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Polenta: From Peasant to Present

Italian Cornmeal History, Cooking Tips and Recipe Inspiration

POSTED August 23, 2015

A Northern Italian staple, this humble Italian peasant food has emerged as a versatile fine-dining-style comfort food. Polenta can be made into layered terrines (in its solid form) or easy creamy porridges with Parmigiano-Reggiano and butter.

What is Polenta?

Made with coarse stone-ground cornmeal, polenta is often referred to as “Italian grits.” Like grits, polenta is a hearty porridge with a grainy texture. Polenta originated in Northern Italy where it was essential to many peasant and working class families—a simple yet satisfying dish. In those days, it was often made with more than just corn, but also beans and legumes. Traditionally, polenta was poured in the middle of a large wooden board where it would cool and harden, and then be cut into portions with string.

Two Ways

As a soft, just-cooked porridge, polenta owns a sweet corn flavor and robust texture. It takes on the flavors of its added ingredients, which can be as simple as its traditional partners, butter and cheese. Often porridge-style polenta is served topped with sautéed seasonal vegetables, meats and seafood. Get creative!

When polenta cools, it hardens making for a versatile ingredient in a number of tasty creations. These polenta pieces can be grilled, baked, sautéed or pan-fried… the possibilities are endless. Some like to serve it up topped with rich tomato sauce as a substitute for pasta, while others like polenta layered with meats and cheeses, then baked (as a lasagna-style terrine). One of our favorites is simply brushed with olive oil and garlic, then grilled and topped with mushrooms, peppers and onions.

Along with the myriad of savory recipes, polenta stars in sweet dishes too—everything from breakfast cereals and pancakes to muffins and cakes.

Cheesy Stuffed Polenta with Italian Sausage & Tomato-Basil Sauce

Cheesy Stuffed Polenta with Italian Sausage & Tomato-Basil Sauce

 Stovetop Polenta Tips

DeLallo Polenta is instant, taking mere minutes to cook up a hearty batch, but if you’re looking for tips on creating from-scratch stovetop polenta, we have some easy tips to follow.

  • Storage: Polenta will lose flavor and become bitter if stored for too long in your pantry, so be sure to buy it, store it in a cool place and use it at its freshest.
  • Grind: It sounds like common sense, but keep in mind that the coarser the grind, the heartier the porridge and vice versa.
  • Water: The water to polenta ratio is typically 4:1. Because polenta expands when it boils, use a large pot (only half full of water) to avoid overflowing.
  • Equipment: Traditionally, a heavy, copper-bottomed pot is used to cook polenta. If a copper pot isn’t available, make sure your pot is heavy to keep polenta from sticking.
  • Cooking: We can’t emphasize stirring enough. Polenta has a tendency to scorch if left unattended, so be sure to keep it moving in the pot.

Share your polenta creations with us on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook and don’t forget to use the hashtag #DeLalloEats. You and your creation could be featured on our next post!