The term polenta is used to describe both the popular Italian dish of cornmeal mush as well as the cornmeal used to make the dish. In the dish, the cornmeal is mixed with water, milk, cream, or a combination and stirred over heat. Exceptionally versatile, nourishing, and extremely tasty, when served soft it makes a great side dish and pairs especially well with saucy main courses like beef stew or chicken fricassée. Instant polenta is made from cornmeal that's been hydrated and then dehydrated. Though it cooks up in minutes, it does not match the full, nutty, sweet flavor and creamy texture of regular cornmeal. Prepared polenta can be chilled until it's firm enough to slice, then pan- or deep-fried for a delicious treat.
While there's no specific cornmeal required to make polenta, most cooks prefer a medium or coarse grind, and packages of cornmeal labeled as polenta are usually coarser grinds.
The ratio of liquid to cornmeal determines how soft or firm the polenta will be. On average, you'll need about 4 cups liquid to 1 cup regular cornmeal. You can adjust the liquid as you go: If the polenta has thickened but is still a bit gritty, add a little more water. The cornmeal for polenta is usually stirred into the liquid briskly at the onset to prevent clumping. While it simmers, it need to be stirred occasionally, too. Polenta that's been chilled can be sliced and pan- or deep-fried.
Try to use a bag or box of cornmeal soon after you buy it. You'll get a fresher corn taste this way. Storing cornmeal in the freezer, tightly sealed, is a better bet than in the refrigerator, where it can pick up other flavors. Cooked polenta should be refrigerated. It will firm up. If you want to soften it again, heat it over low heat, adding more liquid as necessary and stirring.