We know that whole grains are good for us and we should eat more of them. When it comes to cooked grains, oatmeal, quinoa, and brown rice may come to mind. Not many of us will think of corn. Corn is a flexible whole grain that can be eaten not just as corn on the cob and popcorn, but also as cornmeal, grits, and polenta.
What Is Polenta?
Forms of polenta have been eaten as early as Roman times. These early forms were made with ingredients like chestnut flour or spelt.
These days, polenta is usually made from yellow cornmeal. Cornmeal is made from dent corn – also known as field corn, which is different from the sweet corn you eat. It’s higher in starch and lower in sugar.
It’s often prepared as a porridge-like dish similar to grits, made by cooking cornmeal in water over low heat. It needs to be stirred often and cooked slowly. It can be made from finely ground or coarse ground cornmeal. In some countries, polenta is made from white or red cornmeal.
Instant – or “quick” polenta – is pre-processed so that the cooking time is shorter. Some people say it doesn’t taste as good as regular polenta. You can also find ready-made polenta that's fully cooked. It’s often served with various foods like meats, fish, and vegetables.
Polenta and Nutrition
A 100-gram serving of polenta cornmeal contains:
- 371 calories
- 8.5 grams of protein
- 77 grams of carbohydrates
- 6 grams of dietary fiber
There are many health benefits to eating polenta:
Gluten-free. Because polenta is made from dried, ground corn, it’s gluten-free. This means it’s safe for those with gluten intolerance or celiac disease. It’s still important to read the product labels to make sure that the cornmeal wasn’t made in a factory that processes products that do contain gluten. This could result in cross-contamination.
Whole grains. Like other whole grains, 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”.
Whole grains are complex carbohydrates so they take longer to break down. They’re also high in dietary fiber, which helps keep you fuller longer. This makes you less likely to overeat, so it’s easier to maintain a healthy body weight. The American Heart Association recommends that whole grains make up at least half of the grains you eat.
Rich in antioxidants. Corn contains antioxidants that help to lessen or prevent damage from free radicals. If free radicals accumulate in the body, they can further illness and aging.
Some of these antioxidants are phytonutrients – also known as phytochemicals. They may play a role in reducing the risk of chronic disease.
Research is ongoing, but there are promising links between carotenoids in corn and better immunity, as well as protection against skin cancers.
How to Prepare Polenta
In general, the ratio is 1 cup cornmeal to 4 cups of liquid. This liquid can be water, milk, or stock. While it cooks, stir occasionally. The consistency will go from soupy to porridge-like. You can adjust the amount of liquid as it cooks. Add more water if it’s still gritty. Polenta can take 45 minutes to 1 hour to cook.
To speed up the cooking time, you can soak the cornmeal in room temperature water for 8 to 12 hours before cooking. The polenta will only need to cook for about 7 to 8 minutes after that.
Polenta can also be fried or grilled. After cooking in water, pour it into a greased sheet pan. Spread it out evenly, then cover with plastic wrap. Refrigerate it for a few hours or overnight. The polenta should set into a firm block. You can then slice it up and pan-fry or deep-fry it.
How to Make Polenta Healthier
Basic polenta is generally quite healthy since it’s made with water and some salt. Some recipes call for milk or cream instead of water, which will increase the calorie count. If you use store-bought stock, this may increase the amount of sodium in your polenta.
Deep-frying or pan-frying the polenta slices will increase the amount of fat and calories. To make it healthier, bake it or air fry the slices instead.
Instead of adding salt or 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 a bit of honey or maple syrup.