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The Best Cornmeal for Polenta

By Cook's Illustrated Published March 2010

Here's what to look for when shopping for polenta.

In the supermarket, cornmeal can be labeled anything from yellow grits to corn semolina. Forget the names. When shopping for the right product to make polenta, there are three things to consider: “instant” or “quick-cooking” versus the traditional style, degerminated or full-grain meal, and grind size. Instant and quick-cooking ¬cornmeals are parcooked and comparatively bland—leave them on the shelf. Though we loved the full-corn flavor of whole-grain cornmeal, it remains slightly gritty no matter how long you cook it. We prefer degerminated cornmeal, in which the hard hull and germ are removed from each kernel (check the back label or ingredient list to see if your cornmeal is degerminated; if it’s not explicitly labeled as such, you can assume it’s whole-grain).

As for grind, we found coarser grains brought the most desirable and pillowy texture to our Creamy Polenta (see related recipe). However, grind coarseness can vary dramatically from brand to brand since there are no standards to ensure consistency: One manufacturer’s “coarse” may be another’s “fine.” Here’s how to identify the optimal coarsely ground texture.

TOO FINE The super-fine grains of quick-cooking cornmeal speed the cooking process but lack corn flavor.

STILL TOO FINE Regular cornmeal (such as Quaker) has a similarly sandlike texture that also cooks up gluey.

JUST RIGHT A coarser cut, about the size of couscous, retains a soft but hearty texture after cooking.