I found this article on Epicurious written by Sheela Prakash on November 13, 2017 and thought it was useful information, so am just passing it along.
Ah, the endless polenta vs. cornmeal debate. A few nights ago I found myself standing in the bulk section of my grocery store, staring blankly at a bin of cornmeal. I had come in search of polenta, which I had planned to make for dinner. But it seemed as though everybody else had the same plan—the polenta was sold out. However, there was plenty of coarse-ground cornmeal, and from all I knew they were essentially the same thing. So I went home and made, um, polenta. And it worked. Sort of. I cooked it low and slow, and the results were indeed porridge-like. But something was missing in consistency and flavor.
WHAT IS POLENTA?
Polenta is not an ingredient—it’s a a dish. “The term ‘polenta’ refers to the traditional Italian preparation of a variety of coarsely ground grains or starches cooked into a porridge,” says House. “For example, Northern Italy is known for polenta taragna, a porridge of cornmeal and buckwheat meal.” Chestnut flour, chickpea flour, or coarse ground rice are just a few of the many grains that were traditionally used, and are still used, in Italy. However, cornmeal polenta is by far the most common preparation and today, particularly in the United States, when you hear the term “polenta,” it refers to the cornmeal version.
CAN YOU USE CORNMEAL TO MAKE POLENTA?
So, is polenta cornmeal? And can you use those bags labeled “cornmeal” and “polenta” interchangeably? Yes and no. “Most people, including chefs we know and love, say any version of medium or coarsely ground corn works for polenta,” says Roberts. “Ultimately, yes, a cook can prepare a porridge from medium or coarsely ground corn. Fine-grind can be a bit too pasty if prepared this way. I like [fine-grind] best for baking or breading. But for those who are sticklers for authenticity, choosing a product specially designed for polenta will produce an ideal dish,” says Sarah.
True polenta is made from a specific variety of corn. “Polenta should be made from corn that at one point culturally grew in Italy, even if the variety is now grown in the United States,” says Roberts. Authentic polenta is most typically made from a variety of corn called eight-row flint, or otto file in Italian. It’s an heirloom variety that produces a porridge that is deep in both color and flavor. It’s also milled differently from cornmeal, which yields a different, fuller mouthfeel.
CORNMEAL VS. POLENTA: SO WHAT’S THE BOTTOM LINE?
In a pinch, sure, use that medium or coarse-ground cornmeal for polenta. But when possible, try to seek out the cornmeal that’s labeled “polenta,” as this is most likely to be the real stuff, the otto file—the stuff that will yield a bowl of porridge with a rich yellow-orange hue and a specific, addictive sweetness. Look for polenta from respected mills domestically and in Italy. Roberts likes Mulino Marino, a mill in Northern Italy whose polenta is made from the eight-row flint variety. And, of course, he also recommends his own company’spolenta, which also uses this heirloom corn.
WHAT ARE OTHER TYPICAL POLENTA INGREDIENTS?
Traditionally polenta is cooked in water. But it can also be made with stock or milk for added creaminess and flavor. Be sure to season with salt. Toward the end of the cooking process, it’s common to stir butter or olive oil in to the polenta for luxe creaminess. It’s also common to add cheese, like Parmesan. Then, your polenta can be topped with any number of things. Ragout is typical, but it’s also delicious served with mushrooms, roasted vegetables, or with a protein like fish. Or, just eat it on its own, as a creamy porridge. Need to know more about how to cook polenta, step by step? Check it out here.