Perfectly Creamy Polenta Recipe

Wondering how to make polenta? This creamy polenta recipe has just 3 ingredients and comes out beautifully thick and slightly sweet.

bowl of creamy homemade polenta

Polenta may sound glamorous, but it’s nothing other than an Italian-style cornmeal porridge! This side dish is often found on restaurant menus, much like its cousin, American-style grits. And fortunately: it doesn’t need to be confined to restaurants. Polenta is a easy to make at home: you’ll just need 3 ingredients to form this golden, creamy mix. Add some Parmesan cheese or even Gouda, and you’ll put it over the top. Here’s our no-fail recipe for whisking it up in your kitchen.

How to make polenta

After much trial and error, we’ve created a simple, creamy polenta recipe that requires few ingredients and very little effort on your part. Learning how to cook polenta is easier than we initially thought. All you need is three ingredients:

  • Cornmeal
  • Water
  • Salted butter

Now, this is just the base recipe. For added flavor, you can stir in some cheese when you mix in the butter. We like adding Parmesan or Gouda; Pecorino Romano would be especially nice. The cheese adds a delightfully savory note that makes it taste like a much fancier dish than it actually is. Keep in mind that cheese has salt in it, so add it first before tasting and slating to taste.

Also keep in mind: do not substitute grits for the cornmeal. Grits are coarser than cornmeal, which won’t give you the texture you want. Some packages are also labeled with the word “polenta”, which you can use as well. But plain old cornmeal does the trick!

Storing leftovers

This polenta recipe makes about 4 cups, so you may have leftovers. When it’s cooked it gets hard in the fridge, but you can make it soft again by mixing it with a little milk or water on the stovetop and whisking until it reaches your desired consistency.

Or, you can slice the hardened polenta and cook it in a little olive oil or butter until golden on both sides. The outsides will be slightly crunchy, while the insides will be gooey—comfort food at its finest! If you want to try this method, before refrigerating pour the polenta into a rimmed baking sheet so that it hardens in an even layer. You can also grill polenta that’s been cooled on a sheet pan.

What to serve with polenta

Understandably, it’s a little confusing figuring out what to serve with a polenta recipe if you’ve never had it before. Because polenta has a naturally sweet undertone, it pairs well with rich, savory dishes and is a good alternative to pasta. Try serving it with dishes like sautéed greens or mushrooms, vegetable ragout, and so forth.

If you eat fish, shrimp and salmon are natural pairs as well. You could serve grilled shrimp would look lovely served right on top, and garnished with some fresh herbs. You can also adjust which spices you add to this recipe depending on what you’re serving it with. A dash of garlic and onion powder in the polenta would pair well with sautéed greens, for instance.

Here are a few example polenta dishes. Use these as how to get your wheels turning for how you’d serve it!

how to make polenta

Polenta vs grits

What is the difference between grits and polenta? While they’re both a corn porridge, one is Italian and one part of the cuisine of the American South. They’re both made of dried corn. The main difference is in the texture: polenta is coarser than grits. Another difference is in the preparation: grit are often made of hominy, dried corn that’s been treated with an alkali in a process called nixtamalization. (Sounds fancy, but it’s the same process used for the masa flour that makes corn tortillas!)

Big takeaway: there’s not a huge difference between the two. You can use medium grind cornmeal for polenta, or use it to make grits! Here’s our Famous Shrimp and Grits recipe.

Is it healthy?

Polenta is a whole grain, fairly low calorie, gluten-free and a good source of fiber. However, whether it’s healthy depends on how you serve it! Some dishes call loads of cream and butter to make a creamy texture. In this recipe we’ve used a very small amount of butter. If you’d like, you can substitute olive oil to make it vegan and plant based.

This recipe is…

This creamy polenta recipe is vegetarian and gluten-free. Substitute olive oil for vegan.

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vegan polenta

Creamy Polenta Recipe


1 Star2 Stars3 Stars4 Stars5 Stars (42 votes, average: 4.36 out of 5)

  • Author: Sonja Overhiser
  • Prep Time: 5 minutes
  • Cook Time: 20 minutes
  • Total Time: 25 minutes
  • Yield: 4 servings 1x

Description

Wondering how to make polenta? This creamy polenta recipe has just 3 ingredients and comes out beautifully thick and slightly sweet.


Scale

Ingredients

  • 4 cups water
  • 1 cup cornmeal
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt, plus more to taste
  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • Fresh ground black pepper

Instructions

  1. Bring the water to boil in a medium sauce pan. When the water boils, whisk in the cornmeal in a slow steady stream, whisking constantly to prevent lumps. Continue whisking until the polenta begins to thicken (around 1 to 2 minutes). Add 1 teaspoon kosher salt.
  2. Reduce the heat so that the polenta bubbles slowly. Continue to cook, stirring occasionally, for about 20 minutes until the cornmeal loses its raw flavor (taste every so often to check).
  3. When the polenta is complete, turn off the heat and add the butter, and more kosher salt and pepper to taste. You can cover it to keep it warm before serving. If the polenta becomes too thick, you can stir in a bit of milk or water to loosen it up.

Notes

For even more flavor, you can stir in some cheese with the butter in Step 3. For example, add 1/2 cup grated Parmesan, or both 1/2 cup Parmesan and 1/2 cup ricotta. Inspired by Jack Bishop in The Complete Italian Vegetarian Cookbook

  • Category: Side
  • Method: Stovetop
  • Cuisine: Italian

Keywords: creamy polenta recipe

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About the Authors

Sonja Overhiser

Cookbook Author and writer

Sonja Overhiser is author of Pretty Simple Cooking, named one of the best healthy cookbooks of 2018. She’s host of the food podcast Small Bites and founder of the food blog A Couple Cooks. Featured from the TODAY Show to Bon Appetit, Sonja seeks to inspire adventurous eating to make the world a better place one bite at a time.

Alex Overhiser

Cookbook Author and photographer

Alex Overhiser is an acclaimed food photographer and author based in Indianapolis. He’s host of the food podcast Small Bites and founder of the recipe website A Couple Cooks. Featured from the TODAY Show to Bon Appetit, Alex is author of Pretty Simple Cooking, named one of the best vegetarian cookbooks by Epicurious.

8 Comments

  • Reply
    Marie E. Noble
    January 27, 2019 at 3:41 pm

    Fantastic recipe for introduction to the world of Palenta !
    Never made it before. Used the recipe. Pleased. Worked well. Tastes great.
    Will recommend. ?

    • Reply
      Sonja
      January 27, 2019 at 3:49 pm

      So glad to hear it! Thanks for making it!

  • Reply
    Lauren
    March 10, 2019 at 9:25 pm

    My husband and I are also Italian and I have been on the hunt for a great polenta recipe. I made your recipe with our steak Marsala for dinner tonight and it’s FANTASTIC!! Buttery, smooth and the cheese adds makes it creamy with a subtle kick to the flavor. Also a hit with my two boys! 5/5 stars! Thank you!

    • Reply
      Sonja
      March 23, 2019 at 9:16 pm

      Wow this is high praise coming from Italians! Thank you SO so much! We are so glad to hear that your boys loved it too. Thank you for making our recipe!

  • Reply
    Sam
    July 21, 2019 at 12:03 am

    I just made polenta recently for my very first time and I followed this recipe to a T and it turned out PERFECTLY. I made it a second time and same results – perfection.

    Then I thought I’d try someone else’s recipe, just to branch out. Bad idea. I don’t know why, but they called for the same amount of polenta but HALF as much water. As you can imagine, 10 minutes in I had polenta burned to the inside of my pan. That was not fun to scrape out.

    As my great grandmother always said, “don’t fix what’s not broken.” I’ll be sticking with your recipe from now on! Thank you SO much for sharing it!

    • Reply
      Alex
      July 21, 2019 at 10:43 pm

      Haha! So glad you love it!

  • Reply
    Elizabeth
    September 3, 2019 at 8:27 pm

    Easiest and maybe tastiest polenta iteration I’ve had. I’ve made far more complex polentas but honestly loved this way more. Added two T earth balance to keep it vegan and about one T nutritional yeast. My hubby doesn’t love polenta and had two big servings of this. Put fresh ratatouille on top. Yum!!

    • Reply
      Alex Overhiser
      September 3, 2019 at 10:06 pm

      So glad you enjoyed it!

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