Italian polenta, if done well, can be a magical dish despite its simple flavors. With our easy polenta recipe, we show you how to elevate the dish from mere cornmeal mush to a dinner party show stopper.
Who doesn’t love creamy polenta?
It’s a dish cooked in many countries in Europe in many different ways. We’ve eaten polenta cooked with nettles in the Italian Alps, with red wine and prosciutto in Ljubljana and grilled with tuna in Venice. We’ve even eaten polenta (called mamaliga) served with roast pork in Bucharest.
Can we say that all of those versions of polenta were outstanding? Not really since polenta can be a one note dish. Sure, adding butter and a generous sprinkling of Parmigiano to polenta tastes great, but a daily diet of polenta can empty your palate of all excitement. Or so we thought.
Then we traveled to Bergamo where we discovered that polenta can not only be comforting but also rich and exciting. We tasted creamy polenta finished in butter as well as also varieties that were served with salumi and mixed with all kinds of cheeses. We also tasted cheesy Polenta Taragna – a fun, rich version of the cooked cornmeal and buckwheat flour finished with locally-produced Taleggio cheese.
That rich, stretchy version of polenta was terrific. Washed-rind, soft Taleggio cheese enhanced the flavors of the polenta with its unique funk while proteins from the cow’s milk cheese added a fun stretch to the finished dish. We loved the nuttiness that the buckwheat brought to the polenta, but we wondered if it would be possible to make a similar dish without buckwheat.
Once we got home, we put our new love for Polenta Taragna to the test and created an easy polenta recipe inspired by the Bergamo food favorite. We discovered that it’s more than possible to make Italian-style polenta with cornmeal and a few other key ingredients.
In fact, it’s relatively easy to recreate and eat Italian-style polenta at home. Hooray!
What is Polenta?
Put simply, polenta is coarsely ground cornmeal cooked with liquid to create a digestible, comforting mash. Today, Italians use yellow, or sometimes white, cornmeal but, in reality, cooks in the boot have been making polenta for millennia with grains “like farro, chestnut flour, millet, spelt, and chickpeas” according to Wikipedia.
Many say that polenta takes a long time to cook but Cooks Illustrated created a recipe awhile back where the process was done in about 40 minutes in just water with butter and parmesan to finish. Those crafty culinarians proved that home cooks with a low fire, a four-to-one ratio of cornmeal to water and constant mixing can produce polenta that’s both creamy and bouncy.
The best part about polenta? It’s a wonderful accompaniment for stews, salamis and vegetables. In our case, we like adding earthy sautéed mushrooms to complete the comforting dish.
Italian Polenta Ingredients
Our Italian polenta recipe has two steps – sautéing the mushrooms and cooking the polenta. However its ingredients are simple to assemble:
You’ll want to use coarse ground yellow cornmeal for this Italian polenta recipe.
Merchants have marketed expensive polenta products, typically from Italy, aimed at consumers that want the ‘best of everything’ when they cook at home. Don’t fall into their trap!
We’ve found that locally-made coarse ground yellow cornmeal makes polenta at the same level of quality as Italian cornmeal which can cost up to four times more money. If you can find coarse ground white cornmeal, go for it. That style of polenta is popular in Venice.
Be careful not to use fine cornmeal. The result will be a clumpy polenta mess instead of a creamy polenta dream.
Our recipe calls for a four-to- one ratio of water to cornmeal. We use tap water when we make this recipe at home.
It’s important to bring the water to a boil and then create a whirlpool as you slowly sprinkle in the polenta. If your water begins to boil too hard, turn down the heat on the stove.
We recommend using the best mushrooms you can find.
In an ideal world, you would use fresh wild mushrooms like porcinis, chanterelles or morels in this recipe. However, we get that cultivated varieties like white trumpet and oyster mushrooms are easier to source. The good news is that simpler mushrooms won’t severely impact the flavor of the dish.
The recipe will still taste great if you decide to use more common mushroom varieties like white button or cremini. You’ll want to stay away from fresh shiitakes unless you love a super chewy mushroom texture.
Cut the mushrooms a little thick – between a half and quarter inch. You’ll begin with what seems like a lot of mushrooms but the tasty fungus will cook down and reduce drastically in size regardless of the variety you end up using.
Taleggio cheese is a special washed rind product from Val Taleggio in Italy’s Lombardi region just north of Bergamo. Even though the cheese carries a decent fragrance (some would say odor), its flavors are relatively mild. However, this cheese carries just enough distinct flavor and stretchiness to make a luxurious impact on your polenta.
Taleggio is made from pasteurized and raw milk (depending on the producer and country of sale). Due to the cheese’s mild flavor, the type of milk should not matter. In other words, a pasteurized version of Taleggio cheese will work just fine in this recipe.
It’s important to add the Taleggio cheese after you’ve taken the polenta off the heat or the cheese will congeal. Also, make sure you cut the sandy rind off the Taleggio before dicing the cheese.
A tablespoon of better adds extra richness and flavor. The key is to add the butter off the heat.
You can use either Parmigiano-Reggiano or Grana Padano in this recipe. That being said, you can use alternatively use ungrated American-made parmesan in a pinch.
These cheeses don’t just provide additional creaminess. They also provide a subtle undertone of flavor.
You can use pre grated Parmigiano-Reggiano or Grana-Padano but stay away from any pre-grated American versions of these cheeses.
You could hypothetically sauté the mushrooms alone, but we like to add half of a chopped medium onion to the sauté to round out the overall flavor.
Nothing punches up the flavor of sautéed mushrooms better than white wine. Wine also deglazes the bottom of the pan, essentially removing all the caramelized onion goodness that happens during a high heat sauté.
We add salt to both the mushroom sauté and the polenta for flavor.
If you don’t add salt to the polenta, your cooked cornmeal will taste flat.
How to Make Italian Polenta
The Italians have perfected the art of cooking polenta but the rest of us can make great polenta too.
We’ve found that cooking polenta over a low fire for 30 minutes softens the cornmeal enough to produce a creamy product. It’s important to create a whirlpool with the boiling water and add the polenta in a fine stream. Once the polenta thickens up, we turn the flame down to its lowest setting and stir frequently.
We like to to sauté our mushrooms while the polenta is cooking. They typically take about 10 to 15 minutes to sauté. Another option is to sauté the mushrooms before cooking the polenta. If you choose that route, you’ll want to place the cooked mushrooms in a warm oven while you cook the polenta.
Sautéeing the Mushrooms
Begin by heating up a thick bottomed, stainless steel pan over medium high heat. Add the olive oil and , after it begins to shimmer, cook the onions until they’re just translucent.
We use a 12-inch stainless steel All-Clad pan. It’s a kitchen staple. You can buy one from Amazon if you don’t have the right size pan or you want an upgrade.
Add mushrooms and a little bit of salt.
Cook the mushrooms until they’ve given up their liquid and begin to brown.
Once the mushrooms have browned and formed a fond at the bottom the pan, the next step is to add white wine.
Pour in the white wine and scrape up the brown bits at the bottom of the pan.
Cook the mushrooms until most of the liquid is gone from the pan.
Keep the mushrooms in a warm oven until the polenta is ready If you’re not immediately adding the mushrooms to the finished polenta. You can also pre-cook the mushrooms, place them in the refrigerator and warm them in a pan with a couple tablespoons of water for about 5 minutes.
Cooking the Polenta
Begin by boiling water in a 3 to 4 quart saucepan over high heat. When the water boils, pour the polenta into the water in a thin stream.
Once the polenta separates from the sides of the pan, turn the fire down to the lowest setting. Cover the pan and cook, stirring frequently.
We like to use a stainless steel All-Clad saucepan. However, you may want to use a non-stick saucepan instead to prevent the polenta from sticking to the bottom.
After approximately 30 minutes, the polenta will be cooked. Take the pan with the polenta off the burner and place it on a cool part of the stove.
Mix in the butter and the Parmigiano.
Once the butter and the Parmigiano are incorporated, mix in small chunks of Taleggio cheese.
Pour the creamy polenta into a wide bowl.
Top with parsley and serve with white wine.
Italian Polenta FAQs
Polenta is coarsely ground cornmeal cooked with liquid to create a digestible, comforting mash. It’s a staple of Northern Italian cuisine.
Italians typically eat polenta as a side dish served with stews and other main dishes.
Yes. Polenta is gluten free and is healthy when eaten in moderation.
Polenta tastes like grits. (They may even be the same thing but don’t tell that to any Southern Americans or Northern Italians!)
Taleggio and Parmigiana are two great Italian cheeses to add to polenta.
No. You should be able to find imported Taleggio cheese near or in any major US city. You can also order it by mail though companies like Murray’s.
Yes. However, you’ll want to make sure that you stir the polenta frequently and cover the pan.
To develop the best fond (brown bits) on the bottom of the pan, you’ll want to use a stainless steel pan though you can also use a nonstick pan.
Italian Polenta with Mushrooms and Tallegio Recipe
- 1 cup coarse ground yellow cornmeal
- 4 cups water
- 1 1/2 ounces finely grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
- 1 tablespoon butter
- 2 1/2 ounces Taleggio cheese, rind removed, diced in one inch pieces
- 1 pound assorted mushrooms
- 1/2 medium onion, finely chopped
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 1/3 cup white wine
- Salt to taste
- Sprigs of Italian flat leaf parsley or other herb for garnish
- Boil water in a 4 quart saucepan
- When water boils, make a whirlpool around the center of a pan with a wooden spoon
- Keep the water spinning and add the polenta in a light stream. Stir the polenta until it has absorbed all the liquid in the pan and starts to separate from the sides. Cover the pot and turn the fire down to low.
- Cook the polenta for 30 minutes on the lowest fire on the stove, frequently stirring aggressively on the bottom of the pot.
- While the polenta cooks, heat the olive oil over medium high heat. Add the onions first and cook them until they're just translucent. Add the mushrooms and a dash of salt. Cook the mushrooms until they've lost all their liquid and begin to brown. A fond should begin to form on the bottom of the pan.
- Add the wine, scraping off all the brown bits. Cook the mushrooms until just a little liquid is left in the pan. Keep the mushrooms warm either in a warm oven or, if you're time it right, on the stove.
- After 30 minutes, the polenta should be soft and uniform (not grainy). Remove the polenta from the heat and add the butter and Parmigiano cheese until fully incorporated.
- After adding the butter and Parmigiano cheese, add the Taleggio cheese by spreading the pieces evenly around the polenta. Stir until the Taleggio chunks are well incorporated and the polenta is bouncy and slightly stretchy.
- Garnish with your favorite herb and serve in a flat bowl.
- You can use any fresh mushrooms except shitakes. Wild mushrooms like porcinis, chanterelles or morels work especially well if you can find them.
- Be sure to take the polenta completely off the heat before mixing the cheese and butter.
- This recipe can be easily doubled.
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About the Authors
Daryl & Mindi Hirsch
Saveur Magazine’s BEST TRAVEL BLOG award winners Daryl and Mindi Hirsch share their culinary travel experiences and recipes on the 2foodtrippers website and YouTube. The married Food and Travel content creators live in Lisbon, Portugal.
Original Publication Date: December 4, 2022