Those of us from the South are no stranger to grits, but if you didn’t grow up eating them you may have some questions. What are grits, and are they related to cornmeal and polenta? Are they all just the same thing with a different name? Isn’t it all just ground up corn kernels?
Yes, they’re all ground corn, but there are a few distinctions that set them apart. To make matters worse, there’s very little regulation on labeling these products in the United States. So it’s very easy to become confused! Never fear, we’re here to definitely answer what are grits and teach you what makes them different from polenta and cornmeal. Let’s get started with the simplest of the three: cornmeal.
Cornmeal is nothing more than finely ground, dried corn. No additives, no processing, just dry some corn and run it through a mill. It is usually coarsely ground, although sometimes it is processed until it is very fine (in which case it is usually called corn flour). While yellow corn is the most popular type of cornmeal, you can also find white or blue cornmeal.
Don’t confuse cornmeal with masa – which is ground up nixtamalized corn (corn treated with an alkaline lime solution). Masa (also called masa harina) is made specifically for making tortillas or tamales, whereas cornmeal has many other cooking applications.
The possibilities are endless when cooking with cornmeal. You can use it as the batter for deep-fried foods, where it adds a nice gritty texture. Transform it into a sweet and luscious dessert by making spoon pudding. The most popular way to use cornmeal is the Southern favorite cornbread. When combined with buttermilk, the cornmeal becomes soft and chewy, the perfect accompaniment to chile. If you happen to have leftovers (which, I almost never do), you can turn that cornbread into bread pudding. Or, make this recipe for spicy cornbread stuffing. It’s a staple at my holiday table these days!
Grits originated in Native American communities, but they are very popular today in the Southern United States (like Georgia and South Carolina). Unlike cornmeal, grits are usually made from dent corn. This starchy variety of corn is less sweet than sweet-corn and it becomes smooth and creamy as it cooks. This type of corn is treated with lime to remove the hull which technically makes it hominy. After the treated corn is dried, it is coarsely ground to become hominy grits. Most grits are ground more coarsely than cornmeal.
From here, you will find two types of grits: stone ground grits (which are whole grain grits that retain the germ) and instant grits. The latter quick grits will cook up in about 5 to 10 minutes. The stone ground grits take 45 minutes to cook fully, but they have more health benefits. If you’re looking for an excellent heirloom grits, look for Anson Mills. They might not be in the grocery store, but you’ll definitely find them online.
Grits are neutral in flavor, so it’s not uncommon to see a grits recipe with cheese or savory ingredients like bacon. If you’re new to grits, this recipe for shrimp and grits is a perfect way to get started!
Polenta is similar to grits except that it is made with flint corn. Native to Italy, polenta is made by coarsely grinding up dried flint corn. This variety of corn has a hard starch in the center, which gives polenta its characteristic grainy texture. In the grocery store, you will find many varieties of polenta. It even comes pre-cooked in tubes! Strangely enough, the word polenta refers both to the raw grains and also the cooked porridge.
Like grits, you can cook polenta with any type of liquid – from water to stock to milk. Once cooked, you can serve it as a porridge topped with braised meat. You can also cool polenta and cut it into squares. Topping last night’s polenta cakes with bacon and eggs is my favorite way to repurpose my leftovers. If you’ve never made breakfast polenta cakes, start with this recipe.