This Instant Pot Polenta is beautifully textured with no stirring required and ready in less time than a stovetop method! Vegan adaptable and gluten-free this polenta dish is creamy, rich, and gratifyingly delicious.
After many years of making mediocre polenta — I really should should have paid more attention to my in-laws’ flawless polenta — I can finally say I have nailed the techniques, tips, and tricks, to cook a fine pot of polenta. One that is creamy, not heavy or cloying. One where you can actually taste the sweetness of the corn. Dare I say, one that I would even have no shame to serve to a Northern Italian.
You see, for what is seemingly a simple, poor-man’s porridge, a really good, light and airy, pot of polenta is not as basic as you may think. There is the type of cornmeal to consider, should the water be boiling before adding the cornmeal, how long to cook it for (so much longer than you think), how much stirring (a lot!), and perhaps most importantly, the water to cornmeal ratio. All considerations that in the end are very rewarding but do test my patience and also make me refrain from cooking it very often.
But now, we have the Instant Pot. No more 40 minutes of stirring, no more guessing if it has absorbed enough moisture, no more gummy, over-cooked polenta. Is it as good as a stove-top polenta? Surprisingly, yes. Brilliantly so, in fact.
I am still not convinced risotto in the Instant pot is quite as good as the real-deal stove-top. Polenta, on the other hand, is a game-changer and I have had many delicious bowls of it to prove it.
What exactly is polenta
Polenta is essentially a Northern Italian dish that is made with stoneground yellow dried corn kernels. Traditionally, polenta is cooked low and slow on the stove-top with just a few basic ingredients — water or broth, salt and pepper, and sometimes finished with butter and cheese.
To cook a classic polenta dish, you start by slowly drizzling the dry cornmeal into a large amount of boiling water while constantly whisking to avoid clumps. You then need to continue stirring the polenta until you have a smooth, firm yet pourable, consistency. The reason you need to stir so often is because as the polenta thickness, you run the danger of lumpiness and it could start to stick to the bottom of the pan. The long cooking time allows the cornmeal to properly absorb all the moisture and become fully hydrated and cooked through. If you rush this step, it will not reach a silky consistency and it will taste overly gritty and bitter.
Once cooked, a savoury polenta is sometimes finished with butter and cheese, such as a grated pecorino or a Parmesan. However, it is best to use a very light hand with either one of those additions to let the taste of the sweet-silky corn come through.
What type of cornmeal is best for polenta
You will notice that some polenta recipes call for cornmeal, while others call specifically for polenta. The difference is that polenta labelled as “polenta” is made from heartier corn and will have more texture. Cornmeal works as a great substitute as long as you buy a stoneground or a coarse variety. Avoid quick-cooking, or instant polenta because this will produce a very mushy and flavourless polenta. If you have access to any Italian deli, they will likely sell a nice coarse polenta (I get mine from here). If not, look for a coarse cornmeal which is sold at most bulk stores and grocery stores. Bob’s red mill has a nice organic one. As with most ingredients, the better the quality of cornmeal, the better the polenta will be.
White cornmeal is also available but I find it to be a lot less flavourful then yellow.
How to make Polenta in the Instant Pot
I have to admit, I kind of enjoy the stovetop method of cooking polenta. I like to watch it cook and listen to it sputter and bubble away. The constant stirring, however, I do not enjoy. So the nice thing about cooking polenta in the Instant Pot is that the cornmeal has time to hydrate, swelling and absorbing the water slowly, without the need to stir. A completely hands-off method with great results.
To start, you add 1 part cornmeal to 5 parts liquid to the pot and mixing it well with a whisk. Turn the pot to high pressure and cook for 8 minutes. When done, let the pressure release naturally for about 15 minutes. Don’t be alarmed to see that there is still a lot of liquid when you remove the lid. A quick and vigorous stir is all it takes for the polenta to become as silky and smooth as if it had been stirred endlessly on the stove-top.
At this point, you can stir in a bit of grated pecorino or Parmesan cheese and adjust the seasonings. I like it heavy on the freshly cracked pepper. If you’re going for something a little more decadent you can add butter, heavy cream, or mascarpone cheese.
A few tips
- Use enough water. Anything less than 5 cups water to 1 part cornmeal, and you will run the risk of your polenta burning or sticking.
- Depending on the kind of cornmeal you use, you may need to adjust the liquid. If for some reason it seems too liquidy, let it sit with the lid off for a few minutes and then whisk it some more. If it seems too thick, whisk in some boiling water.
- Many recipes for Instant pot polenta will have you start by mixing the polenta and water with the sauté function. I have tested this method and my polenta always burns or sticks to the bottom. Simply stir the polenta with cold or room temperature water then proceed with pressure cooking function as per recipe.
- Some recipes call for milk or broth instead of water. I prefer a more classic polenta so I stick to water. Moreover, I would avoid using milk to make polenta in the Instant pot as this can sometimes cause the mixture to to stick to the bottom or burn.
- For reference, this post has some extra Instant Pot essentials and tips.
How to serve polenta
Polenta makes a perfect base for meat braises such as this Coq Au Vin with White Wine or this phenomenal meatless Mushroom Bourguignon. It also can be topped with a simple vegetable sauce, such as this Tomato and Shallot Confit. A firm polenta (made with a little less water) can be fried, grilled, or baked and topped with cheese or sauces. It can also be made into croutons for salad.
To a Northern Italian, this Instant Pot polenta may seem unconventional, perhaps even offensive. But this polenta is so rich, creamy, and gratifying, even they would have to rethink the stovetop pot and wooden spoon. In fact, I have no doubt they would love it.
Instant Pot Creamy Polenta Recipe
- 5 cups room temperature water
- 1 cup polenta* not instant or quick-cooking
- 2 teaspoons kosher salt plus more
- Freshly ground black pepper to taste
- 1/2 cup Parmesan cheese finely grated
- Other optional add-ins: a few tablespoons of butter a dollop of mascarpone cheese, heavy cream, pecorino cheese, chopped herbs
- Whisk water, polenta, salt, and a few grinds of pepper in Instant Pot until combined. Secure the lid and set the valve to Sealing. Cook at high pressure for 8 minutes. When the cooking time ends, allow the pressure to naturally release for about 15 minutes. Move the valve to Venting to release any remaining pressure. Carefully open lid and stir polenta until smooth and creamy. Use a whisk to break any lumps.
- If for some reason it seems too liquidy, let it sit with the lid off for a few minutes and then whisk it some more. If it seems too thick, whisk in some boiling water.
- Stir in Parmesan cheese and freshly cracked pepper to taste. Taste and season with more salt, if needed.
- Transfer polenta to a wide shallow bowl and serve hot with more cheese, if desired.
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