The History of Grits

They are more than a Southern breakfast staple

Creamy Cheese Grits
Getty Images LauriPatterson

Many of us know grits as a quintessential dish in Southern cuisine that has gone from a humble breakfast or side dish to the base for a tasty shrimp entree featured on restaurant menus. But grits actually have a much longer history; in fact, the word "grits" refers to any coarsely ground grain and was eaten by the Native Americans. Today, however, we mainly use the word to describe the creamy dish made from corn kernels.

Grits in America

Even before the European explorers came West, the native peoples of North America were eating a dish of mashed corn, as corn was a prevalent crop. Once the Europeans came to America, they were introduced to this dish; one of Sir Walter Raleigh's men, Arthur Barlowe, wrote of the "very white, faire, and well tasted" boiled corn that was served to him when he dined with the local natives. The natives referred to it as "rockahomine" which was later shortened to "hominy" by the colonists. As newcomers settled in Jamestown, Virginia, the local natives taught them how to make grits, establishing it as a staple in American cooking.

Over the course of the following centuries, grits became a traditional Southern dish, particularly in the "Lowcountry" of South Carolina. In 1976, this state established grits as its official food, declaring that grits are the perfect "‘symbol of its diet, its customs, its humor, and its hospitality." The addition of shrimp became popular when local fisherman turned to this simple and comforting dish to satisfy them after a long day at sea.

Today, grits are made with either hominy or stone ground corn and are boiled and then combined with butter and milk.

Types of Grits

Grits are made from a less sweet, starchy variety of corn, such as dent corn. The corn goes through a type of processing that soaks the dried grains in lye or another alkali for several days, which removes the hard hull; the resulting grain is referred to as hominy. When purchasing grits, you will find hominy as well as white and yellow corn varieties.

You can also buy stone-ground, fast-cooking, and instant varieties of grits, but be sure to read the package carefully to distinguish between grits and cornmeal, which is fine-textured processed corn used like flour, and masa harina, which is the base for tortillas. (Polenta, the Italian version of grits, cooks similarly but with significant differences in flavor and texture.) Though most varieties of grits can be theoretically interchanged with cornmeal, masa, or polenta, you usually get better results when you use the specific type of grain called for in a recipe. Stone-ground grits yield big flavor and a chunkier bite from the intact germ; finely ground cornmeal, on the other hand, would cook into a smooth, almost watery mush.

It is important you use a certain type of grits for particular styles of recipes. For example, choose a coarse or medium grind for a traditional side dish; you can use stone-ground grits, which take about 45 minutes with constant attention to cook on the stovetop, or quick grits, which cook in about 10 minutes. Stone-ground grits may be hard to find in the grocery store, but you can mail order them from a number of online retailers. Chefs and connoisseurs say stone ground have a better corn flavor as well as heartier texture, so it may be worth investing some time searching for them. They are also more nutritional than instant grits.

Grits in Recipes

Grits can be made very simply with a pat of butter and a dash of salt, or turned into something more elaborate and flavorful. For a versatile side dish, simmer grits in generously salted water, chicken stock, or milk until mushy and thick. Naturally mild, grits need a dose of flavor from ingredients such as butter, cream, and cheese; to accompany breakfast, try a recipe for cheese grits. For a more substantial meal, Southerners serve shrimp and grits. But there are some other creative ways to incorporate grits into your recipes, such as easy fried grits cakes, chicken with grits and green onions, and seared scallops with grits.

Of course, there are plenty of traditional Southern recipes featuring grits, like grillades and grits, a dish of steak, grits, and gravy, as well as a light and fluffy spoonbread. It is only natural that you serve grits for breakfast, whether in a bake with sausage or as a casserole. And although grits usually fall to the savory side of the flavor spectrum, like most cereals, they can form the base for a sweet treat as well. So at breakfast, simply add syrup or a berry compote to turn the creamy dish into something the kids will love.