Long before corn was brought from the Americas to Europe, polenta was already a staple foodit just wasnt made from corn, obviously. The name originally comes from the Latin word for pearled grain like barley, and the dish, a gruel that could be made with all sorts of grains and legumes, dates to Roman times. Today, its no longer associated with those other grainsjust corn or, in the case of polenta taragna, cornmeal mixed with buckwheat. While there are certain heirloom varieties of corn, like otto file and biancoperla, which some prefer over the more generic stuff, for all practical purposes, any medium ground or coarsely ground cornmeal will do. Even grits, which are often ground more coarsely than polenta and are sometimes made with a different variety of corn dent instead of flint, are a perfectly acceptable substitute in just about any situation requiring polenta. Thats the first thing thats helpful to know Polenta doesnt have to be made with a product that says polenta on the package. Theres nothing wrong with using a product designed exclusively for polenta, but you can just as easily use any medium or coarse ground cornmeal. For instance, the above photo shows an imported package of Italian polenta as well as a bag of stoneground cornmeal from Bobs Red Mill. The Bobs Red Mill stuff makes no mention of polenta anywhere on the bag, and yet its totally fine for making polenta. The company also makes a product that it does sell as polenta, but its not stoneground. The biggest difference between the two, in fact, is the grinding method. In this case, the imported polenta has a more consistent grind, while the Bobs Red Mill product is stoneground, producing a more irregular texture. Stoneground grains can range from a powdery flour to large, grit size pieces. Bear in mind that theres no connection between origin and grind type You can find imported Italian polenta thats stoneground, and domestic stuff with a more consistent grind size. In the end, its just a matter of personal preference. The consistent grind will produce a more uniform polenta, while the stoneground cornmeal will have a more varied texture, potentially with some large, firm bits of chaff mixed in. A lot of stores sell quick or instant polenta, which is made either from an incredibly fine grind of cornmeal or from precooked polenta thats then dried and processed into a flour that can be rapidly reconstituted and put on the table within minutes. While I recognize the convenience a product like that offers, Ill be honest Ive never met a quick cooking polenta Ive liked. Personally, Id rather just not eat polenta than settle for that stuff. The Common Refrains. There are a few things you hear over and over when people talk about making polenta, and not all of them are true. The first is that the water absolutely must be boiling. That is 1. 00 wrong. Ive made many side by side batches of polenta, some for which I stirred the cornmeal into cold water and some with boiling water, and it makes no difference at all in the finished product. If your water is boiling, thats fine. If its not, thats fine, too. The second is that you should add your polenta to your water in a thin stream while whisking constantly in order to prevent lumps. This is generally true if youre starting with boiling water and dry polenta, but, as well see in a bit, its not true for all cases and, in fact, my favorite method of making polenta involves no boiling water or slow addition of polenta at all. The third thing you hear over and over is that you have to stir the polenta nonstop until its done. This is another rule that simply isnt true. If you dont stir polenta at all, it will stick to the bottom of the pot and eventually burn, while a skin can form on top that will create lumps once stirred back in. Both of these issues are solved by frequentbut not constantstirring. If youre making polenta, its enough to give it a good stir every few minutes. The rest of the time, youre free to prepare the rest of whatever it is that youre cooking. If you do get a skin on top that creates lumps, vigorously stirring with a firm whisk will get rid of them. Im not even going to give serious consideration to the two other commonly cited rules of polenta, specifically that you absolutely must use a wooden spoon, and that you must stir in only one direction. Suffice it to say, Ive broken these silly rules countless times and always had great results, so just disregard them. The Real Rules of Making Polenta. So, what is important when youre making polenta Lets take a look. The Liquid. Perhaps the biggest decision, aside from the exact type of cornmeal itself, is what type of liquid youre going to use for the polenta. Years ago, when I worked for the Tuscan chef Cesare Casella, I spent a week or so cooking with his mom. One day I asked her about making polenta with milk, and she looked at me in complete horror. Sausage And Rice here. No, no, no, she told me, you dont make polenta with milk, everyou use water Not being as bound to tradition as she is, I dont necessarily agree that water is the only acceptable choice for polenta. Milk, for instance, makes an incredibly rich and creamy polenta thats a lot more of an indulgence all on its own, while chicken stock infuses the polenta with much more flavor. Theyre both perfectly good options, depending on what you want. Still, while I like polenta made with either milk or stock, water is my personal favorite. First, because it creates a more neutral polenta that allows the corn flavor to shine through. A dairy laden polenta, while tasty, can be too rich when paired with toppings like meat, rag, and cheese. Water makes a creamy polenta that doesnt leave you gasping for breath. Second, polenta made with milk can often be too rich. It reminds me of another experience I had while working for Cesare.