What Is Polenta And What Does It Taste Like?

If you have ever enjoyed what is known as "hot porridge," it's quite possible you were taking a bite of polenta. Although you may not have known it, polenta is very similar to grits and is likewise known to be eaten nice and hot. While it hasn't yet become a big staple food in the US, it's been gaining traction in recent years and has become an option to order in even gourmet restaurants.

Polenta is very well known throughout Europe, as the dish originated in Northern Italy in the 16th century where it used to be served as a food for the poor, such as peasants or even working-class families, says Delallo, thanks to the meal's affordability and convenience. While historically it was once a simple dish and cheap to buy, now polenta is a versatile option that can be served up in fancier ways than before, as cooks use it for both sweet and savory dishes. Many times it's paired with stars like short ribs, pork, or even a Tuscan salad. 

There's plenty to appreciate about this dish — including its origins and how to use it for your next dinner.

What exactly is polenta?

Polenta is basically just boiled cornmeal (which, naturally, comes from corn), and is a hearty starch. Yellow maize is the main ingredient in polenta, but buckwheat and white maize can also be used to make it, along with a combination of all three in some cases.

The dish is made from a base of dried corn kernels that have been stone ground, and the result is a gritty, fine texture. It originated from flint corn, a type that is native to Italy — flint corn is a bit heartier than other ears, making it a very satisfying base for polenta that lends itself well to different ingredients and flavors that can be added in.

As such, polenta is a very versatile dish, and like American grits, can be utilized for a meal at any time of day. Based on the preparation of the dish you're making, you will generally be able to pick one of five options for your polenta, whether it's coarse ground, finely ground, instant, white, or precooked.

What does polenta taste like?

The flavor profile of polenta is incredibly satisfying, offering a sweet corn flavor with a texture and consistency like porridge. A similar comparison would be a bowl of grits with a flavor pop of cornbread. But, because polenta comes from flint corn, which is less creamy than its distant cousin grits, the mouthfeel is a bit different.

The Spruce Eats suggests that beginning with good quality cornmeal is key to making the best polenta. Being choosy and picking the best quality will allow the flavor to stay sweet and robust, rather than bitter and raw. Simple 30 also recommends purchasing actual polenta when a recipe calls for it, rather than going for the easy cornmeal option, as the two taste completely different — polenta is a dish and cornmeal is just an ingredient in that dish. If you are wanting to try it out and wondering what to buy, opt for well-known and respected brands including Colavita Polenta, Delallo Instant Polenta, or Shilo Farms.

Here's how to cook polenta

Depending on how you want to serve it, the options for polenta are plentiful. In fact, while many eat polenta as a side dish after simply cooking it in a pot on the stovetop, you can also use polenta as an ingredient that's baked into bread or a cake of sorts, per Delallo. Polenta is malleable, forming to the shape of the container it's in and can be even grilled, sautéed, or pan-fried.

To make it the traditional way, first, you'll need a pot and lightly salted water. Bring it to a boil, and once the water is at a steady rumble, you can throw in your polenta grains and cook for around 45 minutes, says The Spruce Eats. The main thing is make sure you are stirring it pretty consistently as it cooks. By doing this, all the grain will cook evenly and puff up to the desired texture.

If you want to add more flavor, another tip is to switch out the water for chicken stock, and add in some thyme, a bay leaf, and some chili flakes for extra spice, recommends Real Simple. It is also very common to add cheese into polenta, similar to cheese grits.

A simple polenta seasoning mix would be butter, salt, and fresh grated Parmesan cheese, says All Recipes. Once cooked, the dish can be served with roasted veggies or any kind of meat, or even try it at breakfast with a poached egg on top. And if you want to get really creative, let the polenta cool and firm up and then you can cut it up into pieces and serve as polenta fries, use as a starchy substitute for pasta noodles, or even layer it in meats and cheeses and bake like a lasagna, suggests Delallo.

Can you substitute polenta?

Depending on how you cook it, there are different substitutes for polenta. We've mentioned how similar polenta is to grits a time or two in this article, and while it's true that polenta is not as common in the US as grits are (a very part of the fabric of Southern comfort food), grits can be a good substitute for polenta. If you are wanting to make it for breakfast, morning grits mixed with sugar would suffice, along with other substitutes like oatmeal or cream of wheat.

For lunch or dinner options, most starches are good swaps. Potatoes, a number of pastas, and risotto will all work well as a side dish or polenta replacement. When cooking or baking, if your dish calls for cornmeal (the main ingredient in polenta) you could also use corn grits or semolina, says Robust Kitchen.

The nutritional value of polenta

Polenta that is unseasoned and not cooked with cream or cheese is pretty low in calories and still contains a decent amount of vitamins and minerals, says Heathline. But don't forget that it is a grain, meaning there's a hefty concentration of carbs. In about 3/4-cup of cooked polenta, there are 80 calories, 17 grams of carbs, 2 grams of protein, less than 1 gram of fat, and 1 gram of fiber. 

The type of polenta you buy is also important when it comes to nutrition and taste, says Healthline. Polenta that comes in a tube has similar health values, but far less flavor. And in general, pre-packaged or pre-cooked versions are made from degerminated corn, meaning the innermost part of the corn kennel, the germ, is removed. Doing so sacrifices most of the healthy fat content and essential vitamins like B and E. If you want to gain more nutrients back, the site says, you could cook with fortified milk instead of water, although note that in doing so, the calorie count will increase. 

Since polenta is gluten-free, it is great for those with gluten intolerances or Celiac.