What Are Grits and How To Make Them?

Design by Maggie Rossetti for Thrillist. Photos courtesy of Marsh Hen Mill.

A few months ago, I grabbed a seat at Ria’s Bluebird, an Atlanta breakfast establishment for a nice stack of pancakes or a plate of shrimp and grits. I was about to take my first sip of hot coffee when I caught a bit of a conversation at the table next to me.

“Wait, what are grits?” I heard a young blonde woman ask her friend. I had to stop myself from whipping around to make sure I’d heard her correctly. Instead, I closed my open mouth, sunk back in my chair, and listened as her friend incorrectly answered: “It’s kind of like Cream of Wheat, but coarser and not sweet.”

That’s… not quite it. I was shocked. Surely, I thought incredulously, everyone has heard of grits.

Apparently not. While many Southerners have ties to the dish, the region is large and diverse. Plus, over the last few years, spurred in part by the pandemic, Southern states have seen an influx of residents relocating from places like New York, California, Illinois, Pennsylvania and Massachusetts, according to Forbes. Many of these new arrivals may be experiencing things for the first time that Southerners take for granted. Among them, it seems, are grits.

Though not a Southerner by birth, I have called this region home for five years. Before that, I happily eat grits for breakfast as a small child. My family is from Louisiana, so a plate of grits was very common at our table. (They were, however, of the instant variety, a faux pas I now know would not pass master in most Southern kitchens.) And so, I invite everyone to get to know the glory that is grits, a dish deeply rooted in the South that continues to feed communities across the country in all sorts of ways.

Some historians believe people have been eating food similar to grits since 8700 BCE | Design by Maggie Rossetti for Thrillist

What are grits?

Grits are stone-ground bits of starchy dent corn that are cooked in a liquid, like milk, water or broth, until they are soft and creamy. Traditionally, it takes upwards of an hour to cook them.

Historians believe that grits were first introduced to British colonists by the Muskogee tribe at some point in the 16th century. The Muskogees are thought to be the first to grind corn into a grain, and then boil it in liquid to be consumed in a manner similar to what we call grits today. Other theories place the origin of grits even further back. Author Erin Byers Murray argues that evidence exists pointing to the fact that milled corn boiled in water has been around since 8700 BCE

Are grits polenta?

Yes and no. Polenta is traditionally made with yellow corn that has been milled multiple times, while southern grits consist largely of the white variety. Grits are usually milled only once, so their texture tends to be coarser.

“Polenta has an Italian origin,” says William West, co-owner of Carolina Grits Company, a family-run mill that produces small-batch grits and cornmeal varieties. “The corn used [for polenta] It is considered a type of flint corn which tends to have a harder shell. It’s a completely different variety from what we use for grits.”

Still, in many recipes, you can use polenta and grits interchangeably.

Grits and polenta are not identical, but can be used in many of the same recipes | Photo by Carolina Grits Design by Maggie Rossetti

instant vs. classic vs. hairloom?

If you stroll down your local grocery aisle and come across a grits section, you’ll likely find a few options. There are instant grits that cook in about 5 to 10 minutes, classic grits that take approximately 30 minutes to cook, and stone-ground or heirloom varieties that require the better part of an hour or more to cook properly.

“Instant grits are what 95% of the people in the world who love grits are eating because it’s accessible, it’s affordable, it’s filling, and it’s comforting,” says Murray, author of Grits: A Cultural and Culinary Journey Through the South. But they’re highly processed. The corn itself is highly processed. You lose nutrients when you roll grits that way.”

On the opposite side of the spectrum are stone-ground and heirloom varieties. “These varietals are from old seed stocks that haven’t been hybridized,” says West, who notes that their popularity is surging. Old-time corn seeds like Jimmy Red, Bloody Butcher, and Wapsie Valley have found their way onto the menus of some of the most celebrated restaurants in the country.

For home cooks, preparing this type of grits can be an arduous undertaking, often taking hours of constant stirring and liquid additions to get the right texture. And, while most heirloom grits are sold online, they’re not always easy to find in grocery stores.

Somewhere in the middle between instant and heirloom are classic, white grits you’d likely get served at any breakfast haunt or diner in the South. These are usually white, creamy and an easy score at literally any food store you walk into.

Where can I buy grits?

It’s now easier than ever to get your hands on a bag of Southern grits. Brands like Anson Mills and Geechie Boy are widely available in grocery stores across the country. Other, smaller brands like Carolina Grits and Marsh Hen Mill ship nationally.

But, when it comes to sampling one of the South’s most beloved food staples, local is likely best. “I always encourage you people, especially if there is a farmer’s market in range, go see if you find, if there are grits around you that are stone ground give them a try,” says Murray.

what are grits
Grits are a versatile food. | Design by Maggie Rossetti for Thrillist. Photo courtesy Carolina Grits

How do you eat grits?

There is no right or wrong way to eat grits, unless you’re referring to the age-old debate about whether or not it’s appropriate to add sugar to them. How one Southerner prefers their grits usually comes down to a matter of tradition.

Besides enjoying a thick scoop of buttery grits next to bacon (or sausage) and eggs, another popular way to serve grits is with shrimp. Cities like New Orleans, Charleston, and Savannah each have their own special spins on that combination, all involving the juxtaposition of savoury grits with sweet crustaceans.

They’re a versatile food. During the winter holidays, grits often appear in a cheesy breakfast casserole that many look forward to all year long. And, if you serve grits underneath tender shreds of slowly cooked beef and aromatics, you’ve got an elegant, five-star meal that would cost a pretty penny in any restaurant.

If you’re new to grits, take it slow. “Start simple,” says West. “If you overload your grits with a lot of cheese and fat, you’re gonna lose out on some of the nuances of it. I love cheesy, fatty grits as much as the next person, but there’s a time and place for it. Really take the time to experience a bowl of grits.” Whether you’re out to breakfast or stirring a pot in a quiet kitchen, now that you’ve read this piece, you’ll never again allow anyone to confuse grits with Cream of Wheat.

Want more Thrillist? Follow us on Instagram, Twitter, Pinterest, YouTube, TikTokand Snapchat.

Ryan Shepard is a contributor to Thrillist.


Leave a Comment