Grits, whether you like them or not, are synonymous with the south. My earliest recollection of grits came from the movie My Cousin Vinnie where Joe Pesci encounters grits in the local greasy spoon diner, he tells the cook, “Sure, I heard of grits, I just never seen a grit before.” After learning all about the culture and importance of grits to a small town, he later uses his knowledge of grits to debunk an eye witness testimony, when the witness recounts the time it took to make his grits, he says, “No self-respecting southerner uses instant grits. I take pride in my grits” thereby making the 5-minute window of time of the alleged crime inadmissible.
The judge and worked-up courtroom all accepted this statement against using instant grits as fact. The film might have just used this idea of grits as a small plotline, but it set in my mind how important grits are to the South.
Let’s start at the beginning.
What Are Grits?
Grits is a porridge made from boiled cornmeal. Numerous other dishes are made from ground corn including, cornmeal, hasty pudding, and polenta. All are delicious, but all are a bit different both in flavor, ingredients, and preparation.
Typically the type of grits we see here in the south is hominy grits which means the corn that has been treated with an alkali in a process where the corn is soaked in limewater, removing carcinogens, mold, fungi, and other chemicals. The process called Nixtamalization, enhances the nutritional value, the aroma, and the flavor.
Typically grits are served as part of a breakfast dish or as a dinner side, but in recent years they have become used in everything from shrimp and grits, to grit cakes, and cheesy grit casseroles. Grits are served everywhere from local mom and pop restaurants to high-end 5-star restaurants.
The Origin of Grits
The dish came from a Native American Muskogee tribe’s recipe in the 16th century, of Indian corn similar to hominy or maize. The Muskogee would grind the corn in a stone mill, giving it a “gritty” texture. They were made using a stone-grounder. The colonists and settlers enjoyed the new staple with the local Native Americans and it became integrated into American diets.
The tribes learned to use wood ash would increase the nutritional value of the corn, an early version of the process we use today. At that time, the hominy for grits was ground on a stone mill. The ground hominy was then passed through screens, the finer sifted material used as grit meal, and the coarser as grits.
Types of Grits
As we learned from My Cousin Vinnie there are different types of grits, some maintaining the integrity of grits more than others. Here are the varieties you can find in your grocery store.
Stone-ground grits: While a die-hard grits cook may sing the praises of this most traditional variety, it takes an hour or more to cook. Some cooks soak stone-ground grits overnight to reduce the cooking time. These also work well for slow cooker grits.
Regular grits: This is the equivalent to old-fashioned oats, the less-processed version of grits. They generally take 15 to 20 minutes to cook.
Quick-cooking grits: The above recipes for cooking grits mostly use this version of grits, which takes about 5 to 7 minutes to cook.
Instant grits: Like instant oatmeal, instant grits are precooked, so just rehydrate the grits with boiling water and let stand.
How to Make Grits
This is a contentious topic, every family has their recipe and their own strategic method to making grits. And it only gets more divisive when you are made to choose between savory, cheesy, or even sweet grits. And while no way is better than others, we all have our own preferences. Here are some tips for how to prepare them:
Sweet grits: After cooking grits, feel free to top them like you would oatmeal. A little brown sugar, dried fruit, diced apple, maple syrup, honey, milk, cinnamon, and/or other sweet breakfast stir-ins work wonderfully.
Cheesy grits: Any kind of cheese can dress up grits. Stir in shredded cheddar, Monterey Jack, pepper cheese, provolone, or Swiss, or add feta or goat cheese crumbles. For the best texture, shred cheese from a block yourself instead of purchasing it pre-shredded.
Savory grits: Replace some of the cooking water with chicken or vegetable broth for a creamier more savory flavor. The mix-ins possibilities with savory grits are endless, they are really just a delicious canvas to add seafood, bacon, eggs, ham, onions, chilies, fresh vegetables, or anything your mind can come up with.
Whichever way you dress them up, grits are the perfect staple to have in your pantry, they can liven up any meal or add an extra kick of flavor, but whatever you do, don’t try to fool a southerner with instant grits.
Information gathered from BHG.com, Old-Mills.com, and SouthernLiving.com