The term “grits” can refer to both the ingredient — which falls under the umbrella of cornmeal, a.k.a. ground, dried corn — and the dish made from it. “The method of making grits, which is as simple as grinding and cooking cornmeal or any other ground vegetable, like wild rice or squash, is a technique that can be found, historically, in just about any indigenous community around the world,” Erin Byers Murray writes in “Grits.” The Indigenous peoples then introduced grits to the colonizers that settled in North America, who subsequently made it a staple in the diet of the enslaved. “Generations of the enslaved were the primary processors, makers, cooks, and eaters of grits — but they also introduced and fed grits to generations of white Americans, too.” While grits can be found on brunch menus across the country, it is one of the bedrock dishes that sits at the complex intersection of Southern and Black cuisines.
The ingredient is typically made from dent corn, which is a variety known for its robust corn flavor, and can come in a variety of colors. Grits are most commonly available in white and yellow — white corn is more delicate in flavor compared with yellow — but blue and red grits can also be found. But if you are mixing them with cheese or serving under a ladleful of heavily spiced stew, the flavor difference is negligible.
Beyond color, grits are classified according to grind size and cook time (old fashioned, quick and instant) and whether they are whole grain. The difference between old fashioned and quick grits is simply the size of the grits, with quick grits being more finely ground for a quicker cook time. “Instant grits also have the germ and hulls removed and are cooked; then the paste is spread into large sheets. These are then dried and reground,” cookbook author Virginia Willis writes. “They are virtually a pot of starch with no flavor. They have no soul. They are zombie grits.” Whole grain grits have more flavor and nutrition and are typically stone ground (and labeled as such), but the flip side is that they are highly perishable. While all cornmeal should be stored in an airtight container in a cool, dark place, you’ll want to make sure to put stone-ground grits in the refrigerator or freezer for maximum flavor and longevity.
When it comes to preparing grits, the recommended method can vary according to the cook, but my method is as follows: Bring 4 cups of water and a pinch of salt to a boil, slowly whisk in 1 cup of grits, reduce to a gentle simmer, cover and cook, stirring frequently until the desired texture is achieved, adding water if needed. This simple formula is filled with decisions each step along the way that can affect the finished product.
Before turning on the stove, artisan grain producer Anson Mills recommends soaking the grits overnight for a “superior” texture. This step also reduces the cooking time by about 50 percent, which can take from about 20 minutes to 1 hour or more, depending on the type of grits and desired consistency. For stone-ground grits, the company as well as Gullah Geechee matriarch and cookbook author Emily Meggett instruct cooks to first combine the water and grits in a pot, skim off any pieces that float to the surface, and then start to cook the grain, which “also shortens the grits’ cooking time,” Meggett says, because it skims away the pieces that take longer to cook,” CJ Lotz writes in Garden & Gun. For those without the forethought, you can do a quick soak “by bringing the grits and water to a boil, removing them from the heat, covering the pot, and resting them for anywhere between 20 minutes and one hour,” Meghan Splawn writes in the Kitchn, before continuing to cook them on the stovetop.
As for the liquid, chef and food writer Amethyst Ganaway suggests increasing the amount of water to 5 cups for grits beginners. “There’s no harm in starting with a little more water (worst case, you have to cook it for a few more minutes to thicken up),” Ganaway writes in Serious Eats. “This will guarantee — even for a total grits novice — a pot that cooks up silky and creamy.” Some ardent grits fans scoff at the idea of using only water to cook grits, replacing all or part of it with stock, milk, cream or half-and-half. However, for the best quality grits, water is best to let the corn flavor shine. Plus, for grits that require longer cooking times, the sugars in dairy are more prone to scorching without constant stirring, so I recommend waiting to add butter or cream until just before serving.
During the cooking process, frequent stirring is a must, lest you end up with lumpy grits and face the harsh judgment of the porridge’s posse. Cooks must also beware of volcanic eruptions that can burn, which is why covering the pot with a lid between stirrings is a good idea, to protect oneself from splatters. Grits’ doneness is a very personal matter based on texture and consistency. If at any point the grits get very thick and are still too toothsome for your liking, simply add more liquid and continue cooking. To control for consistency, simply let them simmer longer to thicken or add more liquid to thin them (keeping in mind any butter you plan to add will further affect how runny they are). Lastly, season as desired with salt, pepper and/or cheese, to name just a few options.