Polenta Versus Grits: What's the Difference?

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Last week I was in San Francisco and received a tip from a new friend that the grits with a poached egg at Cowgirl Creamery in the Ferry Building were a must-have. Realizing I'd just finished working on a whole grain cookbook, she grabbed my arm and asked: How are grits any different than polenta? 

Both polenta and grits are made from stone-ground cornmeal, dried corn that’s ground down into smaller, coarse bits. So how do the two differ? Some people think the difference lies in geography: the Italian version is known as polenta whereas the Southern version is known as grits. Others think that polenta is made with yellow corn while grits are always made with white corn. Lucky for all of us, NPR ran a piece as part of their Kitchen Window series that clears it all up.

Anson Mills founder Glen Roberts is quoted in the piece describing the difference as he sees it: while both grits and polenta are made from stone-ground cornmeal, "Southern grits and Italian polenta are traditionally made from two vastly different types of corn. How many times it's milled and the fineness of the grind also differ. And then there's the taste and texture."

When I was researching my book months back, I wrote Robers with some questions about cornmeal and he discussed the confusion even further: Most grits in the South are traditionally made from a class of corn called dent corn whereas in Italy, most polenta is made from a class of corn called flint corn, which holds its texture better. Why do these different classes matter? Because of the different type of corn, grits can even come across as almost mushy while polenta is often more coarse and toothsome. 

I think ultimately the confusion comes down to your time in the grocery store. You've got a polenta recipe or a grits recipe and you're shopping  for it and you see nothing in the store that says "grits" and perhaps nothing in the store that indicates "polenta." That's because you're really searching for stone-ground coarse cornmeal and this is where it becomes tricky. 

But in reality, the differences are relatively slim. Buy coarse cornmeal at the store and call it a day. And if you're out on the town and you like polenta, try ordering grits next time (and vice versa). And yes, those morning grits with a poached egg at Cowgirl Creamery really are worth a trip. 

Related: How to Make Creamy Stovetop Polenta

(Images: Leela Cyd Ross)