REPLACE STIRRING WITH SCIENCE TO SPEED UP THE COOK TIME
When it comes to peasant roots, it doesn’t get much humbler than polenta. This simple, hearty dish of long-cooked cornmeal dates back to 16th-century Rome, where polenta sulla tavola was poured directly onto the table to soak up flavors from previous meals. These days, polenta passes for haute restaurant cuisine. Its nutty corn flavor and porridge-like texture make it an excellent foil for everything from a meat ragu to sautéed wild mushrooms.
The traditional recipe sounds easy enough: Boil water, whisk in cornmeal, and stir until the grains have swollen and softened. But the devil is in the details. Polenta can take up to an hour to cook, and if you don’t stir almost constantly, it forms intractable clumps. Surely, after five centuries, it is time to find a better way.
So what’s the problem with this recipe? When the starchy part of the corn kernels (the endosperm) comes in contact with hot water, it swells and bursts, releasing starch in a process known as gelatinization. At the same time, the grains soften and lose their gritty texture. But tough pieces of endosperm absorb liquid very slowly. Constant stirring is necessary to keep the cornmeal at the bottom of the pot from gelatinizing too quickly and sticking to itself (the source of the dreaded lumps) and to the pot (the source of much frustration for those who wash polenta pots).
Our recipe relies on an unconventional ingredient (baking soda) to change the pH of the water and thus speed up the softening process. And we found a low-tech solution that dramatically reduces the stirring. The end result is perfect polenta that requires little attention and even less fuss. Now that’s progress.
WHY THIS RECIPE WORKS
Buy the Right Cornmeal
In the supermarket, cornmeal can be labeled anything from yellow grits to corn semolina. Forget the names. When shopping for the right product to make polenta, there are three things to consider: “Instant” or “quick-cooking” versus the traditional style; degerminated or full-grain meal; and grind size. Leave instant and quick-cooking cornmeals on the shelf. Though we love the full corn flavor of whole-grain cornmeal, it remains slightly gritty no matter how long you cook it. We prefer degerminated cornmeal (check the label), in which the hard hull and germ are removed from each kernel. As for grind, we found that coarser grains brought the most desirable and pillowy texture to polenta.
Flood the Grains with Water
Polenta typically requires a 4:1 ratio of water to cornmeal. But the coarse grains we prefer take a full hour to cook through, during which time the mixture turns extremely thick—not to mention the amount of stirring it requires. We found that a 5:1 ratio (or 7½ cups water for 1½ cups cornmeal) produces just the right loose, creamy consistency.
Add a Pinch of Baking Soda
Baking soda is sometimes added to dried beans to help break down the tough skins. Because corn, like beans, contains pectin, baking soda can work its magic in much the same way—in fact it cuts the cooking time of polenta in half. Be sure not to add too much—it can turn the polenta gluey and lend it an off, chemical flavor.
Use Your Lid
Use a low-tech solution to cut down on stirring—cover the pot and turn the flame to low. This low-heat, covered method cooks the polenta gently and evenly without any clumps—no vigorous stirring required. Just one stir right after the cornmeal goes in and another stir 5 minutes later are all you need.
Once the water comes to a boil, add the cornmeal in a slow, steady stream to prevent lumps.
Creamy Parmesan Polenta
- 10 minutes to bring water to a boil and whisk in cornmeal
- 30 minutes to cook polenta (whisk after 5 minutes to smooth out lumps)
- 5 minutes to finish polenta and let stand
- Large saucepan (A 4-quart capacity is ideal; a pan with a heavy bottom is essential.)
- Wooden spoon for stirring
- Whisk for smoothing out lumps
- Rasp grater for preparing cheese
Substitutions & Variations
This recipe depends on using the absolute lowest burner setting. If your cooktop runs hot, use a flame tamer or shape a sheet of heavy-duty foil into a 1-inch-thick ring that fits on the burner, making sure the ring is of even thickness.
Coarse-ground degerminated cornmeal such as yellow grits (with grains the size of couscous) works best in this recipe. Avoid instant and quick-cooking products, as well as whole-grain, stone-ground, and regular cornmeal. Do not omit the baking soda—it reduces the cooking time and makes for a creamier polenta. If the polenta sputters even slightly after the first 10 minutes, the heat is too high. For a main course, serve the polenta with a topping (recipes follow) or with a wedge of rich cheese (like Gorgonzola) or a meat sauce.
- 7½ cups water
- 1½ teaspoons salt
- Pinch baking soda
- 1½ cups coarse-ground cornmeal
- 4 ounces Parmesan cheese, grated (2 cups), plus extra for serving
- 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
- Bring water to boil in large saucepan over medium-high heat. Stir in salt and baking soda. Slowly pour cornmeal into water in steady stream, while stirring back and forth with wooden spoon or rubber spatula. Bring mixture to boil, stirring constantly, about 1 minute. Reduce heat to lowest possible setting and cover.
- After 5 minutes, whisk polenta to smooth out any lumps that may have formed, about 15 seconds. (Make sure to scrape down sides and bottom of pan.) Cover and continue to cook, without stirring, until grains of polenta are tender but slightly al dente, about 25 minutes longer. (Polenta should be loose and barely hold its shape but will continue to thicken as it cools.)
- Remove from heat, stir in Parmesan and butter, and season with pepper to taste. Let stand, covered, for 5 minutes. Serve, passing extra Parmesan separately.
WILD MUSHROOM AND ROSEMARY TOPPINGMAKES ENOUGH FOR 4 SERVINGS
If you use shiitake mushrooms, they should be stemmed.
- 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 small onion, chopped fine
- 2 garlic cloves, minced
- 2 teaspoons minced fresh rosemary
- 1 pound wild mushrooms (such as cremini, shiitake, or oyster), trimmed and sliced
- ⅓ cup chicken broth
- Salt and pepper
- Heat butter and oil in 12-inch nonstick skillet over medium-high heat until shimmering. Add onion and cook, stirring frequently, until onion softens and begins to brown, 5 to 7 minutes. Stir in garlic and rosemary and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds longer.
- Add mushrooms and cook, stirring occasionally, until juices release, about 6 minutes. Add broth and salt and pepper to taste; simmer briskly until sauce thickens, about 8 minutes. Spoon mushroom mixture over individual portions of polenta and serve.
SAUTÉED CHERRY TOMATO AND FRESH MOZZARELLA TOPPING MAKES ENOUGH FOR 4 SERVINGS
- Don’t stir the cheese into the sautéed tomatoes or it will melt prematurely and turn rubbery.
- 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- 2 garlic cloves, peeled and sliced thin
- Pinch red pepper flakes
- Pinch sugar
- 1½ pounds cherry tomatoes, halved
- Salt and pepper
- 6 ounces fresh mozzarella cheese, cut into ½-inch cubes (1 cup)
- 2 tablespoons shredded fresh basil
Heat oil, garlic, pepper flakes, and sugar in 12-inch nonstick skillet over medium-high heat until fragrant and sizzling, about 1 minute. Stir in tomatoes and cook until they just begin to soften, about 1 minute. Season with salt and pepper to taste, and remove from heat. Spoon tomato mixture over individual portions of polenta, top with mozzarella, sprinkle with basil, and serve.
A Better Way to Grate Cheese
We prefer to grate cheeses by hand rather than in a food processor. (The shredding disk is fine for softer cheeses, but the metal blade doesn’t grate hard cheese fine enough.) And we recommend two different graters, one for each type of cheese. For absolute accuracy, follow weight rather than volume measures in recipes. Grated cheese can fluff up (or pack down) quite considerably, making dry measuring cups far less precise than a good scale.
1). Use sharp rasp-style grater when handling hard cheeses like Parmesan and Pecorino Romano.
2). Use large holes of paddle-style or box grater for semisoft cheeses like mozzarella and fontina. To prevent grater from becoming clogged, coat holes with vegetable oil spray.
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