Turn down the heat to low and continue whisking until the polenta has thickened enough that it doesn't settle back on the bottom of the pan when you stop stirring.
Somewhere in its past, polenta picked up a reputation for fussiness. I am here to tell you that it is anything but fussy. You can whip up a pot of creamy polenta in about 30 minutes, and it makes a luscious bed for anything from quickly sautéed mushrooms to a hearty slow-cooked meat ragu. Here's how to do it yourself.
Once upon a time, it was thought that polenta needed to be stirred and stirred and stirred as it cooked. You can try this method if you need an upper body workout, but I find the cover-and-forget-it approach much easier to handle on a weeknight. This is a method most famously espoused by Marcella Hazan (and which we've talked about before), and I've adopted it wholeheartedly.
The idea is to get the polenta going by whisking coarse-ground polenta or yellow cornmeal into boiling water and stirring until it gets thick. Then you cover the pot and let the polenta cook while you go about making the rest of dinner. Every 10 minutes or so, uncover the pot and give it a good stir to make sure it's cooking evenly and the sides aren't drying out. Thirty to forty minutes later, your polenta is ready for the table.
A tense moment might come around the 15-minute mark. At this point, the polenta looks done. And indeed, if you taste it here and like it, by all means serve it! But if you let it cook for a little longer, you'll find that the polenta tastes sweeter and more deeply corn-like, and any last lingering grittiness from the ground corn smooths away. I love it at 30 minutes, but go a little longer if you have time or want a thicker polenta.
Any leftover polenta will set into a solid block as it cools. You can actually cut it at this point (say, for dinner the next night) and grill it, roast it in the oven, or deep-fry it. If you're really craving creamy polenta again, you can warm the leftovers with some water or milk, and stir until it becomes soft again. Or, since you now know how easy it is, you can just make yourself another batch.
How to Make Creamy Stovetop Polenta
Makes about 4 cups
What You Need
4 cups water
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup polenta or yellow cornmeal
1 cup cheese (optional)
1-3 tablespoons butter (optional)
2- to 3-quart pot with lid
Long handled spoon or sturdy spatula
Bring the water to a boil. Bring the water to a brisk boil over medium-high heat. Add the salt.
Pour the polenta into the boiling water. While whisking gently, pour the polenta into the boiling water in a steady stream.
Continue whisking until polenta is thickened. Turn down the heat to low and continue whisking until the polenta has thickened enough that it doesn't settle back on the bottom of the pan when you stop stirring.
Cook the polenta 30-40 minutes. Cover the polenta and continue cooking. Stir vigorously every 10 minutes or so, making sure to scrape the sides, bottom, and corners of the pan. Cook 30 minutes for softer porridge-like polenta or 40 minutes for thicker polenta.
Stir in cheese and butter, if using. Stir the cheese and butter into the polenta, if using. Serve immediately, or cover the pan and let it sit at the back of the stove for up to 15 minutes before serving.
Leftover Polenta: Polenta will solidify into the shape of the container in which you store it. Leftover polenta can be sliced or cubed before being roasted, grilled, or deep-fried. To make it creamy again, warm it with a little broth, milk, or water, and stir vigorously. It won't be quite as creamy as it was originally, but it should still be pourable.
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(Images: Emma Christensen)