Polenta Versus Grits: What’s the Difference?

updated Dec 15, 2022
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A diptych featuring images of polenta and grits.
Credit: Getty

Both polenta and grits are dishes made from stone-ground cornmeal, dried corn that’s ground down into smaller, coarse bits. So, what’s the difference between polenta versus grits? Do they use the same ingredient preparation, or is there more going on here?

Some people may assume the main difference lies in geography and recipes: Polenta is an Italian dish while grits developed in the American South. It’s popularly believed that polenta is made with yellow corn while grits are always made with white corn.

Here, we dig into the the real story of the similarities and differences between polenta and grits.

Polenta Versus Grits: What’s the Difference?

  • Geography: While grits are American-born, polenta historically hails from Northern Italy. It’s not a geographically protected term like Champagne, however, so producers worldwide can label their stone-ground cornmeal as being for polenta if they so choose.
  • Type of corn: “Southern grits and Italian polenta are traditionally made from two vastly different types of corn,” Anson Mills founder Glen Roberts told NPR. Most grits in the South are traditionally made from a class of corn called dent corn. In Italy most polenta is made from a class of corn called flint corn, which holds its texture after cooking. Why do these different types of corn matter? Because of the different type of corn, grits will cook into a softer texture while polenta is often more coarse and toothsome.
  • How it’s made: Polenta and grits are produced differently, yielding slightly divergent textures. “How many times it’s milled and the fineness of the grind also differ,” Roberts explains. Grits are usually milled just once, producing a coarser texture with less uniformity, whereas polenta tends to be milled multiple times for a consistently finer texture.

What is Polenta?

Polenta is a dish made from a type of stone-ground cornmeal that originally hails from Northern Italy. It typically has a bright yellow hue, though paler and white versions exist. When cooked, it develops a paste-like consistency, and when cooled the mixture will hold the shape of its container, as in these crispy polenta cakes.

Credit: Joe Lingeman/Kitchn

What are Grits?

With roots in the United States, particularly among Native communities and the South, grits is a dish made of stone-ground cornmeal. It can be yellow or white, and tends to have a chunkier consistency than polenta. Grits are typically cooked into a creamy porridge, like these Cheese Grits.

When to Buy Grits versus Polenta

For many, 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.”

In reality, the differences between the cornmeal for polenta and for grits are relatively slim. If you don’t find cornmeal marked specifically for either, you can buy any 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).