As far as side dishes go, soft, golden polenta is about as good as it gets. I make it almost every week, so I’ve spent hours of my life stirring and stirring and stirring pots of the stuff. Until recently.
One night while soaking steel-cut oats for oatmeal, I had a “Eureka!” moment. Could I soak traditional polenta the same way and cut its lengthy cooking time? Turns out I could! By simply pouring boiling water over the polenta in the morning and letting it sit on the counter during the workday, I cut the cooking time down to less than 15 minutes. The soaked polenta requires only occasional stirring, and the texture and flavor are everything polenta cooked the traditional way should be—tender, rich, and satisfyingly toothsome.
Food scientist Harold McGee explains it this way: With grains (like corn), it’s not heat, but rather the absorption of water that determines doneness.
In other words, when you cook grains, water has to penetrate their starchy center before they’re tender enough to eat. Soaking in hot water shortens the time it takes the water to penetrate, and that time is cut even further when you cook the soaked polenta with simmering chicken broth or water, like you do with risotto. So, instead of stirring polenta for anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour, as Italian tradition dictates, you can have it on your dinner table much, much quicker.
Polenta on a weeknight is now a delicious reality, minimal stirring required.
The Shortcut Method, Step by Step
Soak in the morning. Simply pour boiling water over the polenta in the pan you’ll cook it in later.
Cook in the evening: Whisk in hot broth, bring to a boil, and then cover and cook, stirring every few minutes.
12 minutes later, the polenta is tender and you can see the bottom of the pan as you stir.
Stir in butter and cheese, season, and enjoy.