Recipes for grits and polenta look almost identical. Bring a liquid (water, milk, or chicken stock) to a simmer on the stovetop, add cornmeal, and stir intermittently for at least half an hour. The final products, both porridge-like in texture, are nearly twins. Other than the fact that grits are an American dish, while polenta represents Italian cooking traditions, what’s the difference?
The primary distinction is a done deal before you even start cooking. It has to do with the type of corn used to create the cornmeal, as well as how the corn was milled.
Cornmeal for polenta is produced from flint corn, a variety with a small starchy interior surrounded by a hard exterior (hence the reference to flint). Over time, Europeans came to grind the corn through their mills multiple times, resulting in fine grains of a uniform size. Due to the harder texture of flint corn, polenta can be described as grainier than grits. It’s also more prone to maintain a cake-like shape when it cools and can even be served on a wooden bread board.
Fun fact: Today, the word “polenta” refers almost exclusively to a corn-based dish. However, the word predates the 17th century arrival of corn in Italy. Before European explorers returned to the “Old World” and introduced corn to their native agriculture scenes, the word “polenta” was used to describe all manner of gruels made from indigenous grains and beans including farro, millet, chickpeas, and fava beans.
Back in the U.S., cornmeal for grits is produced from a variety known as dent corn. Dent corn contains more soft starch than flint corn, a quality that produces a smooth and creamy final product. In contrast to the flint cornmeal used for polenta, dent corn for grits is often ground through the mill just one time, resulting in coarser grains.
Before we move on to talk of butter, cheese, shrimp, and other tempting toppings, there are two more vocab words you should know if you want to call yourself a true grits expert. The first is “hominy.” You probably recognize this word, often spotted alongside “grits,” but what exactly is it? Hominy refers to corn that has been nixtamalized. On top of being a word that has most likely caused many caused tearful eliminations from spelling bees, nixtamalization refers to a process by which corn kernels are soaked in an alkaline solution. Quick science class refresher: that means a base with a pH above 7. In this case, the base serves to loosen the hull that encapsulates the corn kernel, causing its starchy insides to swell. This mineral bath also alters the chemical make-up of the corn, releasing vitamins, nutrients, and flavors. Once the nixtamalization process is complete, the kernels are then re-dried and ground into an even more flavorful cornmeal.
Now that we’ve studied up on the science and history of these two dishes, it’s time for a snack break!
Or go savory. And, in this instance, paired with trendy brussels sprouts and salty sausage. Get the recipe.
One of the most iconic grits dishes is of course shrimp and grits. Grits enthusiasts seem to agree that this dish first garnered national attention thanks to a 1985 New York Times review of Crook’s Corner restaurant in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. To get that exact recipe, you’ll need to check out the chef’s 1989 book Bill Neal’s Southern Cooking, but this one looks mighty tasty too! Get the recipe.
For lunch and dinner, polenta can either be served in place of bread as an appetizer or, as in this case, as the main event, topped with sauces and meats. Get the recipe.
What to do with leftover polenta? Bake it, grill it, or fry it! Get the recipe.