Grits, Demystified: A Brief Look at a Southern Staple

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"It's the most powerful food in the landscape of American culinary experience," according to Glenn Roberts, founder of Anson Mills, producer of handmade milled goods from organic heirloom grains. Glenn is a purist. His favorite way to enjoy the delicious milled corn dish is plain, eaten alone and with reverence. I can't say that most of us southerners are so calm around our grits, but we do love them. 

We love them in the morning with eggs and bacon, at lunch with salmon and salad and for dinner, with shrimp. Shrimp and grits is a new southern classic, but the best versions — in my opinion — are made with leftovers. Sautéeing tomatoes, onions, green peppers and shrimp in bacon drippings, adding a little secret seasoning, and pouring the whole mess over a hot bowl of grits — nothing could be finer.

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What are grits exactly? Simply put, they are coarsely ground corn, boiled and served as a hot cereal. How do they differ from polenta? The short answer: They don't. But if you've had both, you know they aren't the same. The milling process is different, as is the texture and flavor profile. Polenta is coarser and the particle sizes are more uniform, because of the way it's milled. Polenta is usually produced through reduction milling, while grits are made with single pass milling, leaving particles of varying sizes.

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You may also wonder how quick grits differ from "real" grits. That is not an argument you want to have with a southern cook. Sure, quick grits are fine in a pinch, but — according to Glenn — they are milled into smaller particles, causing them to lose the top and bottom of their flavor profile. (Full disclosure: I am a fan of Anson Mills quick grits, which are downright delicious.)

There is only one thing you really shouldn't do to grits. You can go vegetarian with cheese grits, or even vegan with okra and tomatoes or delicious greens. You can serve them for breakfast, lunch or dinner. You can bake them into a breakfast casserole with sausage, cheese and eggs. In college, I used to enjoy them as a late night snack with mustard barbecue sauce and frozen corn. But never, ever serve them as a sweet dish. They are savory. And that's that.

For more information about the history, production and preparation of delicious grits, check out Anson Mills. Edisto Island's Geechie Boy is another local favorite.

Have you tried grits? What did you think?

This post was requested by jardin bleu for Reader Request Week 2013.

(Images: Kay Rentschler for Anson Mills)

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Anne Postic writes about cooking for her family on The Kitchn. She lives in Columbia, South Carolina with her husband and three very handsome sons. She loves talking cooking, travel, parenting and art, though not necessarily in that order.