the constant stirring was a ruse to keep grandchildren occupied while adults tended to other matters. Be that as it may, you can easily accomplish other tasks while your polenta gurgles, plops, and spits on the stove. The larger the quantity of polenta, the more attention it requires. A huge pot to serve a couple of dozen or a couple of hundred guests needs to be stirred frequently so that it will cook evenly, but a smaller amount can be left to simmer slowly and stirred occasionally while you prepare the rest of the meal.
Polenta can also be cooked with great success in an oven, an excellent technique when the oven is being used for other purposes, such as roasting chicken or vegetables. Then, consolidate cooking and conserve resources. This technique is best when polenta will be served immediately, rather than allowed to set up. Another technique preferred by many professional and casual cooks is to prepare polenta in a double boiler, a stovetop method that requires even less attention than polenta cooked over direct heat.
Although much has been made recently of cooking polenta in a microwave, it is not a technique I recommend. It requires several stirrings throughout the twenty minutes or so it must cook—it takes much more time to open the door, remove the bowl, stir it, return it to the microwave, and reset the controls than it does to give a stovetop pot a quick stir—and the resulting flavor and texture are inferior to those of polenta cooked by other methods.
What is the best liquid in which to cook polenta? Some recipes recommend milk or a mixture of milk and water or stock. Some use stock only. with a few exceptions-certain soups, breads, and sweet puddings-I prefer to use water. A substantial portion of milk contributes an insipid, cloying quality to polenta (not to mention unnecessary calories from fat), and stocks frequently overwhelm the bright taste of corn. Save such ingredients for sauces, and cook basic polenta simply, with water and a bit of butter and cheese, which highlight rather than eclipse the flavor of the corn. Keep in mind that the quality of the water is essential—you want it to taste as pure and good as possible. If your tap water has off flavors, I recommend using spring water to prepare polenta. Also, if you have had a problem with lumps, use the cold water method until you are more confident handling polenta. And keep in mind that the myth of cornmeal in a lump in the bottom of the pot, ruined because it was poured into the water too quickly, is just that—a myth. Certainly, you must guard against lumps but it is actually pretty difficult to ruin polenta.
Polenta is both flexible and forgiving. It is impossible to give an exact cooking time because the qualities of specific cornmeals vary considerably, though you easily can have polenta on the table in 30 minutes or less. The freshness of the polenta is, the type of corn from which it is made and the method by which it is ground, how fine or coarse the grain, its moisture content, where it has been stored, and in what container, all influence how long polenta will take to become tender. Further, the degree of heat is crucial. If the heat is high, liquid will evaporate more quickly than it will be absorbed, requiring the addition of water and lengthier cooking. If initially you add more water than necessary, additional time will be necessary to evaporate excess liquid.
I have rarely seen a bowl of polenta, no matter how thin and runny when it came off the stove, that failed to thicken eventually, though not necessarily enough to hold up to frying or grilling. Yet unlike pasta, you will not reach a point of no return when the polenta has been overcooked and is beyond rescue. Indeed, cooked polenta can be held over a pot of simmering water for quite a long time, where it will remain creamy until you need it. Preparing polenta, unlike, say, baking a cake or making an emulsified sauce, is an entirely intuitive process, with a considerable margin of error. It is essential to taste polenta—just as with pasta—as it nears doneness. The grains should be tender, there should be a distinct flavor of corn, and it should be the proper consistency, neither too thick nor too thin. Get to know polenta an learn to finesse it; it is really the only way to master its preparation.
These three elements—flavor, texture, and consistency—are crucial. Regardless of the cooking method you use, you should be familiar enough with perfectly prepared polenta that a quick taste will tell you what is required, more or less liquid, more time on the heat, a different corn meal. If the polenta does not taste like corn, the cornmeal is likely either old or of poor quality. There is nothing you can do to correct this except store your polenta correctly (in a sealed container in the refrigerator) and find a better source to begin with. Also, a strong stock may eclipse corn's delicate flavor. If the polenta tastes flat, it probably just needs a little salt, which will perk it up immediately. The individual grains should be tender yet retain a bit of texture. To serve soft and creamy polenta, the consistency should be that of a thick soup. The polenta should fall quickly from a spoon; Italians often refer to this creamy polenta as polentina. To serve soft polenta as a side dish with hearty sauces, poultry, and braised or grilled meats, you want it slightly thicker but not stiff; it should hold its shape in a spoon. When it reaches this point, it should be served at once or held over a bath of simmering water. All polenta should rest off the heat for five minutes before serving.
Nearly all polenta will thicken and be somewhat tender within fifteen or twenty minutes of cooking, though a longer time on the heat will produce a polenta with a creamier texture and more corn flavor. Cook your daily polenta as quickly as you need to, and when you're preparing it for a special occasion, give it the lengthy cooking that will develop its full flavors. Polenta that will be cut into shapes also needs lengthier cooking time.
We all choose our concessions, the compromises we make daily so that they will cause us the least discomfort and provide the most pleasure we can squeeze into the fury of modern life. Some of us buy grated cheese and canned ragu, others bottled pesto, instant soups, frozen potatoes. Because of its reputation, polenta invites such compromises. Many excellent cooks find that instant polenta is perfectly acceptable, though purists blanch and call it blasphemy. Some cook polenta in the oven, while others rely on tubes of precooked polenta. This is true not only in America, which is ridiculed for its reliance on fast foods, but in Italy as well, where instant and precooked polenta are every bit as common as they are here, if not more so.
I, too, have my compromises. I don't use instant polenta and I detest the precooked stuff, but I frequently pop my polenta into the oven rather than stir it on top of a stove. When I asked Grand Maestro Ricci, head of the Knights of Polenta in Bergamo, if this was an acceptable technique, his expression froze. "Absolutely not," he said adamantly, "not until after it has been cooked on the stove for an hour—and remember that an hour and a half is better. Then it can be sliced and baked, perhaps, but never cooked in the oven." Yet there you have it, my concession (with due apologies to my gracious Italian host); you must choose yours. Know the traditional techniques and all of the modern variations and select your favorite. The proof, as the saying goes, is in the pudding, in this case, the cornmeal pudding, the polenta.
by Michele Anna Jordan
Copyright © 1997 Michele Anna Jordan.
Reprinted by permission.
Created 1997. Modified August 2007
Copyright © 1994-2018,