The Bottom Line: Though neither as versatile or economical as dry polenta, Trader Joe's shelf-stable, precooked organic polenta has decent flavor and texture. It can be a helpful time saver on busy nights, and it's a handy shortcut for recipes that call for making polenta rounds.
Pros & Cons
- Reduces preparation time by at least 15 to 20 minutes in recipes that call for cooked, firm polenta.
- Convenient for use in baked casseroles.
- Tube-shaped polenta is easy to slice into perfect rounds for elegant presentation.
- Firm texture is good for grilling, broiling, or pan-frying.
- Shelf stable product requires no refrigeration until opened.
- Gluten-free, vegan, and kosher.
- Precooked polenta is less economical than dry polenta.
- The cook has little control over the texture, which limits the recipe applications.
- Cylindrical tubes take up more pantry space, and are trickier to store, than a box or bag of dry polenta.
- Fitting polenta rounds into a baking dish can be frustrating, especially if trying to avoid gaps.
- A single tube of polenta may not be enough for many recipes.
Polenta, or ground cornmeal mush, is economical and versatile, and makes a hearty side dish or base for vegetarian meals. It's both easy and fairly quick to prepare, so the utility of precooked polenta was always lost on me. Plus from a food safety perspective, I simply feel more comfortable with dry polenta. (Introducing water into a food product increases the chance, however remote, that pathogenic bacteria can grow in it.)
But I recently ran out of my favorite dry polenta, and happened to be craving it when I chanced across tubes of precooked organic polenta during a Trader Joe's run. I felt sort of duty bound to check it out, and the promise of throwing together a super-quick dinner casserole definitely held some appeal. Here's what I found:
As I removed the tube from its plastic casing, I was struck by the polenta's slick surface — it felt a bit plasticky, too, and I couldn't help but wonder if I should be concerned about the possibility that there could be BPA or other environmental contaminants in the packaging. Once sliced, the interior texture of the polenta rounds was more typical of the homemade stuff. And for what it's worth, the polenta didn't taste like its packaging.
The firm polenta was easy enough to slice and handle, but assembling my casserole was a little exasperating. Cook your own polenta, and it's easy to pour an even layer into a baking dish. Try to cover that same dish with a bunch of rounds, and the endeavor is more frustrating, especially if you're trying not to leave gaps, or want to distribute the polenta evenly between layers. (I ended up switching baking dishes three times before I hit on the right shape and dimensions.)
On the flip side, I could see how convenient those rounds would be if I wanted to capitalize on their shape, presentation-wise. Visions of Polenta Eggplant Napoleons or fruit-topped polenta rounds made me eager to experiment with the product further.
Once baked, the polenta was tasty, with a pleasant, true cornmeal flavor. On another occasion, I pan-fried the rounds in butter with good results. I do prefer the freedom to choose whether to cook my polenta in water or stock, to add herbs, cheese, or other flavorings, and to control the texture. But I wasn't disappointed in Trader Joe's precooked polenta as a convenient shortcut to a satisfying meal.
Price: $1.99/18 ounce tube.
Organic. Gluten Free. Kosher.
Available in Trader Joe's stores nationwide.