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Food

How to Cook With Grits: Traditional Southern Grits Recipe

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: May 27, 2020 • 4 min read

Grits are a staple of Southern cooking, easy to make, and have a long and rich history in the United States.

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What Are Grits?

Grits are a type of cornmeal, or ground corn kernels, first eaten by Native Americans and later popularized in the American South. The term "grits" describes both the uncooked ground corn and a type of porridge made from cornmeal.

How to Cook Grits

Grits is a porridge made by cooking dried, ground corn kernels in water—typically with the addition of butter, salt, and maybe even milk or heavy cream. The basic grits recipe is fairly simple (four parts water to one part grits).

5 Common Types of Grits

Types of grits differ in both the variety of corn and the milling process.

  1. Hominy grits: Hominy is a corn variety with large, round kernels. Native Americans were the first to make grits, and they ate a porridge made from ground nixtamalized hominy, which is hominy treated with lye to remove the pericarp (skin) and increase available vitamins. (Nixtamalized ground corn is also known as masa and is the base for tortillas, tamales, and pupusas.)
  2. Southern-style grits: Traditionally, Southern grits are made with dent corn, a variety of corn that has a dent in the top of the kernel. It's relatively soft, which makes it easy to grind. Dent corn comes in a variety of colors, but yellow corn and white corn are the most common.
  3. Quick grits: A refined grain, quick grits have had the germ and hull of the corn kernel removed and have a finer texture that requires less time to cook than whole-kernel grits.
  4. Instant grits: Instant grits are refined grits that have been precooked and then dehydrated.
  5. Stone-ground grits: Stone-ground grits are typically coarser than quick grits, and they may be whole-grain, meaning that they are more flavorful, take longer to cook, and have a shorter shelf life.

Traditionally, the corn used in Southern-style grits was left to dry on the plant (this is known as field ripening). Today, corn is typically harvested unripe and dehydrated by forced-air drying.

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What Do Grits Taste Like?

When cooked, grits form a corn mush with a chewy bite. The flavor of grits depends on the type of grits and the method of cooking. Instant grits can taste bland, whereas stone-ground heirloom corn grits will have a more complex flavor. There are thousands of varieties of corn, and each produces grits with subtle flavor differences. Yellow corn generally has more of a true corn flavor, whereas white corn has more mineral and floral notes.

8 Ways to Eat Grits

Though you’ll often see grits served as a side dish to accompany brunch or dinner, they can also be the star of the meal.

  1. Shrimp and grits: Breakfast shrimp is a famous dish from the coastal South Carolina Lowcountry. The traditional recipe involves making a stock from shrimp shells, cooking fresh shrimp in bacon fat, and using the bacon-shrimp cooking liquid and the stock to make a flavorful gravy. The gravy and shrimp then top off a bowl of creamy grits.
  2. Cheese grits: For cheese grits, simply stir grated cheese (such as sharp cheddar) into the grits when they are done cooking.
  3. Grits and grillades: In Louisiana, grits are served with Creole-style braised beef or veal. If you love braised meats and stews with mashed potatoes, try substituting the potatoes for creamy grits.
  4. Grits casserole: Baked grits casseroles typically include milk or heavy cream, butter, cheddar cheese, and sausage.
  5. Sweet grits: Grits are most commonly served savory, but if you enjoy a sweet breakfast, try grits with a splash of milk and a drizzle of maple syrup.
  6. Grits cakes: If you have leftover grits, you can pour them into a large glass or loaf pan and cool them in the fridge. Once hardened, slice the grits and fry in oil until crispy.
  7. Grits with greens: You can make a grits casserole with greens (such as collards, the favorite leafy green of the South), or you can prepare grits on the stovetop and serve them with a mess of greens. If you don't have collards, try sautéeing turnip greens, kale, or another dark, leafy green.
  8. Grits with eggs: Grits are the perfect base for all types of eggs: poached eggs, fried eggs, scrambled eggs. Top off grits and eggs with a dash of hot sauce.

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What’s the Difference Between Grits and Polenta?

You can distinguish grits from polenta by the type of corn used and the coarseness of the grind. While both polenta and grits are made from ground cornmeal, there are a few key differences.

  • Place of origin: Polenta originated in northern Italy, while grits hail from the southern United States.
  • Type of corn: Grits are traditionally made using dent corn, while polenta is made with a variety of Italian flint corn known as otto file. Flint corn is harder than dent corn, and it holds its shape better.
  • Texture: Traditional polenta cornmeal goes through a repeated milling process that yields a uniform size and texture. Traditional coarse grits are made with a single-pass milling process that yields variation in the size of corn particles.

Traditional Southern-Style Grits Recipe

Serves
4
Prep Time
10 min
Total Time
40 min
Cook Time
30 min

Ingredients

  • 1 cup stone-ground grits
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt, plus more to taste
  • 2 tablespoons butter, to serve (optional)
  1. In a heavy-bottomed pot over high heat, combine 4 cups of water and salt. Bring to a rapid boil.
  2. Add the grits to the boiling water in a steady stream, whisking continually.
  3. Once you’ve added all the grits, reduce the heat to a simmer and continue whisking until the grits no longer sink to the bottom of the pot, about 2 minutes.
  4. Reduce heat to medium and continue to simmer, stirring occasionally with a wooden spoon until grits are tender creamy, about 30 minutes.
  5. Finish with butter.

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