First things first, what is polenta? The origin of polenta can be traced back to Northern Italy. It is a cornmeal porridge or mush that is made from coarsely ground yellow corn. It was initially used as peasant food.
A lot of people like polenta because of its versatility. It is also very easy to prepare, and who doesn’t like a simple filling meal? Since polenta is versatile, you can serve it in different ways for either breakfast, lunch, or dinner.
The difference would be what you add to it in the different meals. You can also present it as an elegant meal or as a simple meal when you do not want to spend too much time in the kitchen
Polenta is not very popular in the United States. I personally did not know much about it until a friend of mine that grew up in an Italian household made some for me.
You’ve probably seen polenta on the shelves of grocery stores and wondered what it is for. A simple polenta dish is made using very basic ingredients. All you need is water, pepper, salt, and butter. If you want a more advanced flavor you can use stock instead of water and add a little bit of parmesan cheese as well.
Restaurants usually serve polenta fried with some marinara sauce. Alternatively, you can serve it as an accompaniment to pork ribs, chicken, or short ribs. You can even add it to your Tuscan salad.
Polenta has several similarities with southern grits. Both are prepared the same way and they even taste the same.
However, there is one key difference. Southern grits are made using dent corn whereas polenta is made from flint corn. Flint corn has less starch compared to dent corn. Therefore, polenta is not as creamy as southern grits. Southern grits are also more velvety compared to polenta.
Polenta is an amazing ingredient, but you may run out of it or not have it in stock yet you really want to cook with it. I am happy to inform you that you can always use substitutes when this happens.
Some of the suitable polenta substitutes you can use are cornmeal, polenta in a tube, risotto, semolina, oatmeal, and grits.
Cornmeal is a suitable polenta substitute. Compared to polenta, cornmeal is much finer. Therefore, your dish will lack the texture that polenta usually gives it.
Just use cornmeal in your recipe when you run out of polenta. The difference is subtle, so you can use the same amount you would have used if you had polenta on hand.
Polenta in a tube
If you do not have the regular polenta, you can use the polenta in a tube. Polenta in a tube is readily available and its flavor is similar to that of regular polenta.
The main difference is that tubed polenta is usually pre-cooked. Regardless of that, it is one of the best polenta substitutes.
If you want to serve polenta as a side dish, you can use risotto instead. Risotto is an Italian rice dish cooked in stock ingredients. You can add veggies, seafood, or meat depending on your preference. This would make an excellent side dish.
You can use Semolina to make an ideal polenta substitute that is corn-free. Coarse semolina cooks the same way that polenta does. You can serve semolina hot the same way you serve polenta, or you can let it cool down and then slice it.
The only downside with using polenta is that it won’t have the sunny yellow hue that polenta usually has. The semolina will have a pale color. To counter this, you can add bright colored sauces to it. You can also add a bright garnish to liven it up.
Oatmeal or grits
Oatmeal and grits are suitable polenta substitutes when you want to serve your polenta for breakfast. The taste is not the same, but they make for a decent substitute.
What does polenta taste like?
Most people describe the taste of polenta as sweet. In my opinion, it tastes like wholesome corn porridge.
When cooked, polenta is sweet. If it tastes bitter, it means that it is still raw and you should have cooked it for much longer.
There are five main varieties of polenta in the market. You can use any of the varieties depending on the meal you are making and what your recipe calls for. These are the varieties
- White polenta
- Instant polenta
- Finely ground polenta
- Coarsely ground polenta
- Pre-cooked/ tube polenta
As I mentioned at the beginning of this article, polenta is quite versatile. You can use it in many different ways. In case you are wondering what to do with the polenta you have in stock, here are a few ideas.
- Serve it as a side dish.
Polenta makes for an amazing side dish. You can serve it as it is or add some cheese and herbs to make it more appealing and tasty.
- Use it as an accompaniment for meat sauces, chili’s, or stews.
Instead of the usual pasta or rice, use polenta as the accompaniment for your sauces, chili’s, or stews.
- Use it as a breakfast cereal.
Instead of your normal breakfast cereal, use polenta. Top it with some nuts, dried or fresh fruit, milk, and cinnamon for the perfect hot breakfast cereal.
- Use it as a base for vegetarian dishes
Polenta is the perfect base for vegetarian dishes. Top it with a vegetable ragout or a sauce for the best vegetarian dish you have ever had.
- Use pre-cooked polenta in casseroles
Pre-cooked polenta can be used in casseroles.
- Use it as a topping for pot pies
If you are making a pot pie substitute the usual puff pastry topping or biscuit with polenta. Your pie will taste amazing.
Where to buy polenta
Polenta is readily available and you can buy it at any grocery store. Distributors usually stock it in the baking isle and it is usually packaged in bags or boxes. Polenta is very affordable, so you won’t have to dig deep into your pockets to buy some.
In case you do not get regular polenta, you can buy tubed polenta. Polenta in a tube is very popular and almost all grocery stores stock it.
This variety is usually pre-cooked. Tubed polenta is normally packaged in a 16-ounce size and it is cheaper compared to regular polenta. You can fry or bake polenta in a tube after slicing it.
In case you want to buy polenta in bulk, I suggest buying it from a restaurant supply store. It is much cheaper and you’ll save some coins in the process.
How to cook with polenta
Polenta is one of the easiest things to cook. If you want a simple polenta meal, just pour some water in a bowl, bring it to a boil and then slowly add your polenta as you whisk it. Cook the polenta for 45 minutes, stirring it every 10 minutes.
If you are wondering why polenta takes so long to cook, the explanation is simple. The long cooking time gives polenta grains ample time to swell and become cooked throughout. There is no short cut. If you cook it for less than 45 minutes you will end up with raw and bitter polenta.
Once the polenta is well-cooked, you can add toppings like fruit, nuts, or even ragu. That is the simplest polenta meal I can think of.
How to store polenta
Uncooked polenta should be stored in a cool, dark place. The pantry is an ideal place to store polenta.
You can also store it inside your kitchen cabinet as long as it is far away from sources of heat and light. When stored properly, polenta can last for approximately two years.
Cooked polenta should be stored inside the refrigerator for a maximum of 3 days. Just place the polenta inside an airtight container and store the container in your refrigerator.
Do not store cooked polenta for more than three days because cooked polenta goes bad really fast.
I like cooking my polenta in a specific way to bring out all the flavors. Below is my favorite polenta recipe.
You will need;
- Water/ chicken stock
- Bay leaf
- A few springs of thyme
- Kosher salt
- Black pepper
- Unsalted butter
- Parmesan cheese
Boil four cups of water or chicken stock in a medium-sized saucepan (add a bay leaf and a few springs of thyme in the water for that additional flavor).
Once the water boils, add one teaspoon of salt and whisk in your cup f polenta. Reduce the heat to medium then cook your polenta for 45 minutes.
Stir it every 10 minutes to prevent it from sticking at the bottom of your saucepan. After 45 minutes, remove the polenta from heat and add 4 spoons of butter, ½ teaspoon of black pepper, and ¼ cup of parmesan.
Stir until all the ingredients are completely combined and serve. You can add other toppings depending on your preference.