The easiest way to cook creamy, soft polenta won’t take hours of whisking or tending when it’s cooked in the oven instead of on the stovetop.
Too often I’ve been served polenta that tastes chalky or gritty or just doesn’t have much flavor. Polenta is a very simple dish, but in most recipes, it typically takes a bit of patience, requiring an ample amount of babysitting and repetitious stirring so it doesn’t turn into a rock when cooked too quickly, or stick and clump if it cooks unevenly.
Man, how can such a simple dish be so finicky?!?
Ahhh, but the times I’ve savored polenta’s full potential, with bites that are lush, creamy, and nearly melt in your mouth…this is how perfectly cooked polenta should taste. It’s the polenta I’ve always aimed to make. And thanks to my Saturday morning cooking shows, I’ve finally discovered how.
This my friends, is how to make the best, super creamy polenta, that can be made without any cream or cheese.
What’s In Polenta
A traditional side dish in Northern Italy, polenta is ground corn that’s cooked and served warm like a porridge, or cooled then shaped into a tube that is sliced, then fried or grilled. It’s eaten like most grains or pasta, topped with sauces like marinara, or accompanied by sautéed or roasted vegetables or served along side Tuscan stews, Italian chicken dishes, or meatballs.
If you’ve ever eaten Southern style grits in the U.S., it’s similar, but different because there’s no need for cream or dairy.
This polenta recipe couldn’t be simpler because it’s made with just three ingredients:
- Coarse yellow cornmeal (polenta)
- Kosher salt
- 1 1/2 hours cooking time—not on the stove, but in the oven instead for a hands off and no stirring situation instead.
As is often the case, adding grated Parmesan cheese and/or butter is welcome, but not required for this dish to be sublimely delicious. The corn flavor should be front and center for a light bite that’s not weighty or cloying.
What Type of Cornmeal Is Best for Polenta
The best cornmeal for polenta is yellow coarse or stone ground cornmeal. Fine cornmeal lacks the flavor of stone ground, and can quickly turn lumpy and pasty when cooking.
How to Make the Best Creamy Soft Polenta—In the Oven!
After years of wrestling with cooking polenta on the stove with fingers crossed it wouldn’t lump and clump or be too grainy, I watched an episode of Christopher Kimball’s Milk Street on PBS and discovered the secret ingredient to perfectly tender polenta every time: The oven!
Cooking polenta in the oven is a painless, hands-off experience where it essentially cooks itself and doesn’t require any babysitting. But why the oven? The oven’s even temperature surrounding the pot is more consistent than monitoring the heat on a stove top.
Use a heavy bottom pot or dutch oven to cook the polenta. I like using this cast iron dutch oven because the sides are sloped, so the polenta doesn’t stick in the crevice where the bottoms meet the sides, and it goes effortlessly from stove to oven.
Before bringing to a boil on the stove, add the cornmeal to the pot with 11 cups of cold water. This recipe calls for almost double the amount of water as other recipes, and is the key to making it creamy. Slowly add the ground polenta to the water, whisking as you do. Season with kosher salt.
Whisk, Bake, Repeat
Use a whisk as the polenta comes to a gentle simmer for the starches to release. Whisking the polenta early in the cooking process makes it cook evenly without stirring later. This is my favorite whisk because the balls on the end won’t scratch the pot and it gets in the corners. Stir now, then sit back and relax.
Transfer the pot to the oven for 1 hour. Set the timer, then walk away. This is the lazy part of the recipe.
Stir up an stuck polenta parts, then put it back in the oven. After an hour, use a wooden spoon to release any of the polenta. Bake for another 15-30 minutes until it’s the consistency you like best. Take out of the oven and allow the polenta to sit for about 5 minutes before stirring and serving.
Sprinkle with Parmesan cheese (if desired) and season to your liking. I love the extra nuttiness Parmesan adds to polenta so I give mine a light sprinkling of it with freshly ground black pepper to top it off.
How to Cook Creamy Soft Polenta In the Instant Pot Pressure Cooker
- You’ll need only 7 cups of water when cooking this recipe in the pressure cooker or Instant Pot.
- Set the cooker to HIGH and set for 20 minutes, then natural release for 20 minutes.
- Quick release any steam, whisk and season, then allow the polenta to sit uncovered for 5 minutes to thicken before serving.
What to Serve With Polenta
- Simple Roasted Tomato Sauce
- Baked Turkey Meatballs
- Easy Homemade Marinara Sauce
- Parmesan Crusted Chicken
- Slow Cooker Chicken Cacciatore
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THE BEST Soft Creamy Polenta
The easiest way to cook creamy soft polenta won't take hours of whisking or tending when it's cooked with just water and salt in the oven instead.
- 2 cups coarse stone ground cornmeal
- 11 cups cold water
- 1 tablespoon kosher salt
- freshly ground black pepper
- grated Parmesan cheese
Preheat the oven to 375°F.
Add the cornmeal to a large cast iron dutch oven or heavy bottom pot. Pour in 11 cups of cold water and add the kosher salt. While whisking, bring to a gently bubbling simmer to release the gluten and separate the grains.
Cover with a lid and transfer the pot to the oven to bake for 1 hour. After an hour, use a wooden spoon to stir and release any of the polenta stuck to the corners or sides of the pot. Bake for another 15-30 minutes or until it's the consistency you like best. Remove from the oven, stir, and allow the polenta to sit for about 5 minutes before serving. Sprinkle with freshly grated Parmesan cheese and freshly ground black pepper to taste.
*adapted from Christopher Kimball's Milk Street
More Easy Side Dish Recipe Ideas
- The Best Buttery Parsley Potatoes
- Easy 5-Minute Parmesan Zucchini
- Easy Lemon Rice Recipe
- How to Make the Best Mashed Potatoes
- Mashed Cauliflower With Parmesan and Chives
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