What is the Difference Between Grits and Polenta?

Posted on 05 Aug 2014 22:43

I grew up eating grits in the South. I know grits. And when people call things that are not grits by the name of grits, I get annoyed.

Food snobs have both maligned and then appropriated a Southern food, without knowing what the heck they're talking about. It is common practice, today, to refer to almost any porridge-like product made from a meal of corn as either grits, or polenta.

Grits are of Southern origin, and many people believe that grits is just the Southern word for corn meal cooked in a liquid until thick. Since Polenta, of Italian origin, is a dried whole yellow corn that is ground into a meal and then cooked in a liquid as a "cornmeal mush" it seems to most that these are just two different words for the same exact thing.

Polenta is a word most often used to describe a type of cornmeal mush or porridge made from corn meal. It can, however, refer to a porridge made from any ground grain and the word actually originates from a Latin word for a barley meal (polenta and corn have become fairly synonymous, though).

The word often is used to describe not only the dish but the cornmeal itself, as well. The type of cornmeal used for polenta is a coarser grind than the finely-ground cornmeal we use to make cornbread. If you want to make homemade polenta (and you should!) it pays to buy the proper type of polenta cornmeal, such as Bob's Red Mill Polenta Corn Grits Polenta. The cooked porridge is served not only soft but also set and fried in wedges or other shapes.

What are Grits?

Although the term grits has been extended to refer to any much made from ground dried corn, historically, grits is a much more specific product which is made from hominy corn.

Recommendation: Palmetto Farms White Stone Ground Grits

The word hominy is derived from the Native American Algonquian languages from words referring to certain processed corn products. For example, rockahominie referred to a parched corn and tackhummin referred to a hulled corn. In an extremely important process called nixtamalization (English rendering of an Aztec word), hulled corn was made by the Indians by soaking dried corn in water mixed with lye or wood ash over heat, and there were certain corns which served this purpose well, as their hulls were easily removed by this process. The word Nasaump, on the other hand, referred to an unparched corn, beaten and boiled.

The latter, nasaump, in the North, came to be identified with any coarsely ground corn, no matter how it was hulled, which was called samp.

Grits, on the other hand, came to be identified with the South and in the early days this always referred to something made with hominy, and meant that the corn was treated in a solution of wood ash that removed the hulls, rendering a pure white product, that was re-dried and ground. Therefore, grits always referred to hominy grits but whether it was called just grits or hominy grits depended on the region. In South Carolina, particularly, the term "hominy grits" would be considered quite ridiculous, and probably still is by many old-timers.


Shrimp and Grits, Herbsaint & Cochon, New Orleans
Image by Ann Larie Valentine via flickr


Shrimp and Grits, Herbsaint & Cochon, New Orleans
Image by Ann Larie Valentine via flickr

What is Hominy?

Today, hominy is made by soaking corn in an alkali solution of lye or lime. This corrodes away the hull or pericarp, which is the outer covering of the corn kernel, and the germ which is the living part of the corn kernel which a new plant would grow from, and which contains some nutrients and much of the oil. What is left is the endosperm, which is wear the starch of the corn kernel is stored. Therefore, hominy is the starch part of the corn kernel, which is white. After processed in alkali, the kernels are dried again and ground or put into cans as whole hominy corn. Since hominy is just the starch without the oil and the fiber, grits are much lighter than a mush made with whole ground corn. Hominy can be made from white or yellow corn. White corn was traditionally used in the South, and yellow corn was more common in the Northern states.

If we wanted a simple definition of hominy and grits, we could use these:

  • Hominy: An endosperm product made from corn, made up of starch, with the hull and germ removed.
  • Grits: Ground hominy (usually coarse).

Today, grits are usually marketed at enriched, or fortified products because of the loss of nutrients due to processing, but the same is true of regular corn meal.


Dried hominy1


Dried hominy2

Why Are People Calling Regular Corn Meal Grits?

What we have learned, then, is that ground corn meal that is cooked into a mush, or into a polenta is NOT really grits, unless that meal was made from hominy. So why are people calling corn meal mushes like polenta or any other dishes made with whole corn "grits?" Well, the only thing that I can figure is that the same foodies who turn up their nose to something so 'redneck' or perhaps 'hillbilly' as hominy corn, still have this need to be 'cultured.'

As Sheila Ferguson says in Soul Food: Classic Cuisine from the Deep South, grits "used to be associated with the poor (or po') factions of American society and so, of course, with the African-American population, particularly in the South." But as she continues to explain, and as I can attest, being born and raised in the deep South, just as many white folks eat grits as black folks. Southerners have carried their grits north, east, and west, but while the word has survived, helpful and informative folks who really know food have scrupulously buried the hominy, much to the misfortune of the recipients of Southern food traditions.

One way to appear cultured but above the "peasants" is the appropriate their terms but condemn their food products. This has been seen throughout history, but as well, we see the reverse, when the food is accepted but a more noble name is given to it. The term grits has been appropriated to mean any corn meal, but if you think you can use regular corn meal to make a good shrimp and grits, or any other grit dish, think again.

I am not saying that grits are not an acquired taste! Not everybody who hasn't grown up on them can learn to love them. They do have a bland taste and easily take on the seasonings you use with them. However, they do have a certain taste of their own which is hard to describe. You'd have to try them to know, so like Ferguson, I wouldn't advice you to just go hog-wild with a complicated grits recipe right out of the gate.

I often ate them for breakfast with sugar and butter, and/or added milk a cream as a sort of breakfast porridge. Another common way they are eaten with breakfast is just with salt and some pepper, with eggs, bacon, biscuits, toast, etc. Yes, the old-folks were fond of just mixing the eggs and grits altogether. I wasn't into this, myself. If you develop a taste for them, before you know it, you might develop a craving. Grits used to also be served with gravy, but they are especially good with cheese.

When I was a cook for Waffle House, you got a side of grits whether you asked for it or not! If you didn't ask, you got them in a bowl, and if you did ask, you got them on the plate. We were on a grits mission. Being on a major highway, we got a lot of non-Southerners passing through. Most of them, it's true, did not take to the grits — not that they really tended to give them a fair shake. So, if you think my purpose here is to sell you on grits and tell you you have to like them to be legit, well, it's not my purpose. But I'll make you a deal. I won't eat shrimp and call it Maryland Steamed Crabs, or Maine Lobster, and maybe you won't eat corn meal polenta and call it grits.

1. Nabhan, Gary Paul., Ashley Rood, and Deborah Madison. Renewing America's Food Traditions: Saving and Savoring the Continent's Most Endangered Foods. White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Pub., 2008.
2. McWilliams, Margaret. Food Fundamentals. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2006.
3. Fussell, Betty Harper. The Story of Corn. New York: Knopf, 1992.
4. Fowler, Damon Lee., and John Robert Carrington. Classical Southern Cooking. Layton, UT: Gibbs Smith, 2008.

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