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A creamy polenta recipe with Parmesan cheese. It’s simple, soft and so delicious! Cheesy polenta is a perfect base or side dish for savory roasted vegetables or slow-cooked meat sauces.
This polenta recipe makes perfect homemade polenta with Parmesan, with a creamy texture that has just the right amount of butter and cheese.
I’m sharing my go-to basic creamy polenta recipe, which is full of buttery, cheesy goodness. Read on to learn more about how to make polenta, with step-by-step instructions. You will love homemade polenta!
This post explains:
- What is polenta
- Ingredients needed for the recipe
- Which types of cornmeal to use for polenta
- How to make polenta
- What to serve with polenta
Once you master this easy method, you’ll be whipping up cheesy polenta whenever a craving hits.
It really is a simple process that requires just a few ingredients, a good heavy pot, whisk and/or a wooden spoon.
Learn about polenta
Polenta is an Italian dish, basically a porridge or mush, made with a type of ground corn (cornmeal) that’s ground to a medium or coarse consistency.
You might hear the word “polenta” used interchangeably to describe both the dish and the cornmeal used to make it, which can be confusing, but remember they are basically the same thing.
In different regions of Italy, polenta was traditionally made with a variety of ground cereal grains, such as rye, buckwheat, millet and semolina (a variety of wheat).
After yellow corn was introduced to Europe in the 16th century, it thrived and grew especially well in northern Italy. Cornmeal polenta eventually became a staple peasant food throughout the Italian peninsula, along with pasta and rice.
Ingredients you need to make polenta:
- Water: The most basic liquid used to make polenta is plain water. Polenta can also be made with a mixture of water with milk and/or vegetable or chicken stock.
- Cornmeal: Stone-ground or coarse cornmeal is what you want for the most authentic, rustic polenta.
- Salt: Although Parmesan cheese adds savory umami flavor (and salt), polenta by itself is bland. I recommend plain fine sea salt or kosher salt.
- Butter: I love good high butterfat cultured butter as a finishing touch, but any unsalted butter will work in this recipe.
- Parmesan Cheese: If you can, use a chunk of Parmesan cheese and grate it yourself for the very best flavor. Or buy your cheese at a store that grinds it so you know it’s super-fresh.
Types of cornmeal to use for polenta
Polenta is usually milled from a special variety of field corn — dent corn or flint corn. It’s not the same type as the sweet corn we eat off the cob.
To make polenta, you can use these types of cornmeal (but not corn flour) interchangeably depending on your preference and availability.
Cornmeal for polenta ranges from coarse-textured “grits” to a more refined, medium-grind cornmeal. I don’t recommend using fine ground cornmeal to make polenta because it turns out sticky and pasty.
- Stone-ground: My personal fave, stone-ground cornmeal can be yellow or white, and is produced by literally grinding corn between two millstones. Stone-ground cornmeal makes a rustic polenta with a bit of texture, as it still has the bits of the whole grain, including the hull and germ. It has deep corn flavor.
- Coarse: Coarse cornmeal is somewhat gritty, similar to stoneground in that it has bits of grain visible. Coarse-ground cornmeal has a noticeable corn flavor and nubby texture.
- Medium: This type of cornmeal is ground to a finer consistency than coarse or stoneground kinds, with the kernel sifted out. If you prefer a super-smooth polenta and very creamy texture, this is the one to use.
What about instant polenta?
Instant polenta is a product that’s either very finely ground or has been pre-cooked and then dried before packaging. It’s more of a convenience food, and won’t work for this from-scratch polenta recipe.
Cornmeal is naturally gluten-free because it doesn’t contain wheat or gluten.
However, because cross-contamination can occur during processing, people who are very sensitive to gluten and those who have celiac disease should look for cornmeal that’s labeled and certified as gluten-free.
The classic ratio for polenta is one part cornmeal to four parts liquid. Because this recipe includes some milk, it tends makes a thicker, creamier polenta. So I use 5 parts total ratio of cornmeal to liquid for the perfect texture.
How to make creamy polenta, step by step:
Pro tips for the best creamy polenta:
- Buy coarse cornmeal to make polenta, not corn flour (corn flour is finely ground and will turn into a pasty mush).
- To make this creamy parmesan polenta without the need for constant stirring or sticky mess, choose a heavy-duty Dutch Oven or heavy-bottomed saucepan. One that has 3 or 4 quarts capacity is ideal. A sturdy pan will retain heat better, allowing the thickened polenta to cook at a low temperature without sticking or scorching.
- To avoid lumpy polenta: Bring the liquid to a boil, then gradually add the cornmeal in a thin stream — you can do this either by pouring it out of a small bowl or measuring cup with a spout or with your hands, letting the grain fall through your fingers. Pour in the polenta with one hand while whisking with the other (this your chance to practice hand-eye coordination).
- Once all the cornmeal is in the pan, it will almost immediately start to thicken and boil. This is when you turn the heat down as low as your stove will go. Stir the polenta once or twice, then cover the pan and let it cook mostly undisturbed for 25-35 minutes. Check on it and stir the polenta two or three times during that time.
- Be generous with the butter and Parmesan cheese when you make polenta. It’s a perfect neutral canvas for cheesy, creamy additions!
How to make polenta cakes:
The good news about making a batch of polenta is that leftovers are awesome! Polenta firms as it cools, making it ideal to fry, bake or grill. Note: If you want fry or grill leftover polenta, reduce the amount of liquid in the recipe to 3 1/2 cups.
- Spread freshly made hot polenta into a baking dish, loaf pan or small rimmed baking sheet. Cool and refrigerate until firm.
- Slice into portions and pan fry in a cast iron or nonstick pan with a little olive oil until brown on both sides.
Leftover polenta is easily reheated:
In a saucepan, combine 2-3 tablespoons liquid for each 1 cup of polenta.
The liquid can be milk (unsweetened oat or almond milk will work too), cream, broth, water or a mixture.
Stir to break up the clumps, cover the pan and cook over low heat for 5 minutes, stirring once or twice.
Add additional butter, cheese, salt and pepper to taste.
More polenta recipes:
Now that you made it, you might wonder what to serve with polenta. I think a bowl of polenta is perfect served simply with one or two delicious vegetable side dishes.
Of course, creamy polenta is perfect in a bowl all by itself, topped with a rich and spicy tomato sauce, sauteed broccoli, or simply with butter and more cheese. It’s also the ideal base for saucy stews and slow-cooked meat or poultry.
More polenta meals:
- Quick Homemade Marinara Sauce
- Roasted Vegetables with Parmesan Polenta
- Red Wine Braised Short Ribs
- Tomato Basil Shrimp and Polenta
- Easy Mushroom Ragu
Creamy Polenta with Parmesan Cheese Recipe
- 4 cups (1 l) water
- 1 cup (250 ml) milk
- 1 ½ teaspoons kosher salt *see note on salt below
- 1 cup (160 g) coarse or medium-grind cornmeal
- 3 tablespoons (45 g) butter
- ½ cup (50 g) grated Parmesan cheese, plus more for serving
- 2 teaspoons chopped fresh rosemary or parsley, optional
- Bring the water and milk to a boil in a heavy-duty sauce pan or small Dutch oven. Stir in the salt.
- Gradually sprinkle the polenta into the pan while whisking at the same time. Turn the heat to a very low simmer, cover and continue to cook the polenta for 25-35 minutes, until it's thick, fluffy and begins to pull away from the sides of the pan. Stir frequently so it doesn’t stick to the bottom of the pan.
- When it’s done, remove from the heat and stir in the butter, cheese and additional salt to taste if needed.
- Serve warm, sprinkled with rosemary and additional cheese, if desired.
Karen’s Notes and Tips
- If you want fry or grill leftover polenta, reduce the amount of liquid in the recipe to 3 1/2 cups, which will produce a thicker consistency. To make polenta cakes, pour the freshly made hot polenta into a baking dish or sheet pan. Spread the top evenly, cool and refrigerate until firm. Slice or cut into portions with a cookie/biscuit cutter. Pan-fry in a cast iron or non stick pan with a little olive oil until brown on both sides.
- Use stock or broth in place of some of the water for richer flavor. Milk adds a somewhat creamier texture, but it can be substituted with your choice of water, stock or unsweetened plant-based milk if you prefer.
- Note on salt: This recipe calls for kosher salt, which has larger, fluffier granules and less sodium per volume than fine table salt. If you don’t have kosher salt, reduce the amount in the recipe by half.