Foolproof Creamy Polenta

Polenta is one of the best Italian side dishes but it has a way of firming up too quickly. Get ready to make a foolproof polenta recipe that is so creamy, stays creamy —and, the best part? It can be reheated back to its original soft texture making it a perfect make ahead side dish.

Silver spoon in black bowl of finished polenta with butter and parmesan cheese.
Make the creamiest polenta in about 30 minutes after prepping!

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Polenta.

Sometimes thought of as Italian “porridge” made from ground corn or cornmeal, polenta is an Italian side dish that can be made a number of different ways. It can be served soft or creamy as I’m sharing here or it can also be served firm, cut into different shapes. You’ll even see it fried crisp in olive oil topped with tomato sauce or mushroom ragu.

A big spoonful of polenta is a great substitute for mashed potatoes underneath thick slices of beef braciole or saucy shredded beef.

Foolproof polenta? YES!

Using the word “foolproof” is brave. But when a recipe works, time after time, over and over, like my method for cooking juicy chicken breasts, this creamy polenta recipe deserves the title “foolproof”.

Here’s why:

  • I use a method suggested by Serious Eats for soaking the cornmeal overnight. It not only makes a really creamy polenta, it also reduces the cooking time by almost half!
  • After much testing, a 4:1 ratio of liquid to cornmeal results in a perfectly soft, almost pudding-like polenta.
  • Whether it’s the process or the soaking, this easy polenta recipe is forgiving in that you can “reconstitute” it with a little broth or water for serving or reheating after it sets up.

Myths about polenta

This recipe also debunks a some polenta-making-myths:

You don’t have to use hot water. Since we are soaking the cornmeal ahead, the water will be at room temperature.

You don’t have to use a wooden spoon. I have found that using a stainless steel whisk works works just as well as a wooden spoon does.

You don’t have to be a slave to polenta. Similar to my no wine risotto recipe, this simple polenta recipe doesn’t require endless stirring or standing over the stove.

You don’t have to use a “polenta pot“. A polenta pot is wider at the top and angles down to be narrower at the bottom and many times is made of copper and tin. In this recipe, I use a 4qt. sauce pan.

Simple ingredient list for soft polenta.

Ingredients for classic cornmeal polenta with butter, parmesan and chicken stock.
Polenta only needs liquid, seasoning and of course, good cornmeal!
  • Cornmeal. There are different varieties of cornmeal, some specifically labeled “polenta”. I use Bob’s Red Mill Medium Grind Cornmeal. They also make a “polenta” cornmeal as well, but I don’t find if necessary. Regardless of which you select, you will have a similar outcome with this recipe if you follow the technique outlined below.
  • Liquid. A 50/50 blend of chicken broth and water adds the necessary moisture to hydrate the cornmeal while adding a bit of flavor that doesn’t overpower.
  • Butter. Fat brings richness and flavor. Using unsalted butter allows you to control the saltiness as well.
  • Parmesan. A necessary ingredient for Italian polenta as far as I’m concerned. And always, grate it fresh!

Can I use vegetable stock instead?

Absolutely! Either vegetable, chicken or mushroom stock would great choices for polenta.

How to make creamy polenta — a timeline.

Prep the cornmeal overnight

Clear bowl with water and cornmeal.
Soak the cornmeal overnight.
Transfering polenta and liquid to pan from bowl.
Transfer to the cooking vessel.
  1. Add the cornmeal to the pot you’re going to cook the polenta in. Pour in the chicken broth and water. Cover with plastic wrap and let sit overnight for about 12 hours. NOTE: You can also soak the cornmeal directly in the pan you plan to cook it in. Just be sure to stir it before cooking.

The next day

  1. About 40 minutes before serving, transfer the cornmeal and liquid to a 4qt. sauce pan and set the pot over medium heat. Cook until the water starts bubbling.

Time to serve

Spoonful of halfway cooked polenta.
This is the cornmeal after 15 minutes of simmering time.
Pan of polenta, butter and parmesan being stirred by black spatula.
When the texture is just right, stir in the parmesan cheese and the butter. Start with 1 Tablespoon first!
  1. Lower the heat and cook, stirring every 5-8 minutes or so, until creamy. Taste for texture.
  2. The polenta should be soft and creamy without any grittiness. Depending on the coarseness of the cornmeal, you may have to extend the cooking time a bit and add some more liquid as needed. Don’t worry -you can’t mess it up!
  1. Off the heat, stir in the parmesan cheese followed by butter. Keep stirring until the butter has melted and the polenta takes on a glossy sheen.
  2. Taste for seasoning and add more parmesan and top with another pat of butter. Serve right away!

How to make polenta ahead or reheat.

Overhead shot of polenta in black bowl with spoon and butter.

If you plan on making the polenta earlier in the day you plan to serve or if you are reheating leftover polenta, add the polenta to a clean pot. Turn on the heat and immediately add in a few splashes of water or chicken broth. As the polenta heats, it will soften. Whisk until creamy.

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Silver spoon in black bowl of finished polenta with butter and parmesan cheese.
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Foolproof Creamy Polenta

Polenta is one of the best Italian side dishes but it has a way of firming up too quickly. Get ready to make a foolproof polenta recipe that is so creamy, stays creamy —and, the best part? It can be reheated back to its original soft texture making it a perfect make ahead side dish.
To make ahead or reheat. Add the room temp or refrigerated polenta to a clean pot. Turn on the heat and immediately add in a few splashes of water or chicken broth. As the polenta heats, it will soften. Whisk until creamy, adding more liquid as needed. See more tips in the notes below.
Cook Time:30 minutes
Soaking Time:12 hours
Total Time:12 hours 30 minutes
Servings 8

Ingredients
 

Instructions

  • Soak the cornmeal in the water and chicken broth overnight in a bowl. Cover with plastic wrap.
  • Add the broth and water soaked cornmeal to a small saucepan and raise the heat until it starts bubbling. Stir often. Cover and lower the heat to a simmer and cook until creamy, stirring occasionally for about 30 minutes.
  • Stir in butter and parmesan and taste for consistency. Season with salt and pepper. Loosen with remaining chicken broth/water as needed or to reheat

Notes

  • Ratio of cornmeal to liquid is 1:4 so adjust accordingly when doubling recipe.
  • Keep the lid on the polenta until ready to serve. You can also have some heated broth on had to stir in before serving if the timing of your meal needs some flexibility.
  • Too much broth/liquid added when reheating? Stir in more parmesan cheese or let the polenta sit for a bit with the lid off.
 
Course: Side Dish
Cuisine: Italian
Author: Lori Murphy
Did you make this recipe? Tag @josieandnina or tag #josieandnina!

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