Polenta has a distinctive flavor and texture. But if you don't have it on hand, you may still be able to make your dish work as long as you're not set on enjoying exactly the same dish you'd have if you used polenta. Polenta is coarse cornmeal. It goes by different names because it is part of different culinary traditions and lends itself to different uses and preparation processes. If you have coarse cornmeal, you don't have to substitute anything for polenta because you already have polenta.
Masa: A Close Cousin
Like polenta, masa harina is made from corn, but masa harina has been nixtmalized, that is, processed with alkaline ingredients that hull the corn kernels, make their nutrients more available and change their flavor. Although the flavor of masa harina is somewhat different from untreated ground dried corn, the two versions of the grain have more similarities than differences in flavor and texture.
The Absorbency of Rice
Like rice, polenta is often used to soak up flavor from stews and sauces. Rice is often used similarly, and can be substituted in dishes that involve topping the polenta with a savory sauce. Your dish won't be quite the same, but both rice and polenta are neutral enough in flavor they can play the same role in a dish. When substituting rice for polenta as the base of a casserole, spread the rice in the bottom of the pan, let it cool for a few minutes to start solidifying and then spread the top layer.
Oat Bran for Texture
The process of making polenta involves drizzling the grain into boiling water held on low heat, and then stirring constantly until the mixture thickens. The porridge is ready once it thickens all the way through, and it will continue to gel as it cools, until it is almost completely solid. Oat bran behaves in precisely the same way when you cook it, and can be substituted for polenta in dishes where texture is key.
Pasta's Shared Culinary Tradition
Pasta and polenta are both staples in Italian cuisine, providing a starchy base to soak up sauces and flavors. Tomatoes, basil, sausage and cheese all make perfect sense with both pasta and polenta and any seasoning you use with polenta will work equally well with pasta. The architecture of your dish will likely change when you substitute pasta for polenta; for example, the sauce will be mixed in rather than layered on top. Despite these differences, the flavors will cohere and the dish will be appealing.
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