“Semolina” is one of those words you might spy in a recipe and think “fancy,” but it’s simply a wheat flour—and a smart staple in the pantry of any home cook who loves Italian food.
Golden in hue, this slightly earthy, delicately aromatic flour is made from durum wheat. It is a high-gluten and high-protein type of flour that’s more coarsely ground than many wheat flours (which is often accomplished by simply sifting out the finer flour).
Though semolina and polenta are often lumped together—they look rather alike and behave somewhat similarly when you cook them—the former is derived from the wheat berry, and the latter from cornmeal. When you see “semolina” next to “polenta,” however, as in this recipe, you’re often on your way to something delicious: Semolina flour loves egg yolks, butter, milk, and Parmigiano-Reggiano. You’ll often see it pop up in pasta and gnocchi recipes.
More occasionally, it’ll make cameos in bread recipes—as in the excellent cookbook Tartine Bread, in which semolina flour mingles with all-purpose flour, fennel seeds, and sesame seeds for a textured, golden loaf with a booming bouquet. Though the most popular use stateside is probably as part of golden fresh pastas in which egg yolks enhance the gorgeous hue, as in this recipe, semolina also makes cameos in custards, puddings, scones, and even cakes, as in this lemon-ricotta number and this orange-almond tea cake.
One thing to watch out for when you’re seeking out this ingredient: Non-wheat grains ground in a similar fashion are often referred to as “semolina,” but with that grain’s name appended, such as “corn semolina” or “rice semolina.” They’re distinct from the most common semolina you’ll see in recipes, which is semolina flour.
Want to give it a whirl? If you’re trying it for the first time, check how delicious it can be when paired with its favorite playmates. Try making your own gnocchi using semolina flour, or try this recipe for gnocchi alla Romana by Italian cuisine master Mario Batali, which is one I’ve made many times. Roman-style gnocchi is nothing like the tiny plush numbers you might know and love; these are golden moons of semolina spun with milk, butter, egg yolks and Parmesan. You mix the “dough” up right on the stovetop, allowing it to cool, then cutting it out—like cookies—to layer on top of itself in a buttered baking dish. Topped with more Parm and Taleggio and popped in the oven, it emerges the Platonic ideal of Italian comfort food, all melty Italian cheese, butter and wonderfulness. Serve it alongside springy asparagus, a fillet, meatballs in marinara sauce, or really anything else you love.
Bonus: Call it “moon mac and cheese” and see if you can’t get kids to eat it, too. The flavors—buttery, Italian, and cheesy—are all the ones they know and love, and it’ll be a welcome break from their staple!
Alex Van Buren is a food and travel writer living in Brooklyn, New York whose work has appeared in Gourmet.com, Bon Appétit, Travel & Leisure, New York Magazine, Martha Stewart Living, and Epicurious. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @alexvanburen.