If you have never had polenta, you are seriously missing out! Polenta is a delicious Italian dish that has quickly become a favorite in both restaurants and family homes.
However, you may be wondering what exactly it is, and most importantly, if it is vegan?
The good news is yes, polenta on its own is completely vegan. However, while technically, it is only made of cornmeal and water, polenta is often prepared with butter or cheese (making it not vegan).
Whether you are new to the vegan diet or have been practicing for years, it feels good to order something you think is meat and dairy-free and then ends up with a sore belly or bad mood after your meal.
So let’s find out which types of polenta are vegan, which ones may not be, and how to tell the difference. You are about to learn everything you need to know about the wonderful dish of polenta!
What Is Polenta?
Traditional polenta is simply ground cornmeal, boiled water, and maybe a little salt, and it is much tastier than it sounds!
Almost anyone can prepare polenta, but it also can be purchased premade at grocery stores.
If you are looking for the vegan option, be very cautious to check the ingredients of both options.
Sometimes parmesan cheese is added to the cornmeal powder, and often the premade selection was cooked with cheese or butter.
How is Polenta Served?
Most often, you will find polenta served as a side dish to the main meal, like mashed potatoes, rice, or quinoa.
While it is most commonly found as a hot porridge-like dish, it can also be cooled fried as a polenta cake or even fries, which tend to be particularly flavorsome.
Polenta can be made with only boiling water and salt, however, if you want to increase the flavor, you can easily use vegan butter or plant milk when cooking at home.
The dish is most popular as a savory accompaniment to sauteed or roasted veggies, stews, or even a rich sauce.
If you want to impress your friends and family, you could transform polenta into delicious “french fries” with a truffle sauce!
Where Did Polenta Originate?
Because polenta is typically made solely from cornmeal, one may mistakenly assume that the dish originated in Latin America, however, polenta is actually from Northern Italy.
This Mediterranean dish has more recently become a worldwide sensation and it can certainly be found in most major grocery stores around the world. It is also being used quite often in a variety of trendy restaurants, not just Italian eateries.
Of course, in Italian cuisines, butter and cheese are often used to enhance the flavors of pasta and polentas, so polenta is more likely to not be vegan friendly at an Italian restaurant.
When ordering a dish that comes with polenta at a restaurant, unless it is specified as vegan, you will certainly want to ask how it is prepared to ensure it is dairy-free.
How To Buy Polenta?
As we have previously mentioned, there are two options when purchasing polenta to cook at home: powdered and premade or precooked.
Which Brands of Powdered Polenta Are Vegan?
As a general rule of thumb, you are more likely to find vegan polenta if you opt for the powdered option. While some brands do add spices and even grated cheese to their polenta mix, most are simply made with cornmeal.
If you want to purchase an authentic Italian polenta for your home, you can’t do better than Roland, and luckily for us vegans, the only ingredient in the bag is yellow cornmeal.
Bob’s Red Mill is another popular brand that you can find in most grocery stores that is completely vegan as it is only made of cornmeal.
Which Brands of Pre-Cooked Polenta Are Vegan?
The great news is, most pre-cooked polentas are also vegan! However, it is more common that other ingredients are added so you will want to check the ingredients, even if it simply says “polenta” on the label.
If you have been enjoying a vegan diet for some time, you know that checking labels is an essential part of ensuring no traces of dairy are used in the making of premade foods, and if you are new to the vegan lifestyle, you will learn fairly quickly that there is dairy in a lot more products than you may have thought!
Trader Joe’s has a delicious vegan pre-cooked polenta that can be a great addition to an easy and quick home-cooked meal!
Or if you do not live near a Trader Joe’s, you can find San Gennaro polenta at most grocery stores which is also completely vegan.
Health Benefits of Polenta
Polenta is definitely considered a healthy food, as it only has 80 calories per every 125 grams, and includes natural fats, fiber, and protein!
Another amazing feature of polenta: although it is a good source of healthy carbs, it is completely gluten-free! So if you are looking for a healthy alternative to other popular side dishes, polenta may just be your new favorite.
Powdered Polenta vs. Pre-Cooked Polenta
Technically, the powdered polenta option is slightly better for the body than its pre-cooked counterpart. While both products are gluten-free and some brands are definitely vegan, the premade polenta often has a few other additives that the powdered polenta does not have.
Any pre-cooked or processed food most likely comes with some chemicals to elongate its shelf life, and polenta is no different.
Premade polenta usually has tartaric acid, ascorbic acid, and even beta carotene so that it retains its color. And while these ingredients aren’t particularly negative, they are not whole foods and therefore are not as good for the body.
If you really want to make the healthiest possible choice and get a polenta that is chock-full of good ingredients, you should be on the lookout for a powdered polenta made with “whole cornmeal.”
Some cornmeal is made from degerminated corn, especially in the premade options, which means that the center of the corn has been removed, and with it, a variety of nutrients.
In whole cornmeal, the corn still has the “germ” and therefore is rich in vitamin B and E, as well as healthy fats and fiber.
So is polenta vegan? Yes, polenta is vegan (save some exceptions).
As with most grains, polenta is naturally vegan, however, many restaurants choose to prepare the dish with butter and cheese, so you must check in with the server or chef before you order it on a day or night out.
If you are buying and preparing polenta at home, make sure you check the ingredient list on both the powdered and premade options as sometimes cheese is added.
However, once you have established that the polenta you ordered or purchased is only cornmeal, you can either enjoy it in its simplicity, or add your flavors with herbs, spices, vegan butter, plant milk, or really anything that strikes your fancy!
Polenta can be a healthy, vegan, and gluten-free carb that will be a wonderful addition to your diet!