Depending on your culture, or what part of the world you grew up in, a meal or side dish consisting of cooked, ground-up corn will either be called grits or polenta. When quickly compared, these two popular dishes seem to be exactly the same. Truthfully, they are nearly the same. However, there are a few key differences in their preparation that clearly distinguishes one from the other.
One big difference between grits and polenta is where you find them. In the American south, a dish consisting of ground corn is known as grits, and it is often served with savory foods. Grits are known by people who live in other parts of the country as a Southern breakfast food, but they can also be served alongside dinner, such as with shrimp. Seventy-five percent of grits sold in the United States are sold in southern states. The area between Texas and Virginia is actually known as the “grits belt.”
Polenta, on the other hand, is more closely associated with Northern and Central Italy. A century ago, eating polenta was associated with financially stricken families as it was the food of choice for lower class families. Today, in Northern Italy, it is served with a wide variety of dishes, such as sausage, cooked plums, or cuttlefish with tomato broth. It can be made to include rapini, mushrooms, and many other vegetables or meats. Polenta is traditionally stirred with a large walnut spoon. The polenta is said to be finished cooking when it can hold the spoon upright on its own.
In the very northern part of Italy is a region known as Lombardy. Polenta in Lombardy is frequently made with buckwheat flour in addition to corn. It is frequently cooked with butter and assorted cheeses. One exception is missultin e polenta which is prepared with fish.
Corn is corn, right? Wrong. Polenta and grits are made from two very different types of corn. In the American south, grits are made from dent corn. This corn has a high level of starch. It is so named as a result of an indentation present on the top of each kernel. Italian polenta is typically made from a type of corn called flint corn. This variety of corn is recognized by most Americans as Indian corn. It has a hard outer layer on each kernel. This leads to a textural difference between grits and polenta. Grits are often soft and mushy, while polenta has a thicker, heartier feel.
To get a true feel for the difference between these two similar dishes, it is best to try making both.
Making Traditional Grits
For a classic bowl of Southern-style grits, you need only six ingredients, most of which you likely already have:
- 2 cups of water
- 2 cups of milk
- 1 cup of grits
- Kosher salt, to taste
- ¼ cup heavy cream
- 2 tbsp. Butter
Preparing this dish is easier than it might seem. Combine the water and milk in a saucepan and bring it to a light simmer. Once it is simmering, add the grits. Stir and simmer for around twenty minutes. Make sure to stir more frequently as the mixture begins to thicken. Next, add the salt, cream, and butter and stir thoroughly. Take the grits off the stove and let them rest before serving. These go great with a breakfast plate, or with a shrimp dish.
Making Basic Polenta
Polenta is also easy to make, and the ingredients are fairly basic.
- 5 cups of water
- 1 cup of polenta style ground corn
- Parmesan (to taste)
Begin by bringing your water to a boil in a medium-sized saucepan. Add salt, to taste. Once boiling, pour the ground corn slowly into the center of the water while stirring with a wooden spoon (made from walnut, for true authenticity.) Keep stirring for 2 to 3 minutes, to allow the polenta to thicken. Turn the heat down to low. Allow the polenta to continue cooking for 45 minutes, and make sure to stir the mixture every 10 minutes. If you think the polenta is becoming too thick, add water as needed. Once thickened, it is time for a taste test. Season as desired.
Now that the polenta is ready, you can remove it from the heat and pour it into a lightly buttered baking sheet. Level the mixture out with a spatula, and allow it to cool a bit before serving. You can cover this and refrigerate it for up to three days.