What Are Grits?
Grits are a laid-back Southern comfort food that date back to the colonial days. Below, we explain how people eat grits, the history of grits, and what grits are made of.
While grits are a regional specialty in the American South, there are plenty of people who didn’t grow up with this homey dish (like me, a New England yankee). While grits are a traditionally Southern dish, they actually originated in the Native American Muskogee tribes who populated southeastern states including Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia, and Florida in the 16th century. These tribes are credited with grinding dried corn into the coarse, gritty texture we now know of as grits and serving it to colonists. Grits continued to rise in popularity in the South over hundreds of years. In 1976, South Carolina declared grits the official state food, calling them a “symbol of its diet, its customs, its humor, and its hospitality."
There are two basic preparation of savory grits—creamy or cheesy—and four basic varieties of grits—traditional stone-ground, quick-cooking, instant, and hominy. While the base ingredient (corn) is the same in all of these varieties of grits, the way in which they’re processed is different (we explain more of that below). Traditional stone-ground coarse grits take between 30-60 minutes to cook. The key to getting smooth, creamy grits rather than lumpy grits is to them cook low and slow over a simmering heat and whisk consistently. Shrimp and grits is a traditional Southern preparation of grits and is the dish that introduces most people to rich, creamy grits. Grits typically lack flavor on their own, which is why they are often cooked with butter, cheese, cream, or gravy and topped with shrimp, mushrooms, ham, or bacon. Below, we explain exactly what grits are made of, the difference between grits vs. polenta, and include our top grits recipes.
Grits are made with whole dried white corn kernels from dent corn (a variety of corn that has a higher starch content, which gives grits their creamy, soft texture). Traditional grits are made by either using a stone ground or steel roller mills; the manufacturing process affects the flavor and texture of the final product. Stone-ground grits are less processed than quick-cooking or instant grits, which means they have more flavor and texture. Hominy grits are cooked by soaking the corn in an alkali solution of limewater (chemical lime, not citrus lime), then the pericarp and germ are removed from the kernels. This process further develops the corn’s sweet, earthy flavor. At home, this process can be done in a pot on the stove and in a slow cooker. Instant grits are ground finely, precooked, and dehydrated; the grits can then be prepared in under 2 minutes by microwaving them with hot water.
Varieties of grits range in coarseness. Instant and quick-cooking grits are ground finer than traditional stone-ground grits, which is why they cook faster. The smaller the grain, the quicker the grits cook. That being said, coarser grits are the most traditional version.
While some producers of grits may label them as polenta, grits and polenta are two different products. As previously explained, grits are made from coarsely ground white corn. Polenta is made from finely ground yellow corn; this gives the dish its distinct, bright yellow color and a smoother, silkier texture than grits. Unlike Southern grits, polenta is a traditional Italian dish that is usually either baked, boiled, or fried. The other main difference between polenta vs. grits is that grits are often (but not always) cooked in milk and butter, whereas polenta is usually cooked in a flavorful chicken or vegetable stock.
For authentic grits with a vibrant corn flavor, try Grit Girl grits or Anson Mills grits. Our three favorite variations on traditional grits recipes include goat cheese grits soufflé, grits pudding, and grits dumplings. For something on the sweeter side, mix in sugar, butter, honey, or nuts for a hearty grits breakfast.