Polenta and Rosemary Sourdough

Growing up I never really liked polenta. My grandmother would frequently cook the gritty yellow mash and I’d just kind of eat it with this muted disdain, asking for something else after I was done. I remember her customarily cooking it in water and then serving a warm bowl fresh from the stove but I’ve had it a number of ways: boiled in water, boiled in chicken stock, cooled and then pan-fried and of course cooled and simply topped with parmesan. Nowadays I’ve somehow developed a deeper appreciation for the yellow stuff and I actually find myself craving that deep, luxurious corn flavor which can readily be summed up as comforting.

Polenta is a typical Northern Italian dish that we’d have in some form or another just about every time we visited family. Maybe this is what slowly developed my admiration for the meal over the years, or maybe it was just my ever-developing palette when growing up (something I know all to well now with my young son — one week he loves chicken the next week he’s moved on to something better), either way you’re sure to find a bag of polenta in my pantry at all times.

polenta and rosemary sourdough darkAlong those same lines, and a food that I find equally comforting and make regularly, is fresh ricotta cheese. An uncomplicated task whose result customarily finds itself spread warm on a toasted slice of sourdough with just a modest drizzle of honey — yeah it’s as good as it sounds (see the end of this post for what I mean). One of the by-products of making ricotta is whey and I’ve been thinking about what to do with the leftovers from the process. Some readers suggested using it to supplant some of the water in my sourdough formula, which is a fantastic idea, but given my recent inkling for polenta I thought: why not boil the polenta in the leftover whey and then bake with it? The result is a mellow creamy consistency that translates directly into the crumb of this bread but the flavor is not so stifling that it becomes too milky or heavily creamy, it compliments the delicate corn flavor and reinforces its silken texture.

I played with varying levels of polenta with this bread and I’ve settled on the amount listed in the formula. A few of my family members really loved the light corn flavor and a few thought it could use a touch more — personal preference plays a role. After trying this out adjust the amount to your liking, up or down to either bring up the corn flavor or make it even more subdue.rosemary and german shepherd Arya

Flour and Cornmeal Selection

I treated this bake much like my experience with an oatmeal porridge loaf: I reduced starting hydration and also used a little stronger flour to help support the porridge-like polenta. Adding in a small percentage of Central Milling High Mountain flour, which has high protein levels, helped quite a bit. A good substitute would be any “Bread Flour” (13-14% protein) found at the market, including King Arthur Bread Flour (blue bag) found in the States. Even though the dough might feel overly strong and dry at the start of this bake, try and refrain from adding in any more water as the polenta will release more than enough during bulk fermentation.raw plenta

A coarse grind gives a more firm, toothy polenta whereas a finer grind gives a more loose and liquid result

When shopping for polenta you can find varying levels of coarseness, ranging from very fine to very coarse. Finer options are sometimes labeled corn grits or corn flour while coarse varieties are typically labeled polenta. I went with Bob’s Red Mill Polenta/Corn Grits because the consistency of the grind was more coarse (even though they label them corn grits, which are typically finer) than other options I had at the market. I prefer the coarse grind, it reminds me more of what I recall having in Italy and it mixes well in the dough. You could certainly choose a fine grind if that is your preference.

Oh and definitely do not use any instant polenta varieties, the flavor and texture is not correct.cooked polentaOne thing to be aware of working with polenta is different bags (and possible weather changes) display different water absorption levels. The ground corn behaves much like flour in this regard, therefore you’ll have to adjust your process for each bake according to how the dough feels at mix. I discuss this below during Bulk Fermentation.

Liquid Whey

In one of my previous posts I go into the process of making fresh ricotta at home. If you’d like to cook the polenta for this recipe in whey first make a batch of this fresh ricotta and save the resulting whey once it cools. I do this the day (or up to a week) before and store the cooled whey in a glass jar in the fridge.liquid whey and polentaThe addition of this small percentage of whey adds not only flavor but nutrition to this rosemary and polenta sourdough. If you have extra try baking with it in your normal sourdough recipe, just replace a percentage of the water in the formula.

Polenta and Rosemary Sourdough Formula


Total dough weight: 1800g
Pre-fermented flour: 4.75%
Hydration: 75% (this does not include the whey)
Yield: 2 x 900g loaves

If you want to halve this recipe just take all ingredients and divide by 2 — including the polenta, whey and rosemary.

Levain Build

Weight Ingredient Baker’s Percentage
25g Mature liquid starter (100% hydration) 50%
25g Giusto’s Artisan Bread Flour 50%
25g Central Milling Type 851 50%
50g H2O @ room temperature 100%

levain before and afterDough Formula

Note that the baker’s percentages listed below are with respect to the final dough ingredients and do not take into account the levain.

Target final dough temperature (FDT) is 78ºF – 79ºF.

Weight Ingredient Baker’s Percentage
527g Giusto’s Artisan Bread (white bread flour) 55.25%
277g Central Milling Type 852 29.00%
150g Central Milling High Mountain (high protein flour, ~13-14%) 15.75%
704g H2O @ 90ºF 73.75%
23g Fine sea salt 2.41%
119g Mature, liquid levain 12.47%
445g Liquid whey (or milk or water) 46.64%
170g Bob’s Red Mill Polenta 17.81%
10g Fresh minced rosemary 01.04%


1. Levain – 11:00 a.m.

Build the liquid levain described above in the morning and store somewhere around 74-76ºF ambient.

2. Make Polenta & Chop Rosemary – 3:00 p.m.

This can be done any time, really, just give it at least 1-2 hours before mixing to cool completely.chopping rosemary

Gather the raw polenta and liquid whey and prepare a medium sized baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Pour the whey into a heavy bottomed sauce pan and set to medium heat, bring to a boil. Stir occasionally to prevent scorching. Once boiling carefully pour the whey over the raw polenta in a bowl and stir until there are no lumps. Let sit for 45 minutes (the longer you let this mixture soak the more water the corn will absorb). After 45 minutes dump the polenta mixture into a fine sieve and let some of the liquid whey drain. I didn’t press the polenta at this point, I just let any excess liquids drain freely for a minute or so.

You could optionally choose to not drain any of the whey but this will depend on whether your flour can take on the added hydration. I tried this a few times and the resulting bread definitely is like a porridge loaf: super, super moist, lower rise and very tender inside. Something you can experiment with in the future.boiling polentaTransfer the drained polenta to the prepared baking sheet and spread out in a thin layer to cool until needed later.

3. Autolyse – 4:00 p.m.

Mix flour and water (reserve 50g water for mix, later) in a bowl until all dry bits are hydrated. Cover bowl and store somewhere warm (around 75ºF) until mix time.

4. Mix – 5:30 p.m.

Add the required levain and about half (25g) of the reserved water to the autolysed dough.

Porridge bread benefits from some strength created in the dough at mix time, especially since the polenta can hold on to quite a bit of hydration that later gets released during bulk. For mixing I chose to do slap and fold for about 4 minutes just until the dough starts to show signs of a smooth surface and lightly holds its shape on the counter.

If you aren’t comfortable with the slap/fold method, or don’t like it, you can do stretch and folds in the bowl until your dough tightens up and becomes tighter, and slightly hard to stretch out and fold over.polenta and rosemary added to doughWhen finished, sprinkle the salt, rosemary and polenta on top of the dough and use the remaining water to help moisten everything. Pinch through a few times and fold the dough over itself to help incorporate util all ingredients are well distributed.

In some books you’ll find authors like to mix in the add-ins (nuts, porridge, etc.) later in bulk but I find at this point it’s a little easier to get fully incorporated and I haven’t noticed any detriment to doing so.dough mixedTransfer dough to a tub or thick-walled bowl for bulk fermentation.

5. Bulk Fermentation – 5:40 p.m. to 9:10 p.m.

At 78-80ºF ambient temperature bulk fermentation should go for about 3 hours and 30 minutes. Keep an eye on this dough because the corn, specifically its starches, speed up fermentation quite a bit.

Keep a close eye on this dough during bulk, fermentation moves quick.

Perform 4 sets of stretch and folds during bulk, spaced out by 30 minutes. Be gentle with your last set of stretch and folds. Lift up just enough to fold the dough over itself, long before it feels like it would tear.

As I mentioned earlier through my trials with this bread I’ve noticed the polenta can absorb varying amounts of liquid (weather might also play a factor, as would each different bag of polenta). If your dough still feels very wet and/or soupy after your last set add in another set of stretch and folds. Be flexible here and be prepared to add/remove sets depending on how your dough feels3.

6. Divide & Preshape – 9:10 p.m.

Divide the dough into two masses. Lightly shape each mass into a round and let rest for 20 minutes exposed to air. You don’t want each round to get so dry they develop a skin on top, but even in my dry climate I have yet to see this happen, especially with this wet dough. In fact, I find this exposure helps the next step, shaping, by slightly drying out the surface so it doesn’t stick to the work surface.

7. Shape – 9:30 p.m.

Lightly flour the top of the dough rounds and flour the work surface. Flip each round and shape into either a batard or a boule. Try to get some good tension on the top of these loaves. After shaping, let rest on the bench for a few minutes and then place into a banneton or bowl that was dusted with white rice flour, seam-side-up.

I prefer to use linen-lined bannetons for this extremely wet dough: it removes easier from the basket and any liquid that escapes from the dough will go into the linen, which is far easier to clean.

8. Rest & Proof – 9:30 p.m.

Cover the bannetons with plastic and retard to a 38ºF refrigerator immediately for 11 hours and 30 minutes.

9. Bake – Next Morning: Preheat oven at 8:00am, Bake at 9:00 a.m.

Preheat oven for 1 hour at 490ºF4.

Bake 20 minutes at 500ºF with steam. Reduce oven temp to 440ºF and finish baking, about 25-30 minutes. Watch the dough in the last 10 minutes of this bake, they color rather quickly. Remove from the oven and cool on wire racks.

I steamed my oven in my usual way, described here in my post on how to steam your home oven for baking. Let the finished loaves cool for a couple hours before slicing to let the interior fully set.


the perfect loaf polenta rosemary sourdoughSlice this loaf in half and take a big whiff, the smell is captivating. In fact, this smell, a mix of luscious, creamy corn & rosemary, permeates the entire kitchen when it’s still in the oven. Holding your hand away from the knife and the bread away from the cutting board until it cools is a true test of self-restraint.


polenta and rosemary sourdough crustThis gritty, thin, speckled crust is what keeps me mulling over this bread even after I’ve devoured a slice — and you know I love the crust. But really, can I get this crust on all my bread? It looks dark, hard and thick but that couldn’t be further from the truth. It’s splinter-thin with corn blemishes and deeply caramelized; it tastes like the entire loaf is wrapped in this thin sweet cracker that only hints at the deeper flavors inside.

I found the bottom of these to get rather dark so if you’re making these in a Dutch oven be ready for this (I notice dough baked in a Dutch oven to cook faster on bottom than top), you could sprinkle some raw wheat germ below the loaf before loading into your Dutch oven. Similarly, you could do the same when baking directly on baking stones to help.


polenta and rosemary sourdough crumbBaking what is essentially a porridge bread the crumb can usually be on the dense side (I mean, polenta is dense in itself) but one of my goals for this formula was to really lighten it up, to open the crumb enough for an airy bread that wasn’t like eating a brick. I like the results here and I find the mix of flour to be just right for supporting the wet polenta. If you don’t have “type 85” flour you can approximate this by using 50% whole wheat and 50% bread flour for this part of the formula.

The polenta is clearly visible in each slice and provides a really striking contrast to the dark crust. The crumb for this bread was rather shaggy and incredibly moist.


polenta and rosemary sourdough tasteAn un-toasted slice is exceptionally creamy (thanks to the whey) and tender, to be expected from a porridge bread. When toasted, however, it’s elevated to new heights — the entire thing takes on a crunch & crackle that reminds me of that old-time favorite cereal: Cornflakes.

I like this bread with only the slightest hint of rosemary flavor, I find it can be overpowering and just the right amount grounds the corn. However, increase the percentage of rosemary if you find it is too subtle or you like more of a punch.

A wonderful by-product of making this bread is you not only have a wicked loaf of bread but you also have fresh ricotta sitting around… although probably not for long.polenta and rosemary slice with fresh ricotta and honeyBuon appetito!

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  1. This can be approximated with 50% whole wheat and 50% bread flour (high protein)

  2. This can be approximated with 50% whole wheat and 50% bread flour (high protein)

  3. And in the worst case, your dough is over-hydrated next attempt reduce hydration to offset this

  4. The reduced preheat temperature is to reduce the stored heat of my Baking Steel, I found the bottom of these loaves to cook rather fast. More below.