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What is Polenta?

By Kathy Hawkins
Updated May 16, 2024
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Polenta is a popular food dish that has long been common in Italian and other European cuisine, but it has gained attention in the United States as well. It is made from ground cornmeal, which is then boiled in water to create a porridge-like substance. Depending on the variety, it can be ground either coarsely or finely, and may be made from either yellow or white cornmeal.

The word can be used to refer to the ground cornmeal itself, or to the prepared dish after boiling with water. Traditionally, it can take an hour or longer to prepare, and it must be stirred frequently during that time. Recently, however, quick-cook polenta has gained in popularity. This type can be prepared in just several minutes in a microwave, though food critics say that the taste is far inferior to the slow cooked version.

Cooked polenta can be used as a base for toppings, such as sauces, cheeses, vegetables, and meat, much the same way that pasta can. In Northern Italy, it is even more popular than pasta is. Under various names, it's also very common in countries such as Mexico, Switzerland, Slovenia, and Romania.

After the cornmeal has been cooked, it can be left in a refrigerator to set overnight, which will allow it to harden into a dough-like texture. At this point, cooks can cut it into squares, which can be baked in the oven or grilled. Lighter than cornbread, it can be served with grilled meats, such as a rack of ribs. Alternatively, the dough-like product can be pressed into a pan and baked, and it can serve as a base for an unusual type of pizza.

Polenta is very similar to the traditional American dish of grits, which has been popular in the South for many generations. Both are made from corn, but grits are always made from white corn, and are chemically treated before grinding. The difference in flavor between the two is minimal, however, and both can be prepared in the same ways.

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Discussion Comments

By anon990017 — On Apr 01, 2015

I have two slices of polenta cut from a log, fried in coconut oil until crisp on the outside and served alongside my eggs for a satisfying breakfast.

By anon325030 — On Mar 13, 2013

I am from Poland and living in Australia. When growing up I had polenta for breakfast cooked with milk and served with sugar or fruit juice. My children born here also were given this dish for breakfast with black currant juice. Polenta or semolina was always cooked with milk. I tried for the first time this morning with chili and cheddar and it was nice. You can have so many different ways. It's great. --Ann

By anon276890 — On Jun 27, 2012

I tried the one from grocery and cut it, fried it for three minutes in olive oil and mixed it with scrambled eggs and this has been my breakfast for the last seven days and I do not get hungry for six or seven hours, and I've been having lots of energy as well. Love it!

By anon163064 — On Mar 26, 2011

Growing up in Midwest USA, Grandma would make stove top corn bread which still stirs my memory and taste buds. Add a bowl of pinto beans, some buttermilk and sweet onion. Mmmm.

Living in Thailand I thought I would venture into trying to make Grandma's cornbread, maybe some corn tortillas and even tamales. Not knowing that polenta is virtually the same as corn meal, I looked in vain for "corn meal". Thanks for making it clear that they are the same. Now I can enjoy some of those delicious memories in my home anytime I want.

By anon101937 — On Aug 05, 2010

I have never had polenta but your memories and recollections make me jealous. i will some day try this dish and think of each of you. thank you for sharing!

By anon100838 — On Jul 31, 2010

Grits are made from yellow and white corn in the South. Look online and learn more about grits in the South. Grits are also made from corn and hominy in the South.

By anon92833 — On Jun 30, 2010

anonymous 49476: You made a polenta cake and found little hard bits in it.

i don't have much polenta experience. I am in Brazil. I made polenta with these little hard pieces, like tiny stones of hard corn, and as far as I'm aware, it's just bits that weren't ground up sufficiently.

I'm so happy Ive found something gluten free that is cheap and isn't rice!

By anon71210 — On Mar 17, 2010

Solar cooked polenta is delicious and requires no stirring. Solar ovens use sunshine to cook food gently.

By anon49776 — On Oct 22, 2009

I tried making a cake with organic polenta, it smelled so good but when you eat it has some rough texture like you are biting on hard corn. Is it supposed to be that way?

By anon36733 — On Jul 14, 2009

can I substitute pre-made cornmeal 'mush'which you can get in a roll or log at the grocery store for polenta?

By anon33828 — On Jun 12, 2009

I happened to see this product "polenta" on the shelves of a British supermarket in Dubai, and bought a small packet. This is really delicious to prepare the South Indian "Upma"--for a portion of polenta, have a small onion chopped, and have some mustard seeds, a little oil, some curry leaves, asafoetida, and salt to taste.


1. Oil 2 tsp in a non-stick pan, let it heat, add a tsp of mustard splutter it, add the curry leaves

2. Add the chopped onions, and the one cup polenta, keep frying the contents for about 5-7 minutes.

3. Have boiling water ready--2 cups of water for 1 cup of polenta--and add the water to the contents, mixing gently without any lumps.

4. Add a few more curry leaves, and a pinch of asafoetida, cover the pan with a lid, let it stay for 5 minutes.

5. Serve hot with coconut chutney/pickles

This is very delicious!!!

An Indian

By somerset — On Feb 04, 2008

no sugar, just plain polenta and whole cow's, or even better sheep's milk. I can understand elsewhen, that it does not sound like something one would be dreaming about, but for those who ate is occasionally as children it is more than just the taste of the food, it is their childhood and good memories that the food brings up.


I have bought pre made polenta "logs" and they are quite good. Since they are easily prepared, you just warm them up, they are very convenient for people with busy lives.

By olittlewood — On Feb 03, 2008

somerset and elsewhen,

you just made me hungry for polenta!!! the best food is the food that you take the time to make fresh. i hear you can buy it at the store in premade "logs" that you can cut and grill. i'm sure that this way is not as good as grinding the corn and preparing the polenta yourself, but just curious if anyone's tried storebought polenta? my stepdad's grandma was from northern italy and was always making stuff like this...i really miss her cooking!

By elsewhen — On Feb 03, 2008

I love polenta. My favorite way to eat it now, is grilled after it is cooked. This makes it firm and gives the outside a crispy texture.

Somerset, as much as I like polenta, for some reason putting it in milk just doesn't sound that good to me. Do they include sugar when they add milk?

By somerset — On Feb 02, 2008

Many years ago, in some European villages, families had their own corn mill on their property to serve their needs, and that of some of their neighbors. It wasn't anything elaborate. It consisted of 2 round stones something like two donuts, except the bottom one did not have a hole in the middle. The stones were placed one on top of the other. The bottom was stationary, but the top you would turn by holding a rod that was attached to it. You would turn the top stone with one hand and pour corn with the other, one handful at a time. The corn would slowly slide between the stones as the top was turning and be smashed in the process. The result was a rather coarse cornmeal, but just right for polenta. The grinding of the corn was rather noisy, you would not be able to sleep during the grinding process. Polenta was eaten on most days, as matter of fact there was a saying that you can not really fill your stomach unless you ate polenta. Children used to like to eat it with milk. Hot, just off the stove polenta with cool milk, it was a treat. To this day some people still treat themselves to this simple but comforting dish.

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