Puttin’ on the Grits

My Rouses Everyday, November/December 2017

For many Southerners, grits are the ultimate comfort food.

I am a grits missionary dedicated to converting the uninformed and uninitiated to the glories of grits. Comments like “I don’t like grits” get me pretty fired up. As far as I am concerned, if you don’t like grits, you simply haven’t had the right grits. And, if the only grits you ever had were poured out of a paper packet and were cooked in a microwave, well then, it’s no wonder you don’t like grits! If the truth is told, most fast casual and fast food restaurants don’t serve very good grits either. Creamy, comforting grits take time and patience. Nowadays, the very best examples of this simple country food can be found in chef-driven restaurants or private homes. And when properly prepared, this simple country dish can be transformed into something extraordinary.

First, what are grits? Grits are simply ground corn. Corn has long been a major ingredient in Southern cooking. It has historically been eaten fresh in the summer, and dried and ground into meal for boiling into porridge and baking in the winter. The term “grist,” meaning grain for milling, became “grits.” What’s the difference between cornmeal and grits? Cornmeal is ground corn, as well — simply a much finer, flour-like grind. In an artisan grits mill, very often when the grits are ground, the larger pieces are sifted out and labeled as grits, and the smallest, finest grind that falls to the screen below is reserved for cornmeal.

Both grits and cornmeal are ground from “dent” corn, a type of corn with low sugar content and a soft, starchy center. Dent corn gets its name from the slight dent in the center at the top of the kernel. Flint corn is the type of corn used for polenta in Italy and for masa harina in Latin America. Flint corn gets its name from being “hard as flint.” Despite the fact that they’re made from two different types of corn, grits and polenta are almost universally interchangeable. Ground yellow corn results in yellow cornmeal (and polenta), and ground white corn results in white cornmeal (and grits). Masa is made from corn that has been treated with lime and water to loosen the hull in a process known as “nixtamalization.” This kind of corn grind cannot be used interchangeably with grits or cornmeal.

Grits are further defined by how they are prepared and ground. There are hominy grits, stone-ground grits and various grades of commercially ground grits.

Hominy is made from corn kernels soaked in an alkaline solution of water and lye to remove the kernel’s outer hull. When hominy is dried and coarsely ground, the result is hominy grits.

Stone-ground grits are made from dried, whole-corn kernels ground between two stones, just as it has been for centuries, which guarantees an intense corn flavor. The same stone-ground corn can vary in flavor depending on the size of the grind. Stone-ground grits are more perishable and should be refrigerated or frozen. They must also be simmered very slowly for 45 minutes to an hour to coax out their tender, creamy texture.

In commercially ground grits, the germ and hull are removed to prevent rancidity and improve the product’s shelf life. The grits are finely ground and produce a smooth, bland porridge without a whole lot of corn flavor. Artisan stone-ground corn varieties are traditionally left in the field to dry completely, a practice known as field ripening, while commercial milling typically demands that the corn be harvested unripe and dried with forced, and sometimes heated, air.

Instant grits also have the germ and hulls removed and are cooked, and then the resulting paste is spread into large sheets, which are then dried and reground. They are virtually a pot of starch with no flavor.

To make this ordinary porridge called grits something special, it’s important to start with the best-quality, stone-ground variety. The ratio of liquid to stone-ground grits is 4:1 (4 cups of liquid to 1 cup of stone-ground grits). You can use all water, or a combination of stock and water, a blend of water and milk — you get the picture. Use all water when you want the flavor of the corn to dominate. Use stock when you want to amp up the savory profile. If you’re serving the grits with a dish that contains beef, chicken or seafood, it’s nice to layer the flavors by using the corresponding stock — beef stock with beef, chicken stock with chicken, etc. For example, shrimp and grits made with a combination of shrimp stock and milk are unbelievably delicious.

When cooking grits, start by bringing your liquids and 1 teaspoon of coarse kosher salt per cup of grits to a boil over high heat — it’s best to use a heavy-bottomed pot to prevent scorching. Whisk in the grits, decrease the heat to low, and simmer, making sure to whisk occasionally, until the grits are creamy and thick, 45 to 60 minutes. To give the grits a nice finish, a bit of butter may be added. You may also add a bit of heavy cream or grated cheese at the end of cooking.

During the holidays I often cook my grits overnight in the slow cooker. It’s a great way to get a head start on the day, especially if you have a full household. However, it’s very important to use water only or a combination of stock and water for the cooking liquid, not milk, in the slow cooker. The milk could burn during the long, slow cooking process, so it’s best to add any dairy at the end of cooking in the morning. The slow cooker’s steady, moist heat releases the starch in stone-ground grits with minimal stirring, creating a naturally rich, creamy texture. Here’s the technique: Stir together 1 cup of grits and 4 cups of water in a slow cooker. Cover and cook on “low” overnight, about 8 hours, then stir until smooth, and taste and adjust for seasoning with salt and pepper. Add any butter, cheese or cream just before serving.

I’m sharing two recipes for the holidays: Sweet Potato Grits and Red Snapper Provençal on Stone-Ground Grits. The combination of the earthy sweet potatoes and the creamy corn is incredible — it makes an excellent side dish for your roast turkey or prime rib. And the Red Snapper Provençal on Stone-Ground Grits is a perfect meal to serve on Christmas Eve.

Bon appétit, y’all!