Polenta and Rosemary Sourdough

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Growing up, I never really liked polenta. My grandmother would frequently cook the gritty yellow mash, and I’d eat it with this muted disdain, asking for something else after I finished eating. I remember her customarily cooking it in water and then serving a warm bowl fresh from the stove, but I’ve had it a variety of ways: boiled in water, simmered in chicken stock, cooled, and then pan-fried and, of course, cooled and topped merely with parmesan. Nowadays, I’ve somehow developed a deeper appreciation for the yellow stuff, and I find myself craving that deep, luxurious corn flavor that can readily be summed up as comforting. And this polenta and rosemary sourdough bread wraps that comforting flavor up in a neat, edible package.

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, perhaps, it was just my ever-developing palette as I was getting older (something I know all too 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 dark

Along those same lines, and 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 soft creamy consistency that translates directly into the crumb of this bread, but the flavor is not so stifling that it becomes too milky or densely creamy, it compliments the delicate corn flavor and reinforces its silken texture.

rosemary and german shepherd Arya

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 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 subdued.

Flour and Cornmeal Selection

raw plenta

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 stiff 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.

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.

cooked polenta

Oh and do not use any instant polenta varieties, the flavor and texture are not correct.

One 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 the mix. I discuss this below during Bulk Fermentation.

Liquid Whey

liquid whey and polenta

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.

The 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 standard sourdough recipe, just replace a percentage of the water in the formula.

Polenta and Rosemary Sourdough Formula

Vitals

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

WeightIngredientBaker’s Percentage
25gRipe liquid starter (100% hydration)50%
25gGiusto’s Artisan Bread Flour50%
25gCentral Milling Type 85150%
50gWater100%

levain before and after
Dough 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 78°F (25.5°C).

WeightIngredientBaker’s Percentage
527gGiusto’s Artisan Bread (white bread flour)55.25%
277gCentral Milling Type 85229.00%
150gCentral Milling High Mountain (high protein flour, ~13-14%)15.75%
704gWater73.75%
23gFine sea salt2.41%
119gMature, liquid levain12.47%
445gLiquid whey (or milk or water)46.64%
170gBob’s Red Mill Polenta17.81%
10gFresh minced rosemary01.04%

Method

1. Levain – 11:00 a.m.

Build the liquid levain described above in the morning and store somewhere around 74-76°F (22-24°C) ambient.

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

chopping rosemary

This chopping and cooking can be done any time, but be sure to give it at least 1-2 hours before mixing to cool completely.

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 saucepan and set to medium heat, bring to a boil. Stir occasionally to prevent scorching. Once boiling 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 allow some of the liquid whey drains. I didn’t press the polenta at this point; I just let any excess liquids drain freely for a minute or so.

boiling polenta

You could also choose to not drain 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 is like a porridge loaf: super, super moist, lower rise and very tender inside. Something you can experiment with in the future.

Transfer 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 the mix, later) in a bowl until all dry bits are hydrated. Cover bowl and store somewhere warm (around 75°F/24°C) 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 the 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.

polenta and rosemary added to dough

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.

When 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 until all ingredients are well distributed.

dough mixed

In some books you’ll find authors like to mix in the add-ins (nuts, porridge, etc.) later in bulk but I find it’s a little easier to fully incorporate at this stage of the bulk fermentation. Transfer 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°F (25°C) 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, speeds up fermentation significantly.

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

Perform four sets of stretch and folds during the bulk, spaced out by 30 minutes. Be gentle with your last set of stretch and folds. Lift 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 soupy after your last set adds 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 I haven’t seen this happen. 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.

For more instruction on how to shape this dough as an oblong loaf, which I love, see my post on how to form a batard (with video!).

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 proof in a home refrigerator for 10 to 14 hours.

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

I steamed my oven in my usual way, described here in my post on how to steam your home oven for baking, but you could also use a Dutch oven to bake these.

Preheat your oven to 450°F (230°C).

Bake for 20 minutes at 450°F (232°C) with steam. After 20 minutes, remove the lid if you’re using a Dutch oven or remove steaming pans, and finish baking for 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.

Important: let the finished loaves cool for a couple of hours before slicing to let the interior fully set. See my post on storing bread for information on how to store this break to keep it fresh for longer.

Conclusion

the perfect loaf polenta rosemary sourdough

Slice this loaf in half and take a big whiff, the smell is captivating. 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 real test of self-restraint.

Crust

polenta and rosemary sourdough crust

This 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 the 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.

Crumb

polenta and rosemary sourdough crumb

Baking what is necessarily 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 lighten it up, to open the crumb enough for an airy bread that wasn’t like eating a brick. I love the results and I find the mix of flour to be just right for supporting the wet polenta.

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

Taste

polenta and rosemary sourdough taste

An un-toasted slice of this polenta rosemary sourdough 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 discover it is too subtle or you like more of a punch.

polenta and rosemary slice with fresh ricotta and honey

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. Buon appetito!

If you use this recipe, tag @maurizio on Instagram and use the hashtag #theperfectloaf so I can take a look!


  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

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