What Are Grits?

Buying, Cooking, and Recipes

Creamy Cheese Grits

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Grits are known 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. Grits actually have a much longer history; the word "grits" refers to any coarsely ground grain and was eaten by the Native Americans. Today, grits are made with either hominy or stone-ground corn and are boiled and then usually combined with butter and milk.

Fast Facts

  • Origin: 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.
  • Food Fact: Grits are the official food of South Carolina.
  • History: The word "grits" is derived from an Old English word "grytt", which means coarse meal.

What Are 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.

Grits vs. Polenta

Polenta is an Italian version of grits. It's made from cornmeal, so it has a significantly different texture and flavor. It is prepared similarly and can look like grits, which is where the confusion may lie.

Varieties

There are stone-ground, fast-cooking, and instant varieties of grits. However, 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. 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 a 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.

Types of grits
 The Spruce / Colleen Tighe

Grits Uses

A versatile food, grits can be eaten for breakfast, lunch, or dinner. Grits can be made very simply with a pat of butter and a dash of salt or turned into something more elaborate and flavorful. To make grits, boil four to five times the amount of water to grits, add salt to the water, and then cook the grits for about 45 minutes, with near-constant stirring.

How to Cook With Grits

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

What Does It Taste Like?

Finished grits should be thick, smooth, and have a mild flavor. Grits tend to taste like what you mix with them, so they are often made with added salt, butter, and cheese. They should not taste raw or "off."

Grits Substitute

Since grits are often a side dish or base for other meals, it depends on how you substitute them. For breakfast, try cream of wheat or even oatmeal. For heartier fare, try swapping polenta, mashed potatoes, risotto, or roasted veggies.

Grits Recipes

There are some creative ways to incorporate grits into your recipes along with plenty of traditional Southern recipes featuring grits. Try some of these:

Where to Buy Grits

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 has 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. Instant grits can be found in most grocery stores in the cereal or baking aisle. They are sold in bags or boxes and likely cost under $5.

Storage

Grits should be stored in a cool, dark location in a sealed container. Moisture and pests are enemies to grits. Once cooked, grits should be stored in a sealed container in the refrigerator for three to four days. Warm them on the stovetop or the microwave.

Nutrition and Benefits

One cup of cooked, regular grits provides around 180 calories, 4 grams of protein, and 1 gram of fat. It also contains 25% of the Reference Daily Intake (RDI) of folate. Grits are rarely eaten alone. Keep in mind the nutritional value of a pat of butter, shrimp, or rich sauce that you are eating with the grits.