Homemade polenta is one of the most emblematic dishes of the northern Italian cuisines from the Veneto to Lombardia to Piemonte. It is also one of the oldest foods eaten in Italy, dating back at least to 990 BCE. In its original form, polenta—known to the ancient Romans as pulmentum—was a porridge made from spelt. In later ages other grains such as barley and millet as well as pulses and even chestnuts were used to make various kinds of gruels eaten generally by the poor. It is said to have originally been an Etruscan dish, which the Romans adopted and spread throughout the Empire, although today polenta is not particularly important in the cooking of Tuscany or (with one exception) Lazio. In the 1600s, after maize, a New World grain, was introduced into Italy by the Venetians, polenta took on the form we know today.
Homemade polenta, as befits la cucina povera, is simple to make but requires patience and care. Polenta was traditionally made by the fire, cooked in a copper pot known as a paiolo, hung close to the fireplace and stirred with a wooden stick known as a tarai (or tarel in some areas). Polenta today is usually made on top of a stove, and some modern methods have been developed.
Traditional method for making homemade polenta
In a paiolo or other large pot, preferably made of copper, bring some lightly salted water to the simmer. I find that a ratio of 1 liter (1 quart) of water for 250g (1/2 lb.) of polenta flour works well. Have some more water on hand, simmering in a saucepan or kettle at the back of the stove:
When the water in paiolo has come to the simmer, add the polenta in a constant but gradual stream—in Italian they say ‘a pioggia‘ or like rain—stirring the pot all the while with a whisk or wooden spoon in one direction until all the polenta has been incorporated into the water:
NB: This technique should avoid the awful fate of badly made polenta: the formation of unpleasant lumps or grumi. (I find the use of a whisk, while unconventional, is particularly helpful.) But don’t be surprised if you wind up with a few lumps on your first few attempts to make polenta; it is part of the learning process.
The polenta will soon thicken. Turn down the heat to low immediately; be careful, as polenta has a tendency to spatter if it ‘boils’. If this happens, take the paiolo off heat for a moment and add some water. That will stop the sputtering, and you can return to the heat and continue to stir:
If you have been using a whisk, you will eventually need to switch to a wooden spoon as the polenta thickens. Continue stirring and, when the polenta gets too thick to stir without great effort, add some of the hot water you have kept in reserve and continue to stir. Although some recipes call for you to stir constantly throughout the cooking period to avoid scorching the bottom, I find that if the heat is low enough and you keep the polenta rather loose by adding water from time to time, you only need to stir every so often—say every 5 minutes or so. The polenta should simmer like this for at least 45 minutes, and it is even better after an hour. Some recipes even call for cooking the polenta for 90 minutes—something I’ve never had the patience to do.
The polenta is done when it is perfectly creamy and has attained the consistency you desire. The polenta should pull away from the pot when you run your spoon across the bottom of the pot, like so:
Depending on your tastes and the use you will be making of the polenta, it can be either all’onda, or rather soft like a risotto, or quite stiff. (More on this later.) If you want a stiff polenta, stop adding water for the last 15-20 minutes or so, and allow the polenta to thicken; you will need to stir more during this final period.
Other Methods for Making Homemade Polenta
Pressure cooker method: The traditional method, even without constant stirring, is quite a job. If you want to cut down both on time and effort, you can make polenta in a pressure cooker. To avoid scorching the bottom, use more water than you normally would (say 25% more) and as soon as the polenta begins to thicken a bit, close the lid and bring the pot up to pressure. Turn down the heat to the barest flame, just enough to maintain the pressure, and cook for 20 minutes. Release the pressure, either gradually by just letting it come down by itself off heat, or ‘forcing’ the pressure down by opening the valve and/or running the pot under cold water in the sink. Remove the lid. Bring the pot back to the stove and over gentle heat begin stirring your polenta. Depending on the consistency you want, add some more water to loosen the polenta or, if it is already rather looser than you want your final product to be, just keep stirring as the polenta thickens.
Slow cooker/rice cooker method: Although I only occasionally use my slow cooker or rice cooker, I find this method attractive. You mix your polenta flour with cold water (like the pressure cooker, use about 25% more than you would normally) and a pinch of salt in the cooker, close the lid and proceed to cook according to the instructions for your machine (usually 6 hours on low, 3 hours on high). Some recipes call for you to grease the inside of the cooker with a bit of butter or oil to prevent scorching. (For details, see my post on Slow Cooker Polenta.)
Oven method: This is one I’ve never tried, but it is said that you can make polenta by mixing cold water and polenta flour in a casserole and placing it in moderate oven (180°C, 350°F) to bake for about 45 minutes, stirring it at least once towards the end of the cooking period.
Electric polenta pot: My favorite method back in Italy was to use an electric paiolo or polenta pot. After the initial addition of polenta flour, as soon as the polenta began to thicken, you attached a paddle with an electric motor to the top of the pot and plugged it in. The paddle would rotate slowly, stirring the polenta, for as long as you wished to cook it. It is a wonderful invention but I had to give it away before leaving Italy, because of the difference in current. Despite having looked high and low, I have not managed to find anything comparable in the US.
Instant polenta: Even in Italy, partially pre-cooked ‘instant’ polenta, sometimes called polenta lampo or ‘lightning polenta’, which can be eaten after only 5-10 minutes of simmering, is quite popular. Of course, it goes without saying that both taste and texture suffer when compared to ‘real’ polenta. But the result is acceptable in some dishes where the polenta is paired with an especially hearty condimento, like the Roman classic, polenta con spuntature e salsicce.
Polenta is traditionally served heaped onto a large wooden board, in the middle of which a shallow well is formed to hold the sauce or other condimento to go with it. Served this way, polenta is paired with a broad variety of dishes from meat to vegetables to fish. Traditionally, polenta was cut with a heavy string, served with wooden spoons and eaten on wooden plates, as contact with metal was said to ruin its flavor. (This was the original reason for cooking polenta in copper pot, since unlike other metals copper was said not to have this deleterious effect.) These days, a serving platter will do, and the advent of stainless steel has rendered these precautions unnecessary, although like many, I still use copper and wood implements. It just feels right…
There are other ways to serve polenta. While still warm, thickly cooked polenta (either leftover or made for the purpose) can be spread in a shallow layer on a plate or cookie sheet or other flat surface and left to cool; the polenta hardens as it cools and is then cut into squares or other shapes. These can be fried or grilled and used as a kind of contorno, or as the bed of a crostino. The polenta squares can also be arranged in a casserole with béchamel, cheese and meat sauce like lasagne, or with vegetables, to make a ‘polenta pasticciata’.
There are various types of polenta flour you should use according to the region and dish you are making, as well as your personal taste. The most common type of polenta flour is called bramata, a medium-coarse, yellow cornmeal. It is used for rustic polenta dishes and is well suited for chilling and grilling or baking. It is the kind most often found both inside and (especially) outside Italy. You can use it as a kind of ‘all purpose’ polenta flour. For a finer texture, which results in a softer, more refined polenta, use the kind of polenta known as fioretto, which is very finely ground. In parts of northern Italy, particularly in the Veneto, a finely ground white cornmeal called polenta bianca is quite commonly used to accompany local dishes like baccalà alla vicentina. A rather unusual, but delicious polenta is made with a mixture of buckwheat and cornmeal, called polenta taragna, both very coarsely ground. It is very typical of the Valtellina—the Alpine area of Lombardia which is home to the buckwheat pasta known as pizzoccheri—and also eaten a further to the south, in the areas around Brescia and Bergamo. Rather than a sauce, copious amounts of cheese and butter are usually added just before serving this kind of polenta.
Although polenta is typically thought of (and is) a northern dish, polenta is eaten all over Italy. And although Rome is not really polenta country, in the winter the aforementioned hearty dish of polenta with sausages and spareribs is much appreciated there. Angelina also made polenta, rather soft, served with a simple sugo di pomodoro or with ragu. In my family the story goes that she learned to make polenta to please my grandfather, who had fought in the First World War against the Austrians and, while up north, developed a taste for the stuff. (Following an long tradition, as puls was the usual ration for Roman soldiers in ancient times.) The story may be apocryphal, however, as polenta is also popular in the area she came from around Benevento and Avellino, perhaps a holdover from the times when polenta was enjoyed all over the Roman world.
The traditional method for making polenta.
- 1 liter (1 quart) water
- 250g (1/2 lb.) cornmeal
- A good pinch of salt
- In a paiolo or other large pot, preferably made of copper, bring lightly salted water to the simmer. Have some more water on hand, simmering in a saucepan or kettle at the back of the stove.
- When the water has come to the simmer, add the cornmeal in a constant but gradual stream, stirring the pot all the while with a whisk or wooden spoon in one direction until all the polenta has been incorporated into the water.
- The polenta will soon thicken. Turn down the heat to low immediately; be careful, as polenta has a tendency to spatter if it 'boils'. If this happens, take the pot off heat for a moment and add some water. That will stop the sputtering, and you can return to the heat and continue to stir.
- If you have been using a whisk, you will eventually need to switch to a wooden spoon as the polenta thickens. Continue stirring and, when the polenta gets too thick to stir without great effort, add some of the hot water you have kept in reserve and continue to stir. if the heat is low enough and you keep the polenta rather loose by adding water from time to time, you only need to stir every so often—say every 5 minutes or so. The polenta should simmer like this for at least 45 minutes, and it is even better after an hour. The polenta is done when it pulls away from the pot when you run your spoon across the bottom of the pot.
Depending on your tastes and the use you will be making of the polenta, it can be either all'onda, or rather soft like a risotto, or quite stiff. (More on this later.) If you want a stiff polenta, stop adding water for the last 15-20 minutes or so, and allow the polenta to thicken; you will need to stir more during this final period.
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Frank, you might want to check out the Kitchenaid multi cooker! I just made polenta in that and it has a stir tower with 5 different speeds for the paddle! I will be using it to teach a private cooking class this Sunday! It also has a risotto setting and bunch of settings and uses as long as your imagination will let you go! Check it out at a williams sonoma store.
I live on the Swiss Italian border and polenta is a traditional dish. My MIL’s is the best around. I don’t have the copper pan and have made the instant for years, its has a horrible texture and taste and I end up using a ton of butter to try to make it edible. I had never heard of the oven method you posted. I tried it, I used a dutch oven and mixed two types of polenta (yellow and the dark), it came out wonderful. I reckon, I could even serve this to my MIL and not be embarrassed!! Thanks, Chris
Good to know, Chris. Thanks for your comment!
Polenta or ‘mamaliga’ is a national dish in Romania… the most common and known way to cook corn flour. It’s a garniture for more and more various meals, with or without meat, a kind of ‘poor man bread’. My granny used to boil ‘mamaliga’ in the same old manner her ancestors did: a long process made with effort but love.
Sounds wonderful! Polenta gently simmering over an open fire…
I came to polenta later in life as mother hated it! (I wonder what I am withholding from my family) and have come to love it. I use it a lot as a crostini for melted Gorgonzola. But now it is December and the this, thick warm porridge is calling. Even if it sputters at me. The history and tutorial was very helpful. I love the tales of villages making it in huge (witch’s brew?) pots!
Wonderful image, isn’t it?
@Daniele: Intriguing idea! I've not tried it (as I don't have a microwave) but it sounds very convenient.
I think polenta is one of the best reasons to use a microwave oven. It makes a very good, no sweat polenta in half the time. Just let the water boil on the stove in a microwave safe bowl, add the maize flour, stir for a couple of minutes then put it in the microwave.
You're welcome, Anonymous! Gravy (tomato sauce) is my favorite, too. If you try it, let us know who it comes out!
My mother always made polenta but she always put gravy on top if it. It was so good. I never learned how to make it but will try your recipe. Thank you
@Erminio: Thanks for stopping by! Your way of serving polenta sounds wonderful!
In our part of Italy (Ascoli Piceno area), the polenta was spread evenly on a large board or table, to a thickness of a half inch or so, then topped with either braised pork or sausage, etc. Sometimes the meat is cooked in a tomato sauce. Mushrooms are often incorporated with the meat or sauce, and the polenta is always sprinkled liberally with grated parmesan or romano. Everone sits or stands around the table with a fork and digs in – communal eating, peasant-style.
In our part of Italy (Ascoli Piceno area), the polenta was spread evenly on a large board or directly on the table, to a thickness of a half inch or so, then topped with either braised pork or sausage, etc. Sometimes the meat is cooked in a tomato sauce. Mushrooms are often incorporated with the meat or sauce, and the polenta is always sprinkled liberally with grated parmesan or romano. Everone sits or stands around the table with a fork and digs in- communal eating, peasant style.
@Cat: Apparently, the FDA recommends against using unlined copper pots (see http://www.ehow.com/about_5340826_copper-cookware-safety.html). But I still use mine for polenta, despite there being some minimal risk involved. The real danger seems to be from acidic foods and heavy scrubbing, and I use my paiolo only for polenta, and wash it gently after using. I've never had any problems and, of course, people have been making polenta in copper pots for centuries…
But, of course, it's up to you. If you like to live risk-free, better to keep the pot for decoration.
I inherited my Italian Nana's copper polenta pot and her “polenta stick” (which was used to threaten some of my cousins when they misbehaved). I keep hearing that unless a copper pot is lined, it isn't safe to cook food in it. Is that true? Or is that just for acidic foods?
to tell ya the truth it was a tiny bit too “winey” maybe just because the wine I used, I'm not sure, overall we really enjoyed it and about to eat the polenta leftovers ( grilled in stripes !)
I need to look if you have a recipe on the blog for crespelle now..Thanks so much!
@Pompo Bresciani: Glad to hear it! Do let us know how it goes.
I'm making Brasato al Vino rosso with Polenta down here in New Orleans thanks to this blog! I'l let ya know how it turns out! YUM!!!
Oh, how many years I have toiled over a hot stove until, I too, discovered pressure cooker polenta! I tired the 20 minute methodand it almost ruined my pressure cooker! I learned the right method from another nonna… not mine!
I know, it's late you answer to this article, but I just found your blog and I love it.
Here in Corsica (the french island northern to Sardinia…) we make “pulenda” with chestnut flour. While HE is stirring the pulenda with the “pulindaghju”, SHE holds the pot :-))
And just a question: why did you let the electric pot behind? Never heard about current adapters???
Stirring can be therapeutic especially when you end up with the recipe you made. So good.
Thanks again cookitaly and Ciao chow linda!
Linda, somehow I had managed to overlook your blog before. Great stuff!
You have a terrific blog and I enjoyed your polenta post. I bought a paiolo in Italy and use it all the time here in the states. You just have to get a step-up transformer – not at all difficult to find on the internet.
Love polenta, the primo of all the many mountain regions in Italy! I too make it the slow way, stirring and stirring though if I am making a soft polenta for more than 2 people, I make sure everyone shares the stirring.
Like you I start with a whisk and change to a spoon when it gets thick, and I too don't stir quite continuously if I am going for a soft polenta. I cook it until it comes away cleanly from the sides of the pan.
I love the photos that go with this very thorough post Frank, the beautiful copper, and all the different methods you describe – thank you for another brilliant post!
Thanks, all, for your kind comments! So glad you found this useful.
@Kathi: Friends with Paula Wolfert? Lucky you!
@Alison, Laura: And I didn't know they made polenta in Romania! Very interesting!
PS to all: Thanks for all the compliments on the paiolo, but I'm keeping it for myself! 😉
Thanks Frank for posting this. I will have to make it soon. -Tien
Congratulations. The detail in your recipe is great. I will try out the presuure cooker method!
Great post! It inspires me to make some now. Congrats on top 9.
The pot is beautiful and the perfect compliment to your thoughtful and educational post. I learned something today! Thank you.
Congrats on the Top 9!!! As I said before beautiful post, beautiful polenta
I want one of those stirers. THat would be great for tapioca too and really a number of applications.
I add my polenta, like Lidia Bastianich, before it boils, it avoids lumps all together. I do the same with my grits and farina.
This is a very useful post on polenta- thank you. You obviously too quite some time and effort. Very nice.
I usually make the “oven” version – I love it. Polenta is a great comfort food. Thanks for posting.
what a great, useful post. i've only made polenta a few times, but your tips should come in handy (i.e. so I don't stir forever :))Thanks!
Hi! I didn't know that italians know what polenta is. In Romania we eat this instead of bread (alison said that already :)) en i've heard that in Africa makeand eat that too. Looks good!
hi!in romania we made polenta almost every day,is traditional to eat polenta with roasted pork,cheese,eggs,stuffed cabage or roasted fish.polenta is a substitute for bread.you made beautiful photos!
the first is amazing,we use and today the same container for make polenta,old fashion and handmade.
Great polenta piece…I grew up eating polenta and I love making it, both soft and firm. In fact this last holiday I served it at both Thanksgiving and Christmas instead of stuffing and potatoes. Paula Wolfert gave me a Clay Coyote pot last year that I've been using to make polenta in the oven and it works beautifully. I think your copper pots are gorgeous btw!
I absolutely love polenta, both with the porridge consistency and as little fried “cakes.” I always use a wooden spoon, but I can totally see how the whisk would save my forearms a bit of trouble. I also want a copper polenta pot!
My first and only experience with polenta was many years ago in a restaurant in Milan. It was the thick hard variety, topped up with a creamy mushroom sauce. I hated it immediately. Reading your post, I feel I need to give this another go with the creamy variety. It does look delicious.
Yum…I love polenta. Thanks for the tips!
yes, a great job – although I know the basics, it is so refreshing to see how you make it …and the facts behind it makes it so interesting…
I want one of those copper polenta pots… so lovely!
great pictures and am sure this will be very helpful to those not familiar…you did a great job~