Technically the term "grits" refers to any coarsely ground grain, but in the modern American vernacular, it commonly means the Southern version made from corn kernels. Grits can be both a packaged product and the resulting dish when you simmer the dried grains in a flavorful liquid.
Hominy and Other Grits Varieties
A breakfast-table staple in the South, hominy grits cook to a toothsome but creamy texture, not unlike risotto. Hominy refers specifically to a type of processing that soaks the dried grains in lye or another alkali for several days, which removes the hard hull; it's possible to purchase both grits and hominy grits.
The Food Lover’s Companion cites hominy as one of the first foods gifted to the colonists by Native Americans. You can find the dried white or yellow corn in modern grocery stores canned and ready-to-eat, as used in the Mexican specialty posole, or dried and ground as grits.
You can also buy stone-ground, fast-cooking, and instant varieties of grits, but be sure to distinguish between grits and cornmeal, a fine-textured processed corn used like flour, and masa harina, 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 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.
Grits in Recipes
Choose a coarse or medium grind for a traditional side dish; you can use stone-ground grits, which take about 60 minutes with constant attention to cook on the stovetop, or quick grits, which cook in about 10 minutes. Stone-ground grits can be hard to find in the grocery store, but you can mail order them from a number of online retailers. Chefs and connoisseurs say they have a better corn flavor in addition to the heartier texture and make the search and time investment worth it. Instant grits don't work well in most recipes.
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.
Grits usually fall to the savory side of the flavor spectrum, but like most cereals, grits can form the base for a sweet treat as well. At breakfast, you can simply add syrup or a berry compote; for a more dessert-like dish, bake a grits-based casserole with streusel topping until crispy and ready for a dollop of whipped cream. Grits make the classic beginnings of a spoon bread, which can also tip savory or sweet depending on what you add to it.
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