Recipes for Life

Cook. Eat well. Be happy.

Traditional Polenta

Whole grain polenta (aka yellow corn grits) is a roughly ground corn product cooked in water or broth until thickened. It can be served hot as a creamy porridge or side dish. Or it can be solidified, and/or baked or fried.

Corn (I speak of the organic, non-GM version) is a fabulous food source whose bounty has been harvested by native North and South American cultures for millennia! Historical consumers of corn knew that processing corn in an alkaline solution, such as soaking in limewater, was imperative to make the corn edible.

Among many benefits, such alkaline processing makes the corn more easy to grind. It allows the corn to form a dough when mixed only with water allowing for the formation of tortilla, arepa, tamale and other traditional corn products. It also improves flavor, aroma and nutritional value, namely freeing bound B vitamins (mainly niacin or Vitamin B3) for absorption. Between 1900 and 1940, a B vitamin deficiency called pellagra affected three million people in the American South. Improperly processed corn grits made up a significant portion of their diet. In addition, processing corn in this way reduces mycotoxin levels (toxins that form from fungi that inhabit/eat the corn). This reduces some of the inflammatory properties (allergy symptoms) associated with un-soaked, non-traditionally prepared corn products.


Prep time:

12 hours (to make limewater)

Soak time:

12 hours; then 12 more hours

Cook time:

15-30 minutes




Step 1. Make the limewater


Place 1 inch of pickling lime (calcium hydroxide) in the bottom of a half gallon jar. Fill with filtered water. Cover tightly and shake well.


Let stand overnight. The powder will settle to the bottom. The clear liquid on top is limewater, a saturated calcium hydroxide solution.


Store in a cool place. Decant the liquid carefully, leaving the powder at the bottom. When only powder remains, refill with water, shake and let settle. You can refill with water several times. Then discard and begin again.


Step 2. Soak the cornmeal

Decant 1 cup of limewater. Mix the cornmeal with the limewater in a glass bowl until it is uniformly damp. Cover with a tea towel and soak for 12 hours.


Stir in the lemon juice or vinegar. Cover and leave in a warm place for an 12 additional hours.


Step 3. Make the polenta

Bring the water or chicken stock to a boil. Slowly, add the soaked cornmeal, stirring constantly with a whisk. Add the salt. Lower the heat and continue stirring occassionally for 15-30 minutes or until the liquid is reduced and the polenta is so thick it pulls away from the sides of the pan. Stir in optional butter if desired. Serve as creamy corn grits, or proceed to Step 4 to make a firm baked polenta. 


(Optional) Step 4. Bake the Polenta

Pour the polenta into an oiled 9 x 13 pyrex dish. Bake at 350 for 1½ hours.


Tip: Fry leftover polenta or use it to make Polenta with Fresh Herbs.