Polenta is a cornmeal mush or porridge that originated in Northern Italy as peasant food. It typically made with coarse yellow cornmeal but it can also be made from finely ground yellow or white cornmeal. Polenta is often served as a soft, thick mush, which may be topped with sauce, a hearty ragu, or vegan cheese. (Chipotle Cheddar from Nuts for Cheese) Cooked polenta can also be cooled until firm and cut into wedges, rounds, or other shapes, which can be baked, grilled, or pan-fried.
The type of corn that’s used to make cornmeal and polenta is different from corn on the cob. It’s a starchier type of field corn that’s high in complex carbs. Complex carbs are digested more slowly than simple carbs. They help keep you feeling full for longer and provide long-lasting energy.
Amylose and amylopectin are the two forms of carbs in starch. Amylose is also known as resistant starch because it resists digestion and comprises 25% of the starch in cornmeal. It’s linked to healthier blood sugar and insulin levels. The remainder of the starch is amylopectin, which does get digested.
The glycemic index (GI) indicates how much a given food may raise your blood sugar levels on a scale of 1-100. The glycemic load (GL) is a value that factors in the serving size to determine how a food may affect blood sugar levels. Polenta is high in starchy carbs, but it has a medium GI of 68, meaning it won’t raise your blood sugar levels too quickly. It also has a low GL, so it shouldn’t cause your blood sugar to spike after eating it. The GI and GL of foods are affected by what else you eat at the same time.
The yellow cornmeal used to make polenta is an important source of antioxidants, which are compounds that help protect the cells in your body from oxidative damage. Antioxidants may help reduce your risk of age-related diseases. The most significant antioxidants in yellow cornmeal are carotenoids and phenolic compounds.
The carotenoids include carotenes, lutein, and zeaxanthin, among many others. These natural pigments give cornmeal its yellow color and are linked to a lower risk of eye diseases like age-related macular degeneration, as well as heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and dementia.
Phenolic compounds in yellow cornmeal include flavonoids and phenolic acids. They’re responsible for some of its sour, bitter, and astringent flavors. These compounds reduce the risk of age-related diseases. They also help block or reduce inflammation throughout the body and brain.
Cornmeal is naturally gluten-free. It’s always a good idea to examine the ingredient label carefully. Some manufacturers may add gluten-containing ingredients, or the product may be manufactured in a facility that also processes gluten-containing foods, increasing the risk of cross-contamination.
A 3/4-cup serving of polenta cooked in water provides:
- Calories: 80
- Carbs: 17 grams
- Protein: 2 grams
- Fat: less than 1 gram
- Fiber: 1 gram
You can also buy precooked polenta packaged in a tube. As long as the ingredients are only water, cornmeal, and possibly salt, the nutrition information should remain similar. Most packaged and precooked polenta is made from de-germinated corn, which means the germ, the innermost part of the corn kernel, has been removed. It is not considered a whole grain.
The germ is where most of the fat, B vitamins, and vitamin E are stored. Corn kernels have three parts. These are the germ, hull, and endosperm. Whole grain cornmeal has all three parts, which means it has high nutritional value. That also means that whole grain cornmeal can go bad quickly if not stored in the refrigerator or freezer. For this reason, most of the cornmeal found in supermarkets may not be whole grain. Check the ingredients label to make sure that the cornmeal you’re buying says “whole grain”.
There are different types of polenta based on the preparation of the dish:
- Coarse ground polenta
- Finely ground polenta
- Instant polenta
- White polenta
- Precooked (tube) polenta
How to Buy
Polenta is ground cornmeal, so look for either packaged polenta or ground cornmeal in your grocery store. It’s normally in the baking aisle and sold in boxes or bags.
Pre-made tubes of cooked polenta are also widely available.
How to Store
Store uncooked polenta in a cool, dark pantry for up to two years. Make sure any opened package is fully sealed. Precooked polenta that is not opened does not need to be refrigerated. Cooked polenta should be stored in the refrigerator in a sealed container for 2 to 3 days.
How to Cook
Cooking polenta is not complicated. Bring salted water to a boil, slowly whisk in the polenta, and then cook for around 45 minutes, stirring the polenta every 10 minutes. This long cooking time and stirring will allow the grains to swell and become cooked. Once prepared, it can be topped with anything from ragu, fruit, or vegan butter.
Instead of adding salt or vegan cheese for flavor, add herbs and spices like thyme, rosemary, parsley, dill, sage, or saffron. Try adding yogurt for creaminess.
Other flavorful, nutritious additions include vegetable purees, mushrooms, or lemon zest. Make it a breakfast polenta with fruits or nuts, sweetened with maple syrup.
One cup of dry cornmeal plus 4 cups of water will make 4 -5 cups of polenta.
- Bring 4 cups of lightly salted water or vegetable or mushroom stock to a boil in a pot.
- Add 1 cup of packaged polenta or yellow cornmeal.
- Stir it well and reduce the heat to low, allowing the polenta to simmer and thicken.
- Cover the pot and let the polenta cook for 30-40 minutes, stirring every 5-10 minutes to keep it from sticking to the bottom and burning.
- If you’re using instant or quick-cooking polenta, it will take only 3-5 minutes to cook.
If you want to experiment with baked polenta, pour the cooked polenta into a baking pan or dish and bake it at 350°F for about 20 minutes, or until firm and slightly golden. Let it cool and cut it into squares for serving.