polenta with ragu

Creamy Polenta Recipe Served up Three Ways

This classic polenta recipe can be served straight out of the pot as a creamy polenta recipe, or used to make fried or grilled polenta.

It would be excellent served with this hueveos rancheros recipe!

grilled polenta in triangles

What is polenta?

Now, don’t be worried if you don’t know! I had never heard of polenta until I married my Italian husband. Polenta is a very simple porridge, if you will, made of cornmeal. If you’re thinking, “that sounds a lot like grits” you wouldn’t be too far off base.

What’s the difference between polenta and grits?

Polenta is a staple in Italian cuisine, made of yellow cornmeal, usually ground coarsely. Grits are made of a more finely ground white corn.

I was first introduced to a creamy polenta, cooked on the stovetop. But instead of sticking with just polenta, my husband stirred in browned Italian sausage and cheese. Talk about comfort food!

Polenta is one of those flexible and versatile recipes that can be prepared in a number of ways. You can use water, milk, chicken stock, or vegetable broth to cook the corn for polenta. This often depends on family traditions and personal preferences. And as evidenced by my husband, it can be customized by adding grated Parmesan cheese, butter, and/or any combination of fresh herbs and spices. Or sausage!

We often eat a simple bowl full of cream polenta with sausage or various toppings. Grilled or fried polenta makes an excellent side dish, too. In fact, while I’d never had polenta at all until I met my husband, I never tried fried polenta until we were on our honeymoon! That was just not how his family served it. (But, dang, it was good!)

fried polenta as a side dish

Some traditionalists argue that water is the only acceptable choice for making polenta because it yields the lightest, most distinctively corn flavor. On the other hand, some argue that chicken or vegetable stock infuses the polenta with more flavor, while others prefer the richer and creamier taste associated with using milk or half & half.

Is this creamy polenta recipe gluten free?

Yes. In its simplest form, polenta is simply cornmeal and water. Since corn is gluten free, polenta makes for a good starchy dish for those who are avoiding wheat and gluten.

Is this a vegan polenta recipe?

Again, yes, in its simplest form. Made with water and sans any extra additions (as spelled out below), polenta is completely vegan. If you’ve got a “mixed” household, you can make the polenta with water, then scoop out enough for the vegans in the family before stirring in any extras (like sausage or butter).

homemade polenta

How to make polenta

This polenta recipe is made on the stove top. While it’s not a difficult recipe to make, it does require that you stick close by to stir the pot as the cornmeal cooks. This remains the same whether you use water or opt for a richer liquid such as broth or milk.

Once the cornmeal is cooked, you can serve the creamy polenta right out of the pot, or you can pour the cooked polenta into a baking dish to cool. Polenta firms up as it cools, which allows you to cut it into the triangular shapes that are perfect for making fried or grilled polenta.

grilled polenta in triangles

Creamy Polenta: Three Ways to Serve it

This creamy polenta recipe serves as a blank canvas to build upon. From there, it can be customized to suit your own tastes. As is, this version is delicious as a hot and filling side dish or it can be chilled and then grilled or fried for a tasty treat later.
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Prep Time: 1 hour 5 minutes
Cook Time: 45 minutes
Course: bread, Side Dish
Cuisine: Italian
Keyword: gluten free
Servings: 6
Calories: 180kcal

Ingredients

  • 5 c. water
  • 1 c. polenta medium or coarse cornmeal
  • Sea salt to taste
  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter optional

Instructions

  • Heat water in a large saucepan over medium-high heat until almost boiling. Once water starts to bubble, whisk in cornmeal and continue stirring continually until it starts to thicken.
  • Season with salt, to taste, and stir to combine.
  • Reduce heat to just below medium and continue cooking, stirring every 4-5 minutes, until the polenta pulls away from the side of the pan and the cornmeal becomes soft and tender, approximately 40-45 minutes.
    COOKING cornmeal in a red pot
  • Remove from heat and stir in butter, if desired.
  • Taste and add more salt, if needed.
  • Serve creamy polenta immediately as a side dish or top with your favorite savory main dish or chill the polenta for frying or grilling.

Chill polenta

  • Grease an 8” x 8” glass baking dish with olive oil.
  • Spread prepared creamy polenta into baking dish in an even layer. Cover and refrigerate until polenta is firm to the touch.
    creamy polenta in a baking dish
  • Remove from refrigerator and gently loosen around the edges of the baking dish with a butter knife.
  • Place a paper towel over the top of the polenta and hold it in place with your hand. Gently turn the baking dish upside down while supporting the contents with your hand. Tap the bottom of baking dish until polenta is released.

To fry polenta

  • Carefully transfer the solid sheet of polenta to a cutting board. Cut the polenta into quarters, then cut each quarter in half diagonally to create 8 wedges.
  • Add a little olive oil to a large, cast iron skillet over medium-high heat. Add the polenta wedges and cook until golden brown on each side, approximately 1-2 minutes per side.
  • Remove from heat and serve immediately with your favorite toppings or marinara sauce to dip.

To grill polenta

  • Carefully transfer the solid sheet of polenta to a cutting board. Cut the polenta into quarters, then cut each quarter in half diagonally to create 8 wedges.
  • To grill, coat a grill pan or the grates of a gas grill with a thin layer of oil to prevent sticking.
  • Heat grill pan over medium heat or pre-heat gas grill to medium.
  • Carefully brush both sides of each polenta wedge with a little olive oil before placing on the hot surface.
  • Cook until each wedge is golden brown and nice grill marks appear. Flip and repeat on other side. Remove grilled wedges from heat and serve immediately with your favorite toppings, in salads, or with a bowl of hot soup.

Notes

Serve this creamy polenta recipe as an easy and filling side dish, or stir in cheese and sausage for a more substantial meal. 
The recipe is gluten free and it’s vegan, too, if made with water. 

Nutrition

Calories: 180kcal | Carbohydrates: 31g | Protein: 4g | Fat: 4g | Saturated Fat: 2g | Cholesterol: 10mg | Sodium: 11mg | Potassium: 54mg | Fiber: 1g | Sugar: 1g | Vitamin A: 201IU | Calcium: 6mg | Iron: 1mg
Thanks for sharing!