This post may contain affiliate links. Read my disclosure policy.
Baked Polenta with parmesan cheese is a simple and versatile side dish that can pair with so many of your favorite meals. It only takes four ingredients and a little bit of stirring to make this easy gluten free recipe turn out perfect every time. We’ve been eating this dish for years!
Baked Polenta Squares
This is one of those dishes I make so often that it has totally escaped my mind that I should share it with you. In fact, it’s such a staple that I kind of forget it is an actual recipe with ingredients and quantities and steps that I should write down. I just kind of make it on instinct.
Some people like creamy polenta that you can scoop onto a plate or in a bowl. But my family loves these more firm baked polenta squares. They are perfect with some pot roast or just topped with pasta sauce. And if you prefer it creamy, just don’t cook it as long and skip the baking step. You can even stir in some butter and milk.
I do hope this becomes one of those sides you can just pull out of your back pocket when you are tired of the same old baked potatoes or rice. The total cooking time may seem long. But while you do have to be paying attention and stirring for the 15 minutes it is on the stove, once you pop it in the oven to get nice and golden you can turn your attention to the rest of the meal.
What exactly is polenta?
Polenta is a dish from Northern Italy that involves cooking any coarse-ground grain in liquid until it becomes soft like a porridge. While it typically refers to the finished dish and can be made from rice, buckwheat, or other grains, traditionally it is made from ground corn or cornmeal.
Most often you’ll find it cooked until it has a thick, creamy consistency, and you can spoon it into a bowl or on a plate and enjoy it immediately. But if you cook it longer and/or allow it to cool, it becomes firm so that you can cut it into squares or even other shapes. The cooled polenta can be baked in a casserole dish, as in the recipe, cut into squares, and served. Or it can be cut while cold and baked or fried for an even more crispy exterior.
Polenta makes a simple gluten free side dish that is easy to make, and can be made ahead. It uses budget-friendly ingredients that you can easily keep on hand in your pantry, and it is versatile in how you prepare and flavor it.
Is polenta the same as cornmeal?
Because it is most often made with cornmeal, people often assume polenta and cornmeal are one and the same. While most polenta is made from cornmeal, it does technically refer to the finished dish. If you buy a package labeled as polenta, it is usually made from a different variety of corn and has a bit coarser grind. But a standard package of medium-grind cornmeal workers perfectly to make polenta.
Is polenta gluten free?
Since polenta is made from corn, it is naturally gluten free. However, many companies will process it in the same facility as wheat or other gluten-containing grains. Therefore, there is a risk of cross-contamination which is often noted on many packages. I typically used gluten free cornmeal from Bob’s Red Mill or Arrowhead Mills.
- Chicken or vegetable stock or broth: The kind from a box is perfectly fine, wish I recommend over canned broth. Also, a low sodium variety is preferred so you can control the level of salt.
- Kosher salt: Omit this if you are not using a low sodium broth.
- Cornmeal: I usually just use the same cornmeal as I use to make cornbread, which is medium-grind cornmeal. But you can also purchase a package specifically labeled as polenta.
- Grated parmesan cheese: Since this is the primary flavor in this recipe, I like to use a good quality parmesan or even grate it myself.
How to make baked polenta from scratch
- Preparation: Preheat the oven to 400°F. Spray a 9-inch square glass baking dish with cooking spray or lightly coat with olive oil.
- Make the polenta: Bring the stock and salt to a gentle simmer and whisk in the cornmeal. Simmer and stir for 15 to 20 minutes, or until very thick and almost firm. Stir in parmesan cheese.
- Bake: Immediately spread the polenta in the pan, top with more parmesan in the prepared pan and sprinkle the remaining 2 Tablespoons of parmesan cheese over the top. Bake for 20-25 minutes, or until golden brown on top.
Put a thin layer of oil or cooking spray on a silicone spatula. That makes it super easy to spread the thick polenta in the baking dish and get a nice, even layer without it sticking to everything.
Tips for Success
When it first starts simmering, you may not need to stir constantly, but once it begins to thicken, you’ll need to stay close to the stove. It will start to bubble and spurt, and as it gets thick it will start to stick to the pot. Stirring constantly at this point will release the steam and prevent it from caking onto the sides of the pot.
Cook it long enough
You really want to make sure you give it enough time to get very thick. When you pull a spatula through the cooked polenta, it should briefly hold its shape. That is how you know it will form nice squares when it is baked and sliced, even if you don’t have time to cool it before you spread it in the pan and pop it in the oven.
Or make it in advance
You can prepare the polenta in advance, spread it in the pan, and refrigerate. It can be chilled for a half hour, several hours, or overnight.
Then just sprinkle the parmesan cheese and bake right before serving. It may need an extra 5 minutes or so in the oven.
Make it meatless. As I mentioned earlier, you can use chicken broth, but vegetable broth is great to make it vegetarian-friendly. Skip the parmesan for a vegan option.
Use different cheese. Swap the Parmesan for Romano or Asiago. You can even try cheddar, Monterey Jack, or Swiss.
Add fresh or dried herbs. Dried herbs like oregano or Italian seasoning can go in with the cornmeal. Fresh herbs such as parsley or dill can be stirred in with the cheese. You can even add spices like chili powder, paprika, dried mustard, or red pepper flakes.
And once you know the technique for cooking polenta, you can use it in so many ways, too.
What to Serve with Baked Polenta
Polenta is such a versatile side dish. You can serve it with roasts or pulled meats. It’s delicious topped with your favorite pasta sauces. And it can just go alongside grilled chicken or steak, meatballs, or roasted veggies.
- Pot Roast
- Pesto Chicken Tenders
- Meatballs with Red Gravy
- Balsamic Marinated Flat Iron Steak
- Grilled Chicken Caesar Salad
- Balsamic Roasted Vegetables
- Bolognese Sauce
- Vodka Sauce
- Alfredo Sauce
Make it a Meal
You might need
- As mentioned earlier, if you need to ensure your cornmeal is gluten free and not at risk of cross-contamination, Bob’s Red Mill is a great option.
- Remember to whisk constantly as you are adding the cornmeal to the broth and as it starts to cook and thicken.
- I like to switch to one of these heat-proof spatulas once the polenta starts to get too thick to whisk. It is also great for spreading the sticky polenta into the pan, especially if you coat it with a bit of oil or cooking spray.
- A no-frills 8-inch glass baking dish is perfect for this recipe. You may already have one in your kitchen, but if not, it’s a great staple to have in your cabinet.
Baked Polenta with Parmesan Cheese
- Medium saucepan
- 9-inch square baking pan
- Preheat the oven to 400°F. Spray a 9-inch square glass baking dish with cooking spray or lightly coat with olive oil.
- In a medium saucepan, bring the stock and salt to a gentle simmer. While whisking, slowly pour in the cornmeal.
- Continue to simmer, stirring frequently, for 15 to 20 minutes, or until very thick and almost firm. Stir in 1/4 cup parmesan cheese.
- Spread in the prepared pan and sprinkle the remaining 2 Tablespoons of parmesan cheese over the top.
- Bake for 20-25 minutes, or until golden brown on top.