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
What exactly is polenta?
It’s a simple question with a complicated answer.
Let’s start with cornmeal, which is ground dried corn. It can be fine, medium, or coarse in texture and white, yellow, or blue in color.
Polenta is a type of cornmeal, and so are grits. To confuse matters more, both of those terms also refer to a finished dish. But there are a few key differences:
Grits are traditionally made from dent corn, a softer corn variety with a dent in the top of each kernel (hence its name).
Polenta is typically made from flint corn, a much harder variety than dent corn. Because it comes from harder corn, its granules retain their shape even after long cooking, giving polenta (the dish) a coarser texture and more rustic mouth-feel than grits.
That said, some producers don’t label or even make their cornmeal products according to these definitions. When I buy polenta, I look for Bob’s Red Mill’s “Corn Grits Also Known As Polenta,” which have wonderful texture and flavor (if a somewhat confusing label). Alpina Savoie “Polenta Tradition/Medium” is another excellent choice.
Avoid “instant” or “quick cooking” polenta, which won’t have the deep corn flavor and toothsome texture you want.